It is a historic protest even in a state like Kerala, which saw over 100 hartals last year. Clad in their dark brown habit and black veil, a group of nuns sit on a platform in a tent put up near the High Court of Kerala, seemingly immune to the sweltering heat of Kochi. Speaker after speaker comes on stage to deliver speeches but the nuns do not take the microphone, letting their placards do the talking instead. “Oust Bishop Franco”, “Is Franco Exempt From the Law?”, “We Need Justice” say some of the signs. But the stoic silence of the nuns holding them up is more powerful.
The five sisters belong to the Missionaries of Jesus, a Latin Catholic order set up in Jalandhar in 1993, headquartered there and with three convents in Kerala. The nuns have broken out of the confines of their convent, risking everything in a life so far governed by the inflexible laws of the Catholic Church with one aim: to secure justice for one of their own. Their 44-year-old colleague has accused Bishop Franco Mulakkal, the patron of their order and its most powerful authority, of raping her repeatedly. Till he is arrested, they have decided, they will be on strike. The nuns do not eat or drink anything till the time they leave for their convent in Kuravalingad in Kottayam district, two hours away, where the complainant is waiting.
“There are no doors of the Church left for us to knock on. That is why we are here,” Sister Anupama, one of the five nuns, says later. This statement of quiet desperation will sound familiar to those who have been subjected to sexual abuse, where power and patriarchy combine to silence the victim, as the global #MeToo movement against sexual harassment has also highlighted.
The assault, according to the complaint filed with the Kerala Police in June this year, dates back to 2014. It was then, the nun says, that Mulakkal used to confine her to the room he used when he visited the convent from Jalandhar, and rape her. The abuse continued till the second half of 2016, a period she spent traumatised, suffering in silence, say her colleagues. “She was like a mother figure to most of us, having been the mother general before we even entered the order. How does a mother tell her children that she has been raped?” asks Anupama. The only hint the former mother general — akin to the mother superior — was able to give was that she was being punished by the bishop for refusing “to lie with him”.
Anupama says the nun finally mustered the strength to first tell their mother general orally, then confided in the parish priest and other priests and sent letters on their recommendation to Cardinal George Alencherry, the head of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church and one of the most important Catholic figures in the state. All to no avail. Instead, cases were filed against the complainant, the colleagues supporting her and their family members, accusing them of plotting to kill Mulakkal and, in one instance, accusing the nun of having an affair with a relative’s husband. When these failed, an emissary was sent to offer her a 10 acre plot for a convent of her own and crores of rupees for her brother, if she kept her silence. Audio recordings of these conversations were leaked to the media.
Left with no recourse, the nun filed a police complaint, accusing Mulakkal of raping her 13 times, forcing her into unnatural sex and confining her against her will, all charges that Mulakkal has so far vehemently refuted. But though the FIR against Mulakkal was filed over 75 days ago, he has not yet been taken into custody or asked by the Catholic Church to step aside from his position, pushing the cornered nuns to take to the streets. “We did not want to become another Abhaya,” says Sister Ancitta, another of the nuns on protest.
Scandal upon Scandal Ancitta is referring to what is arguably the biggest scandal that rocked the Church in Kerala. In March 1992, the body of Abhaya, a 19-year-old studying to be a nun was found in a well in the compound of the Pope Pius X Convent. Initially dismissed as suicide by the local police, the investigation was then taken over by the Central Bureau of Investigation who, over a decade later, arrested two priests and a nun on charges of murder and destruction of evidence. They alleged that Abhaya had been murdered for witnessing the three in “a compromising position.”
But that is hardly the only case in which the Church has been in the dock in Kerala, a state where Christians, though they make up only 18% of the population, wield considerable influence. In fact, the Church has been buffeted by scandals, in most of which it has sided with the accused in an attempt to protect its own. In one of the most shocking of these cases, Father Robin Vadakkumchery was accused of raping and impregnating a minor girl studying in the school in which he was the manager. Such was the clout of Vadakkumchery and the Church that they initially pressured the victim’s father to accept the blame for the crime and tell the police he had raped his own daughter.
