NEW DELHI (INDIA)
Indian Express [Noida, India]
January 14, 2022
By Vishnu Varma
A Trial court in Kerala Friday acquitted Franco Mulakkal, the former Jalandhar Bishop of the Catholic Church, of all charges in the alleged rape of a nun in a high-profile case that had led to an unprecedented public protest in the state more than three years ago by other nuns in support of the complainant.
Mulakkal was present in the courtroom when Kottayam Additional Sessions Judge G Gopakumar pronounced the verdict. He later broke down in the corridor outside, hugged his lawyers, and told reporters before leaving the premises: “Daivathinu sthuthi’ (Praise the Lord).”
However, one of the nuns who had spearheaded the protest against Mulakkal, Sister Anupama, expressed disbelief at the verdict.
Speaking to reporters with tears in her eyes, she said: “We cannot believe this verdict. We will continue this fight until the day our fellow sister gets justice, even if it means we have to die. All the testimonies were all in favour of us so we don’t know what happened in court. We will definitely appeal in the higher court.”
S Harisankar, the former Kottayam district police chief under whose leadership the investigation was conducted, described the verdict as “extremely unfortunate”.
“We had fully expected a conviction. This verdict will be a surprise for the entire Indian legal system,” said Harisankar, who is currently posted in the state police headquarters.
In a statement, the Jalandhar diocese of the Church thanked all those “who believed in the innocence of the bishop and assisted him with legal aid”.
The allegations against Mulakkal (57) came to light in June 2018 when a senior nun, belonging to the order of Missionaries of Jesus, submitted a complaint to the Kottayam police chief accusing the then bishop of raping her and subjecting her to unnatural sex 13 times between 2014 and 2016 at a convent in the district.
Subsequently, an FIR was filed against Mulakkal on charges of rape at the police station in Kuravilangad, where the convent is located. Mulakkal denied the charges and described the complaint as a “retaliatory act” for disciplinary action taken earlier against the complainant in an unrelated incident.
In September that year, a public in front of the Kerala High Court premises in Kochi saw unprecedented scenes as five Catholic nuns, who were close to the complainant, sat on an indefinite hunger strike demanding the arrest of the bishop.
On September 21, 2018, the police arrested Mulakkal and booked him on rape charges, in the first such action against a Catholic bishop in the country. Mulakkal was released on bail nearly a month later, and divested of his responsibilities as bishop in the Jalandhar diocese.
In April 2019, a Special Investigation Team of the Kerala Police filed a 2,000-page chargesheet against Mulakkal. The trial commenced in November 2019, with the prosecution listing 83 witnesses of which 39 were examined during the trial. A number of senior figures from the Church, including Major Archbishop of Syro-Malabar Church Cardinal George Alencherry, and 11 priests and 25 nuns were among the witnesses.
Mulakkal faced a slew of charges, including wrongful confinement, unnatural sex, rape of a woman incapable of giving consent and criminal intimidation. And although he approached the Kerala High Court and the Supreme Court claiming innocence, both directed him to stand trial.
On Friday, after the trial court cleared him of all charges, Mulakkal went to a retreat centre in Kottayam and offered holy mass.
Meanwhile, Harisankar, the former Kottayam police chief, said “it was after suffering huge psychological pressure that the survivor disclosed the assault to her fellow nuns” and that the verdict would “send a wrong message to society”.
“As a nun, she wants the accused to be brought to justice. But she’s also isolated in society. These were the reasons for the delay (in filing the case)…the evidence was convincing during the trial. There was a lot of corroborative evidence and all the witnesses in the case were ordinary people,” he said.