While abuse and rape of women are never acceptable, it’s even worse when it’s carried out and then covered up by people claiming to be ‘holier than thou.’ In a recent case in India, one Catholic Bishop accused of sexually assaulting nuns found himself at the mercy of the ever-spreading #MeToo movement.
When Bishop Franco Mulakkal was accused of multiple counts of rape, he denied he had done anything untoward or inappropriate. When more and more alleged victims came forward, the disgusting truth could be denied no longer.
The #MeToo movement is a movement against sexual harassment and assault whose message spread to international status back in October 2017. The movement came around following numerous high-level cases of sexual misconduct in the workplace. The most famous at the time was the conduct of Hollywood movie producer Harvey Weinstein.
The movement has now made it’s way to the four corners of the Earth, including to India. There, in the state of Kerala, several nuns are rallying around one colleague who claims she was sexually assaulted and raped by a high-profile Bishop who was visiting. The incident has caused some serious shockwaves in the southern Indian state where roughly one million Catholics live. But the investigation into the Bishop and his conduct have dragged on too long for some people.
The nun who made the claims also claimed that Bishop Mulakkal raped and/or sexually abused her during 13 separate visits between the years 2014 and 2016. In a detailed account she provided to the Kottayam superintendent of police back in June, she alleged that all of the attacks occurred during the Bishop’s visits to the state from his diocese in Jalandhar, Punjab.
As soon as Mulakkal got wind of the serious allegations against him, he made a counterclaim of his own, alleging that several nuns were out to blackmail him and besmirch his good name. He claimed that all he had done was to discipline the nun in question over her sexual behavior. That claim by the Bishop was filed under Section 295 A of the Indian Penal Code, referring to “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings.”
However, the nun in this story claims she isn’t the only one to have suffered from sexual abuse at the hands of a Bishop. Sister Anupama also claims she was raped by a superior. “The church has not given us justice,” she told the Times of India. “Neither have police or the government. We will fight. It was the church that forced us onto the streets.” She said. Five nuns from the same order where Mulakkal visited claim they were also raped.
As is so often, if not always the case, the Missionaries of Jesus, where the incidents were alleged to have happened, denied any wrongdoing by Bishop Mulakkal. They released an official statement claiming the allegations were “baseless,” adding that they “cannot crucify an innocent.” At the same time, the Church claimed that the nun making the allegations was herself involved in “illicit relationships.”
According to the accused, Bishop Mulakkal, the allegations are false. He claims they have been concocted as a “conspiracy” against him by some nuns with a vendetta for him. To that end, he’s not alone as other people are also blaming the victims and not the perpetrator. PC George, a lawmaker from Kerala, also attacked the nun making the claims, asking “Is there any doubt that the nun is a prostitute?”
Meanwhile, Rekha Sharma, head of the National Commission for women in India, released a statement addressing the lawmaker’s comments. “I am ashamed of such lawmakers who are giving these statements instead of helping women,” she said. “This is absolutely shameful.” But the nun who is the victim claims she tried to report the incidents to the church before she turned to the police for help, but to no avail.
According to Father Varghese Vallikkatt of the Kerala Catholic Bishops Council. “What has happened is unusual. It does not happen in the Catholic Church,” he claimed to The News Minute report recently. He also claimed that the church has plenty of forums to deal with such allegations. “If there is any truth to the allegations by the nun, then she should also receive justice from the legal system,” he said.
Then there’s the comments of Karlijn Demasure, one of the church’s leading experts on clergy sexual abuse. According to Demasure “I am so sad that it took so long for this to come into the open because there were reports long ago.” But Demasure lives in hope for a brighter future, saying “I hope that now actions will be taken to take care of the victims and put an end to this kind of abuse.”
For nuns in the Catholic church, coming forward can be the biggest challenge of all. With the first instance almost always resulting in a flat denial, Sisters often feel they have nowhere else to turn but the police. According to Demasure “[The priests] can always say, ‘she wanted it,'” he said. “It is also difficult to get rid of the opinion that it is always the woman who seduces the man, and not vice versa.” But the Vatican has been struggling with abuse allegations for years.
For his part, Pope Francis has condemned sexual abuse allegations in the church in the strongest of terms. He also wrote a three-page letter recently. “With shame and repentance, we acknowledge as an ecclesial community that we were not where we should have been, that we did not act in a timely manner, realizing the magnitude and the gravity of the damage done to so many lives,” he said. But he also spoke about creating a culture to prevent such abuse.
For many, Pope Francis’ words were too little and came too late. While systematic abuse of nuns and children within the Catholic church has been covered up and even facilitated for decades, few have spoken out from within the church in any real terms. Pope Francis continued in his groundbreaking letter: “No effort must be spared to create a culture able to prevent such situations from happening, but also to prevent the possibility of their being covered up and perpetuated,” he wrote.
According to reports in The Independent, Bishop Mulakkal was recently summoned by the police in the state of Kerala and was taken in for questioning. As Felix J Pulludan, secretary at the Joint Christian Council, explained to Al Jazeera, “Arrest this man who is a culprit, that’s the demand of the nun who was raped. She has given a statement to the police saying she was raped, why is the government hesitating to arrest this rapist?”
Save our Sisters
Pulludan, who heads up a protest organization called “Save our Sisters,” said at the protest which was held outside the High Court in Kochi, “Four nuns are sitting in protest near the High Court in Kochi against the injustice done to the sister. Our protests will grow stronger in the coming days. The government must act now.”
Meanwhile, the Missionaries of Jesus released a statement claiming the protest was trying “to crucify an innocent man.” “We condemn the act by the sisters of our congregation who are protesting outside the High Court. As far as our congregation is concerned, we are ashamed and saddened by this protest,” they said in a recent press release.
According to Inspector General of Police in Kerala state, Dinendra Kashyap, the Bishop is hiding behind his religion instead of admitting to the charges against him. At the same time, protest organizer Pulludan claimed, “No doubt he is using the clout of the Roman Catholic Church. The accused is using money and muscle power to influence the probe.”
Another rights activist and ex-President of the All Indian Catholic Union, John Dayal, also spoke to Al Jazeera. “This is a woman making the charge of rape against a powerful man. This is an issue that the church has to take notice of.” He added, “The canon law must include a provision that if there is an allegation of sexual abuse, a bishop has to step down or be suspended after a preliminary inquiry till such time as a complete probe has established his innocence or guilt.” Dayal also spoke about the need for the church to come together and not be divided over such serious allegations.
For many, the fact that the church is so splintered when it comes to such allegations makes the matter a whole lot worse. As Dayal noted, “The church has to be united and not a divided house when it comes to allegations like these.” But the internal disagreements and differences of opinion just make the situation even harder for people who would love to speak out and see a stop to these alleged atrocities.
With these and many other allegations of sexual abuse and even torture by the Catholic church against nuns as well as minors, it’s high time that people speak up and that they are heard by the relevant authorities about the abuse they have endured while learning about Godliness at church. Many hope the future will be a bright one as more and more perpetrators of unthinkable acts are dealt with and put behind bars.