Vadakkumchery was finally arrested but the survivor has now turned hostile, telling the court last month that the relationship was consensual, that she was not a minor at the time and now wanted to marry Vadakkumchery.
Jacob Cherian (name changed to protect identity) is another of those who know firsthand what it is like to take on the might of the Church. He, too, had knocked on its doors when he found out that his wife was being blackmailed and forced into having sex with five priests of the Malankara Orthodox Church, on the basis of her confession about being sexually abused when she was young.
“When I went to the bishop of my diocese, I believed he would do the right thing and bring the guilty to justice. But what the church says and what they do are entirely different,” says Cherian. The police are now investigating the case but Cherian feels a long and lonely battle against a powerful adversary lies ahead.
Assaults by clergymen usually follow a pattern, where the accused by virtue of their positions as priests and bishops, wield considerable power over their victims. It is hard enough to complain if a superior at work is sexually harassing you. Imagine how much greater the internal conflict is when that superior is someone you have been taught from childhood to consider no less than a representative of God.
“The priests rule by fear while the faithful are blindly obedient. The victims are made to believe that if they protest, they will incur the curse of the Church and God,” says Father Augustine Vattoli, one of the leaders spearheading the Save Our Sisters Action Council, who has himself taken on Cardinal Alencherry over corruption in a land deal. “These nuns usually cannot utter a word, will face ostracisation if they do and will have nowhere to turn to for asylum,” he says. While nuns get a salary, that typically goes straight to the headquarters and they receive just `500 a month as “pocket money” to buy essential items, leaving them dependent.
Faith and Fear
In Kochi, the week-old protest has attracted support from different quarters. “First of all, women hardly come out. And of all women, nuns are a category who don’t come out openly in protest. A lot of people who have come out in support of them are genuinely committed to the cause of women,” says Kochurani Abraham, an academic with a doctorate in feminist theology, who is also a practising Catholic. Among the crowd that has gathered are two well-dressed, middleaged women, siblings who requested that their names not be mentioned or pictures taken because their families were not in favour of them attending the protest. “But when we read about the case, we felt we had to come and show our support for these nuns,” says one of them.
Marked by their absence at the venue, though, are representatives from the ruling CPM and the Congress. Former chief minister VS Achuthanandan is one of the few CPM leaders who have come out vociferously in support of the protesting nuns but he seems to be an exception. From the opposition Congress, MLA PT Thomas has shown up to express solidarity but in his personal capacity. “What has happened in this case is not right,” says Thomas. But he also denounces the Left government for what he says are its double standards. “When there was a complaint of rape against a sitting Congress MLA (M Vincent, from Kovalam), they arrested him within 12 hours without any investigation. Why aren’t they showing the same swiftness here?” he asks. Neither the Left nor the Congress, observers say, want to risk alienating the Church and the Christian community, an important vote bank.
There are detractors, too. Next to the shamiana, a woman holding a rosary wants to know, “What was the nun doing those 12 other times? Why didn’t she complain before?” Such reprehensible sentiments echo independent MLA PC George, who called the complainant a prostitute at a press conference. Traumatised, the nun, supposed to hold her own press conference the same day, cancelled it.
Attacking the Accuser
On its part, the Missionaries of Jesus has consistently sided with Mulakkal. Spokespersons have come out with statement after statement that resort to victim-blaming and shielding the accused. “Our consciousness does not allow us to stand with the victim and the sisters who are supporting her in order to crucify an innocent man,” reads one. In their persistent attempt to discredit the nun, they even released a photo of her with Mulakkal at a function they claimed was taken in 2015, for which a case has now been registered against them
The Kerala Catholic Bishop’s Council (KCBC) has also come out with a statement condemning the protest. “These are religious sisters at the helm of the strike. Do you expect the Church to appreciate such a move or style of handling of the issue?” says Father Varghese Vallikkat, spokesperson of the KCBC. The council, he says, has made its position clear and that whoever is at fault should be legally liable. Mulakkal himself has given multiple interviews claiming innocence, alleging that there were other forces and motives behind the strike.
