Allegation of rape by Kerala nun

Bishop in the dock

Print edition : October 12, 2018

Bishop Franco Mulakkal after the Kerala Police arrested him on September 21, in Thrippunithura. Photo: PTI

A group of five nuns belonging to a convent in Kuravilangad, in Kottayam district, staging a protest seeking justice for the nun, at a square opposite the Kerala High Court junction in Kochi on September 8. The posters in Malayalam read “the police should be fair” and “our lives are in danger”. Photo: By Special Arrangement

A protest in Jalandhar on September 12 demanding the immediate arrest of the bishop. Photo: Shammi Mehra/AFP

An unprecedented protest by a group of nuns in Kerala leads to the arrest of a bishop on the charge of raping a nun.

THE Bishop of Jalandhar, Franco Mulakkal, was finally arrested by the Kerala police on September 21. This was more than a year after a nun belonging to the Missionaries of Jesus congregation under his diocese began complaining to Church authorities about being raped and sexually abused by him and 86 days after she had filed a police complaint about it.

The lack of any action against the bishop for days on end was in stark contrast to what had been happening in the streets of Kerala in the fortnight before his arrest. From September 8, Kerala had been witnessing unprecedented scenes of a group of five nuns from the same congregation staging a protest at a square opposite the Kerala High Court in Ernakulam in solidarity with the complainant—with the support of Catholic and civil rights groups, priests, several prominent persons and a large section of the general public—demanding the arrest of the bishop.

It soon grew in numbers, and the Save Our Sisters Action Council kept vigil day and night, putting pressure on the authorities for action against the bishop. For the first time, then, the country saw the police questioning a bishop as an accused in a rape case filed by a nun, for over three days, and eventually registering his arrest late in the night on September 21.

“The Catholic Church has concern only for bishops and priests. We would like to know, is there any provision in canon law for justice for nuns and women?” the 44-year-old nun had said in a seven-page letter she wrote to the Vatican’s ambassador to India (Apostolic Nuncio to India), Giambattista Diquattro. Earlier, the nun had accused Franco Mulakkal of sexually abusing and raping her on 13 occasions spread over two years from 2014 at a convent run by the congregation at Kuravilangad in Kottayam district. She is a member of the Syro-Malabar church, the largest Eastern Rite Catholic Church with over 30 dioceses spread over India and elsewhere and with over 2.5 million members. The Missionaries of Jesus congregation is based in Jalandhar, Punjab, and works under the Jalandhar diocese of the Latin Rite church that was being run by Franco Mulakkal.

The alleged rape took place in Kerala, the home State of both the bishop and the nun. Priests from the diocese reportedly often stay at a guest room in the convent while visiting their home States. The nun filed her complaint before the police only on June 28, that too after the bishop went to the police claiming that she, her family members and some other nuns of her congregation were harassing and blackmailing him in retaliation for ordering an investigation based on a complaint from a woman regarding her husband and the nun.

The bishop denied that he had raped her. A day before he was to appear before the police, he moved the Kerala High Court claiming that the allegations were “wholly concocted and cooked up only to wreak vengeance for action taken by him against the complainant nun” and seeking anticipatory bail. The court had posted it for hearing on September 24, but he was arrested before that.

The bishop alleged that a woman had approached the superior general of the congregation at Jalandhar in November 2016 with a complaint and that he gave permission for an inquiry after the superior general met him along with councillors. The nun was removed from her position as mother general of her congregation in Jalandhar on the basis of an interim report and was later transferred to Pariyaram in Kerala, but she refused to take charge there.

The bishop also said the nun and her family members had threatened him with dire consequences if he continued to take action against her. The nun’s rape complaint came up after the public relations officer of Jalandhar Bishop House filed a complaint before the Kottayam district police chief on June 21, the bishop claimed in the petition.

In the nun’s letter to the Vatican Ambassador dated September 8, she however described herself as a “a victim of sexual abuse who is seeking justice” and explained in detail the entire sequence of events that made her plead for a “speedy inquiry” and the “removal of Bishop Franco from his responsibilities”.

It also included details of the efforts she had made to get help from a number of people in the Church hierarchy. This included a letter directly handed over to the head of the Syro-Malabar Church, Cardinal Mar George Alencherry; another letter handed over to the Nuncio himself earlier through a bishop; and others sent to three “church officials” in Rome, including the Pope, through courier. All of these and similar pleas to several others went unheeded, she said.

