Bishop Franco Mulakkal is seen outside a crime bureau in Cochin, India, September 19, 2018. A court in the southern Indian state of Kerala on January 14 acquitted him of all charges of raping a nun, saying the prosecution could not prove the allegations against him. (CNS/Reuters/Sivaram V)
MUMBAI, INDIA – The acquittal of Bishop Franco Mulakkal of Jalandhar in the rape case filed against him by the former superior general of the diocesan congregation of the Missionaries of Jesus in June 2018 shocked – not only his supporters – but many feminists and others well-meaning in the country. .
Sisters in Solidarity, the group of women activists, nuns and lawyers who accompany the sisters, supporting them in different ways throughout, is numb with disbelief. In reviewing the judgment, it is clear that the Bishop’s highly paid defense attorney skillfully used technicalities to manipulate the facts and evidence so that the judge ultimately declared in his order: “When he is not possible to separate the true from the false, when the grit and the glitter are inextricably intertwined, the only available remedy is to dismiss the evidence in its entirety.” He concluded, “This tribunal has been unable to proud of the solitary testimony of the PW1 [the survivor nun] and to hold the accused guilty of the offenses with which he is charged.”
The bishop has been charged with forcible confinement, rape, unnatural sex and criminal intimidation following 13 alleged incidents during his visits to the convent’s guesthouse from 2014 to 2016, making him the first Catholic bishop in India to be charged and tried for the rape of a nun. The verdict was handed down on January 14 by a session court in Kottayam district, in the southwestern Indian state of Kerala, the court closest to the scene of the alleged crimes.
Mulakkal came out of the court in jubilation and said, “Glory be to God!” What god would accept his praise? I believe there were people dancing for joy, shouting that the church had won. Again, which church? Considering that the surviving nun is of the same religious tradition, do they think that God favors the man over the woman? Or that God approves of misogyny and violence against women to bless the accused with an acquittal?
Since Kerala is a state with a large Catholic population, where the Catholic Church dominates due to its social influence and political influence, it wields considerable power. It is not surprising that the powers that be prevailed. Patriarchy and misogyny have won.
What is shocking is the reason for the acquittal. A senior police officer, who was leading the investigation into the case when it was filed in 2018, said he was shocked by the verdict, as he had built a waterproof case against the accused.
On a TV talk show, the former chairperson of the National Commission for Women in India stressed that the judgment was not based on the letter and spirit of the law.
The women are deeply dismayed as such a judgment deters any other nun from coming forward and reporting a rape. A nun told me: “Now women will be careful not to come forward if they don’t have solid proof or they will be even more humiliated if they report rape. On top of that, a man’s access to the power of money is far greater than a woman’s.
In the Catholic Church, the clergy are blindly trusted and considered to be representatives of God. So when a priest – and even more so a bishop – suddenly imposes himself on a woman, she is taken by surprise, causing her to lose her mind. She doesn’t know how to process what is happening, her mind is racing and she is also filled with fear. Having been socialized to believe that women are temptresses, she wonders if she has done anything to attract abuse.
Take the case of this relatively young nun, who joined the convent from her hometown in Kerala. She traveled to Jalandhar, nearly 2,000 miles away in northern India, at the age of 15, encouraged by a priest from that diocese who had come to seek “vocations”. Women in Kerala are brought up in a very sheltered manner without any knowledge or exposure to anything related to sex. She believes she will be absolutely safe in the convent, protected by her vow of chastity.
The power differential between a nun and her bishop is also a significant factor contributing to her confusion in dealing with her experience. Is it possible for such a naive woman to rush in and talk about her experience? Even less report it? Can the time factor to respond even be a consideration?
The Bishop used his position of power and authority over her to put her in situations that allowed him to easily rape her repeatedly. It left her in deep mental distress, until she turns to a priest who gave her the courage to talk about it. This lapse of time between the rape and her reporting was used against her, leaving her devastated. Rape is not just about the law taking its course, but about the mental state of the survivor. Only the woman can know and understand what it does.
A nun is consoled during a protest on September 13, 2018 in Cochin, India, demanding justice after a nun accused Bishop Franco Mulakkal of Jalandhar of raping her. (CNS/Reuters/Sivaram V)
The surviving nun had written letters to all bishops having authority over the jurisdiction of Jalandhar diocese, i.e. the Metropolitan Bishop of Delhi, the President of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, as well as the apostolic nuncio in India, and got no response. She spoke to the parish priest and bishop in Kerala, where her nunnery was, but found no support.
Her situation is not unlike that of the majority of women in India. That’s why feminists fought to change rape laws. Under these strict laws, there were enough possibilities for Mulakkal to be charged, but his shrewd lawyer managed to explain why the law could not hold in this case. He was up against a rather inexperienced prosecutor who had been appointed by the state to defend the nun. Where did the bishop find the money to pay the exorbitant fees charged by these expert lawyers?
In the church, who does a woman turn to when the leadership is all male, men who protect and support each other in defense of the crimes of their fellow priests? The way church leaders treated this survivor made the surrounding Catholic community hostile towards her, her fellow supporters and even their families.
Even more lamentable is the fact that the Catholic Church has no mechanism or structure to deal with complaints of abuse against women within the institution. This is despite the law for the prevention of sexual harassment in the workplace in the country which makes it mandatory for every institution to have an internal complaints committee to deal with reports of sexual harassment of women in the workplace. The church is reputed to be the workplace of the nuns.
In 1991, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India established a women’s desk for the empowerment of women in the country inside and outside the Church. It was reclassified as an independent commission to give it greater autonomy. I was the executive secretary of the commission from 1998 to 2004. During my tenure, I tried to put in place guidelines for the operation of the commission but met with resistance from the bishops who kept to delay me.
A nun, appointed in my place, obediently followed the instructions of the bishops. During his tenure, the bishops, in consultation with a group of women, implemented the famous gender policy which remains a stillborn instrument. No mechanism has been created for its implementation and there has been no periodic evaluation of its implementation. Thus, notwithstanding the gender policy, women have no redress mechanism for abuse in the church.
From 2010, a group of women mainly from the Archdiocese of Bombay took up cases of abuse in the church. Only one case with multiple charges was investigated, but the findings were never implemented. Other cases were never investigated and the victims were silenced. In a case involving a diocese in northern India, the nun left the congregation frustrated because she received no support from either her congregation or the bishop of the diocese. The seminarian, whom she accuses of voyeurism, has never been censored. Instead, he was rewarded by being sent to Rome for higher education. What is the message for his future mission in the church?
Some people say forced celibacy is the cause of abuse because it is unnatural but maintained for economic reasons, therefore the church feels compelled to defend the abuser but in doing so compromises its mission.
If the Mulakkal case had succeeded in obtaining a conviction, then a number of sisters might have had the courage to come forward and speak out against the abuse.
As long as clergy continue to enjoy the inordinate power that accompanies ordination, the vulnerable among God’s people will continue to be abused, and nuns, especially of diocesan congregations over which the local bishop has a total control, are among the most vulnerable. .
If the upcoming synod on synodality in the Church does not address this grave anomaly in what is supposed to be “servant leadership”, the Church will only precipitate greater scandal instead of fulfilling its mission to spread the reign of God in the world.
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