The complainant nun, says Sister Anupama, is disturbed that she has dragged her fellow nuns into trouble for her cause. “But we told her we are with her. She now spends her time tending her small garden and fish pond at the convent, while one of us five waits with her,” she says. What has been heartening for the sisters is the outpouring of support, from across all sections of society. “We feared we would be isolated — we never, ever imagined we would get so much support. People we have never met before are working so hard for us,” she says.
On Saturday, Mulakkal released a statement saying he was handing over his responsibilities before he travels to Kerala to face the investigating officers on the 19th. But the nuns explained to the media that this was merely a technicality and should not be interpreted as Mulakkal stepping down from his post.
Around the world, Catholic Church is facing criticism for its role in hushing up sexual abuse by its clergy. But throughout their protests, the nuns have emphasised that they are not against the Church. The fight, they say, is against Mulakkal, to ensure he is arrested and does not get an opportunity to repeat his heinous crimes. As Sister Alphy, one of the five nuns, says, “For us, this is a life-anddeath struggle.”?
WHO IS FRANCO MULAKKAL?
Franco Mulakkal is the current patron of the Missionaries of Jesus, and thus the most powerful figure in the religious order. The Missionaries of Jesus is a Catholic mission of nuns founded in 1993 in Jalandhar by the then bishop. The 54-year-old is also the present Bishop of Jalandhar, a wealthy and powerful diocese that falls under the Delhi archdiocese.
THE CASE FILE
Late 2016 A former mother superior general of the Missionaries of Jesus orally tells a few priests and the mother superior general that she was sexually harassed by Franco Mulakkal, the order’s patron, repeatedly.
November 2016 Mulakkal files a case against a nun, her colleague and their families accusing them of threatening him.
July 2017 The nun writes a letter to Cardinal George Alencherry, head of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, telling him that she was harassed by Mulakkal and seeks his help. No action is taken.
June 2018 Nun files FIR against Mulakkal for sexually abusing her 13 times between May 2014 and September 2016 at the St Francis Mission Home in Kuravilangadu, Kerala.
August 2018 Kerala Police question Mulakkal in Jalandhar, the headquarters of the Missionaries of Jesus, the mission to which the complainant and accused belong.
September 2018 Five nuns of the Missionaries of Jesus launch a strike in Cochin against inaction against Mulakkal though FIR was filed 75 days ago.
September 2018 Kerala Police asks Mulakkal to appear before the investigating team on September 19.
CHURCH IN THE DOCK
Cases against priests and nuns that have rocked the church in Kerala.
Five priests belonging to the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church have been accused of using the confessional statement of a woman to rape, sexually harass and blackmail her. In August, two of the priests surrendered before a local court in Kerala.
Robin Vadakkumchery, a Catholic priest in Kannur in north Kerala, was arrested in February 2018 for raping and impregnating a minor girl. The girl’s father had initially been pressured to claim he had raped her. But in August, the girl changed her stance, claiming she was in a consensual relationship with Vadakkumchery and was willing to marry him.
Sister Anupa Mary, a 22-year-old nun, died by suicide at St Mary’s Convent in Kollam in 2008, leaving behind a note saying it was due to extreme harassment. Her father accused the mother superior in the convent of sexually harassing Mary, driving her to the extreme step.
The death of Sister Abhaya became a landmark case in Kerala. The body of the nun was found in a well at a convent in Kottayam in 1992 and was initially labelled a suicide. A year later, the CBI took over the case and arrested two priests and a nun, one of whom was discharged from the case this year.
Source: Economic Times