Copies of her letter to the Vatican’s Ambassador were sent to 21 other church leaders, and it was released to the media the next day.

On September 10, the Missionaries of Jesus congregation issued a statement supporting the bishop, describing him as an “innocent soul” and condemning the street protests in Kochi by the nuns.

Lack of Church support

The nun’s relationship with the current leadership in Jalandhar turned sour after she made the allegations against the bishop.

Moreover, though some priests too came out in support of the nun and the agitation and demanded the bishop’s arrest, the lack of support from the main body of clergy of the Syro-Malabar Church and Church leaders themselves was obvious throughout the 14 days of the agitation. The support from mainstream political parties too was ambiguous, at best.

Derogatory statements made against the nun by P.C. George, an independent Member of the Legislative Assembly and well known for his caustic comments on other occasions too, and his question “why didn’t the nun report the abuse the first time it happened” added fuel to the protests. “Who is the real victim, the nun or the bishop?” George had asked, inviting widespread condemnation, including from the Speaker of the Kerala Assembly and the National Commission for Women. The nun’s family said they would sue him for defamation.

On September 20, with public pressure for the arrest of the bishop mounting and after the police had already summoned and questioned him in Kerala, the Catholic Bishops Council of India (CBCI) said in a statement that the Pope had accepted “a request from the Bishop, Franco Mulakkal, to be temporarily relieved of his pastoral responsibilities in the Diocese of Jalandhar”. Cardinal Oswald Gracias, president of the CBCI, said in the statement that the retired auxiliary bishop of Mumbai, Bishop Agnelo Rufino Gracias, would temporarily serve as “apostolic administrator” of Jalandhar (under the direct control of Rome).

There were reports that the “request” made by Franco Mulakkal was not voluntary. Even two days after his “temporary removal” from official responsibilities, he was still being questioned by the police at a special facility at Tripunithura, near Ernakulam, with his anticipatory bail application pending before the High Court.

The nun’s police complaint obviously came as a last resort, and her letter to the Vatican’s ambassador clearly describes the “increasing stigma, persecution and threats” she had faced from local Church authorities because of her complaints. “The silence on the part of the Church is leading me to further humiliation and character assassination. Can the Church authorities give back what I have lost?” she asked.

She also said that those supporting her in her trauma were being ostracised, including being denied holy mass at the convent in Kuravilangad.

Her fellow sisters later said they feared for their lives after a few incidents at the convent and that there had been attempts to buy their silence and make the nun withdraw her complaint.

In a clear reference to the insinuating comments about her silence after she was raped “the first time”, the nun said “she had tremendous fear and shame to bring this out into the open. I feared suppression of the congregation and threats to my family members. Though Bishop Franco had sexually abused me several times, I could not reveal the full story to my superior general or to her councillors. I only told them repeatedly that the bishop is taking many disciplinary actions through them just because I resisted… him. As they failed to understand even the seriousness of these words, I could not tell them more than this. And I had the fear that Bishop Franco may harm me with the support of my superiors.”

She also alleged that she was not the only victim and that there was “widespread concern” about the bishop’s behaviour and that he was trying to manipulate the investigation with wrong information and with money, political power and support from other Church authorities.

The nun said the fact that “the person who was abusive was also the only person in power” had made matters worse and the fact that nearly 20 sisters had left the Missionaries of Jesus in the last five years proved that “the congregational leadership has no solution for the problems faced by the sisters”.

She also described an occasion, in May 2017, when she too was ready to leave the congregation, but she changed her mind because four of her community members wanted to quit along with her, and many others, including some priests and bishops, had expressed their concern and solidarity with her. She also said that Franco Mulakkal had harassed her, her fellow nuns and her family members with police complaints.

But even as the demands for the bishop’s arrest were increasing, on September 13, the Division Bench of the Kerala High Court, while considering two separate petitions demanding his arrest and a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) probe, examined the report of the progress of the police inquiry and said that “it was of the prima facie view that the investigation is being conducted in a fair and professional manner and that at this stage it would be inappropriate for this court to issue any specific direction on the conduct of the investigation”.

