The Sexual Assault Case Redefining Accountability in India’s Catholic Church

Nuns from Missionaries of Jesus Catholic Church speaking against sexual assault in Kerala, India

Nuns from Missionaries of Jesus Catholic Church speaking against sexual assault in Kerala, India

In the wake of the #MeToo movement, this past year has seen countless survivors come forward with their experiences. Among them are allegations that uncover a larger pattern of abuse perpetrated by clergy, that has been occurring all over the world under the Catholic Church’s aegis. A recent and prominent sexual assault case is ongoing in the southern Indian state of Kerala, home to over 6 million of the country’s 20 million Christians. Nuns in the state have refused to stay silent as they joined the #Me-Too movement in solidarity with their colleague.

Kerala, known for its beautiful backwaters and vibrant culture, is often referred to as “God’s own country” by native inhabitants. But underneath it all lies yet another instance of powerful men using their authority to engage in sexual misconduct. In June 2018, a nun belonging to the Missionaries of Jesus congregation came forward with allegations of rape against senior clergy member Bishop Franco Mulakkal, and subsequently filed a police report. The allegations said that Mulakkal had raped the nun 13 times between 2014 and 2016. In September, five nuns from the congregation launched a protest near the Kerala High Court that lasted for nearly two weeks, seeking justice for their colleague. Due to their refusal to stay silent on the matter, the nuns were given transfer orders signed by the Missionaries of Jesus Congregation Superior General in March 2018. This was an active effort by the leaders of the congregation to separate the women as a means of silencing them. Individually, the nuns could be coerced into withdrawing their support for the victim. But the nuns refused the orders and took to the streets to demand they be heard.

The nun in question had filed a police complaint as a last resort. She had previously written to Vatican’s representative in India, the Apostolic Nuncio in January of last year, and again in September when she received no response. Then she wrote to Pope Francis in May, and to State Secretary Cardinal Pietro Parolin in June. The nun also submitted a complaint to Cardinal George Alencherry, the head of the Syro-Malabar Church. They were all dead ends, a prime example of the unwillingness of higher-ups to prioritize cases of sexual assault and the general attitude of dismissiveness towards victims.

The protest, backed by the Save our Sisters Council, stemmed from this very dismissal of the victim as police action against the perpetrator failed to come. The complaint was booked under Indian Penal Code Section 376, punishment for rape, and yet Bishop Mulakkal evaded arrest for months. In fact, this delay in the investigation prompted the Kerala High Court to intervene and hear complaints on the progress of the investigation. Police finally acted on September 21st and arrested Mulakkal, three months after the nun had filed her complaint. Local police forces in the state have a well-established history of negligence and acceptance of bribes to bend the law, especially when it comes to more vulnerable populations like women and children. Often times, political intervention in the police force can serve as a roadblock for movement of cases on the legal front. In this case, Mulakkal’s prominence as a religious figure afforded him the financial and social clout that allowed him to evade arrest for such an extended period of time.

The entire progression of this case has been wrought with thinly veiled attempts at bribery and threats against the nuns who stood by the survivor. Earlier in 2018, Father James Erthayil of Carmelites of Mary Immaculate was revealed to be attempting to bribe the nuns, in an audio conversation that was broadcast by Asianet. The leaked clip took place between Erthayil and Sister Anupama, one of the five nuns who led the protest. The former was heard offering to build an exclusive convent for the nuns, sponsored by the Jalandhar diocese (the base of the Missionaries of Jesus congregation) and a separate benefactor. When Sister Anupama refused the offer, Erthayil heavily implied that the nuns would face threats if they attempted to go to convents in Orissa and Assam, states in northern India that could have provided safe haven for them. Erthayil’ s audacious offer further drives the point that religious figures and institutions are only too willing to compromise their integrity to maintain their sanctimonious place in society.

All throughout this ordeal, the Church has remained silent. Mulakkal maintains he is innocent, and instead of ousting him, the Franciscan congregation chose to embark on a crusade against the protesting nuns. In February 2019, one of the nuns, Sister Lucy Kalapura, received her second warning letter from the Franciscan Clarist Congregation Superior general. The letter stated that the Congregation would be “constrained” to proceed with her dismissal from the congregation if she did not cease her efforts on behalf of the victim. The first letter had come this past January, and had stated that it was “the first canonical warning with the threat of dismissal from the Congregation”. Calling the allegations baseless, the Missionaries of Jesus congregation launched a campaign to vilify the survivor and her supporters, stating that they were conspiring against Mulakkal and being influenced by atheists to devalue the Church. They even released the complainant’s photograph, a severe breach of privacy and law, which resulted in a police case being filed in September. Prevalent as ever, victim-blaming presents itself yet again as religious institutions whose core values supposedly embody morality, seek to discredit an individual who dedicated their life in service to those values.

Despite the efforts of those who support Bishop Mulakkal, extensive coverage by multiple media sources all over India has resulted in a narrative that seeks to hold all authorities accountable, whether it be religious or legal. This case has set a precedent, as the first protest in the history of the Catholic Church in India. There has been a call to enforce Vishaka Guidelines – which were set up in 1997 by the Indian Supreme Court to deal with complaints of sexual harassment in the workplace–at religious institutions to protect women who work in them. This follows the move by politician Maneka Gandhi to expand and strictly enforce the provisions of the Sexual Harassment at Workplace Act, (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) of 2013 in October 2018 when the Indian #MeToo movement gained ground. Through the progression of this case, a sustained effort has been made by these nuns to seek justice for the survivor, despite facing severe personal repercussions. In addition, they received widespread support from the locals which demonstrates the expansion of the #MeToo movement within Indian society. Their solidarity is paving the way to an India where political and social barriers will be broken down to ensure that the law is prioritized and fairly implemented.