To parishioners at Church of the Visitation in Brick, it came as the shock of a lifetime.
The priest who had encouraged them through times of sadness and fear, who brought food to the local needy and who comforted those who found themselves in periods of grief – had been accused of a crime that is as depressing and disappointing as it is serious and unthinkable.
Fr. Marukudiyil C. Velan, 64, known to parishioners at the Mantoloking Road church as "Father Chris," was arrested Saturday and , one against a minor.
A garden, named for Father Chris in the back of the church's yard, was empty Tuesday afternoon, a day after his arrest became publicly known. A few tomatoes looked ripe, presumably with no one there to pick them off the vine.
Parish staff directed inquiries about the case to the Diocese of Trenton.
But the faithful flocked to Brick Patch and said the charges couldn't be true. They described how the priest they knew dropped off food at the homes of those who were hungry, prayed with sick relatives at the hospital late at night, and worked with Mother Theresa in his native India before coming to the United States.
"This man has been alone with me for counseling of my faith," said Donna Smith. "Please don't let this be another witch hunt."
A woman who only gave her name as "Adrienne" said Father Chris helped her through a family tragedy, the death of her mother.
"If it weren't [for] his words of comfort I wouldn't have made it through," she said. "Every Sunday since, my daughter and I go to Mass. He stops the procession and 'high-fives' my daughter, or we make it a point to find him to speak with [him] or simply give him a hug. Just being in his presence makes you feel better. He has a light that surrounds him."
Legal Process to Follow
The Ocean County Prosecutor's Office has not released the names of the alleged victims who filed a police report against Velan. Shield laws prevent their release. And that's a good thing, some say.
"We are very grateful to this brave family for reporting Fr. Chris’ crimes," said David Clohessy, a spokesman for the Survivors' Network of Those Abused by Priests, or SNAP. "They should be commended for acting responsibly and promptly."
But some take issue with SNAP, and what they see as the organization's tendency to judge an accused priest before he is indicted or brought to trial.
"Some people jump immediately to the conclusion of guilt, and some people automatically go the other way," said David F. Pierre, Jr., a journalist based in New England who has chronicled the Roman Catholic Church's sex abuse scandals on his website, The Media Report. "People do need to know that there are false allegations out there. We hear so much about Catholic priest abuse that people tend to jump to conclusions."
Pierre said after reading media reports about the case against Velan, he was reminded of a recent case in Hawaii against Fr. Bohdan Borowec, who was accused of kidnapping and sexual assault after hugging a woman during a farewell party at a church he was visiting.
Borowec was brought to trial and found not guilty after just a few minutes of jury deliberations, Pierre said.
"What makes this case so unusual is that it's so recent," said Pierre, referring to Velan's arrest just a day after the alleged crime occurred. "Almost all of the stories we get in the news these days are priests getting arrested for things they did years ago, usually decades ago."
"This case could be all true, we don't know," he said. "But the correct approach is a cautious approach."
Nobody knows if the allegations are true, but judging from the response of parishioners, Fr. Chris maintains a high level of local support, even as he continues to sit in a cell at the Ocean County Jail in lieu of $100,000 cash bail.
"Father Chris is a man who would do anything for you," said Anna Jones, a Visitation parishioner. "You could call him at 3 a.m. for a blessing and he would be there. He has always been there for my family."