The court also found no reason for a CBI inquiry. Responding to a petitioner’s argument that the accused in rape cases was normally arrested immediately, the Division Bench of Chief Justice Hrishikesh Roy and Justice A.K. Jayasankaran Nambiar said such a rule might not apply in this case as the date of the alleged rape (between May 2014 and September 2016) and date of registration of the first information report (June 28, 2018) were “not proximate”. The court said collecting evidence in such a case was a much more painstaking process, and it was left to the discretion of the investigating officer to take the accused into custody at the appropriate time. The court also said that the petitioners should show a bit more patience as the victim was showing and asked whether the focus should be on “conviction” rather than “arrest”.

There was much jubilation at the protest venue as the news of the imminent arrest spread, but the nuns and other agitators were certain it was only the first stage in a long legal battle that was to follow and were cautioning themselves not to stop their vigil. Hopefully, the law will now take its course, and whatever may be the final verdict on Franco Mulakkal, the context in which the case is unfolding is equally important. The case has come into the open at a time when the world over the Catholic Church is being rocked by allegations of (especially child) sexual abuse by priests and accusations of widespread cover-ups. The Pope himself has come forward to admit the Church’s failure in several countries. But concrete steps to prevent such abuse have not been forthcoming, though reports say that senior bishops from around the world are being summoned to Rome for an unprecedented meeting next February to discuss “sex abuse within the church” as a global problem.

It is well known that in India, too, there has been an increasing number of complaints of clerical misconduct, corruption in the Church and allegations of sexual abuse that are most often overlooked. Investigations into them, if at all, are fudged and complainants are routinely silenced or forced to leave the Church.

The case of Franco Mulakkal is only one of the Church scandals to have hit the headlines in recent times. One of the most prominent of such instances was the murder of Abhaya, a nun, inside a convent near Kottayam. At least two priests, among others, are undergoing punishment for abusing minor girls. Several priests of the Malankara Orthodox Church, also based in Kerala, have been accused of blackmailing and raping a woman working in a church-run school.

In a different context, a few months earlier, Cardinal George Alencherry himself was involved in a controversial land deal. Pope Francis was forced to appoint a bishop as an administrator, removing much of Alencherry’s administrative powers in the Ernakulam-Angamaly Archdiocese, the mother diocese of the Syro-Malabar church.

These are definite signs that the Church is clearly losing its moral and religious authority and that the gender differences within the Church hierarchy are becoming unbearable to the many women in it. Some have even warned that “if it [all] comes out, it will be like a tsunami”.

From many accounts, the “vows of poverty, obedience and loyalty to their order” apply more to nuns than to priests, and the women are, in most cases, exploited and made to work hard in hospitals, schools, colleges, orphanages and convents with little or no remuneration, most of their earnings going to the congregation. It is a lifetime of bondage. If disputes arise, “priests in conflict with a nun could deny her communion, hearing her confession or saying mass at her convent”. The properties of the churches are invariably handled by priests or councils controlled by them. The exclusion of women from administrative structures allows priests to dominate its affairs and its members and gain enormous political clout, which often proves a hindrance to the police and the state when things go wrong.

The five nuns who came out in protest in Kochi in support of their former mother general have no doubt acted boldly and created history in seeking support from the state and civil society, where clearly their church had failed them.

“I feel this kind of silence on the part of the Church authorities and protection of those who commit the crime may create a situation where the Church loses its credibility before society,” the nun had said. “It will have such an adverse effect on women in the Indian Church that they have no other option than to react in a manner that safeguards their dignity as human persons even at the cost of losing their Catholic faith.”

At the protest venue, as news about the imminent arrest of the bishop came in, Sister Anupama, one among the five nuns who launched the struggle, said: “Our enmity is not with Franco, the individual, but with Franco’s deeds. We have not opposed Franco; we do not hate that person. We came to the street also for the sisters in our congregation. But they trapped us in false cases and harmed us mentally by giving false testimonies. But we forgive them. We conducted this struggle for all nuns and all women. Never should anyone be forced into a situation where they have to come out like this to the street. Everybody should get justice. That is what we hope for here. We have only this to say to the Church leadership: at least from now on, you must let go of this wrongful silence. We left our villages and our homes for the Church. We came out when we were 15. We left our family and all our dear ones to come out to work for the Church. But unless the Church leadership shuns this silence, more sisters will have to face similar situations. So we implore them to discard their silence as quickly as possible.”

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