India: Bishop rape ruling raises questions about role of church

Deutsche Welle [Bonn, Germany]

January 17, 2022

By Murali Krishnan

[Includes English-language background video.]

Bishop Franco Mulakkal was found not guilty on charges of rape. But now the Kerala Catholic Church has been left seriously divided, with some asking whether the church has too much power.

A Catholic bishop in India who had been accused of raping a nun multiple times over a period of two years was acquitted by a court in Kottayam, Kerala, last week.

Bishop Franco Mulakkal, who worked in the diocese of Jalandhar, was accused of carrying out the rapes from 2014 to 2016. The case sparked outrage and large protests in the southern state of Kerala. The ruling has left many members of the clergy questioning the power of the church in the state and how the church can move forward while deep divisions remain.

What did the judge say?

The victim said she went to the police only after complaining repeatedly to church authorities. Mulakkal was arrested later in 2018 but only formally charged in 2019 after months of protests and allegations of a coverup. 

“This is a case in which the grain and chaff are inextricably mixed up. It is impossible to separate the grain from the chaff. There are exaggerations and embellishments in the version of the victim,” additional sessions Judge G Gopakumar said, while acquitting Mulakkal. 

“She [the nun] has also made every attempt to hide certain facts. It is also evident that the victim was swayed under the influence of others who had other vested interest in the matter,” said Gopakumar in the lengthy 289-page document. 

Nuns vow to continue fighting

Sections within the clergy, lawyers and social activists expressed shock over the verdict. They vowed to challenge it in the higher court. 

“I am shocked by this judgment and it has yet to sink in. The verdict is painful as a nun. It cannot be taken as the right verdict. The fight will continue for the victim to get justice,” Sister Lucy Kalapura, a nun from the Franciscan Clarist Congregation, told DW.  

“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 in our favor so we don’t know what happened in court. We will definitely appeal in the higher court,” said Sister Anupama, who spearheaded the protests against Mullakal. 

She and four others from the Missionaries of Jesus congregation in Kerala protested outside the High Court and also wrote to the Vatican, seeking its intervention. 

Is it safe to speak out against the church?

Nuns were particularly vocal in the fight for justice in this case. James Nidhin Panvelil, an assistant vicar of St. George Church, told DW that: “It was the first time that the reticent nuns sat in protest in public and spoke to the media.”

But many nuns alleged that they were hounded for participating in the protests against Mullakal by the Catholic Church that holds enormous political and social sway in Kerala. They reported that they received disciplinary warnings and transfer notices and even expulsion from the congregation. 

Augustine Vattoly, a priest turned social activist told DW that he was also concerned about whether it would be safe to speak out against the court’s ruling: “Will people in the clergy be able to dissent [the verdict] and come out openly? That is a million-dollar question.”

The church has consistently resisted calls for reform. This is despite at least 12 priests in Kerala being accused of committing sexual abuse offenses since 2016. A number of these cases involved serious sexual abuse of underage girls.

Will the church agree with the verdict?

During the course of the trial, Mulakkal was temporarily relieved of his pastoral responsibilities in the Diocese of Jullundur by an order from the Vatican. The question of whether he will resume his post looms large.

Paul Thelakkat, a senior priest and former church spokesman,believes the moral implications of the Mullakal verdict are serious. “Is this an honorable acquittal? The church will have to make a serious decision on the verdict. I am not making any judgment, but the church leadership will have to assess,” Thelakkat told DW. 

He also noted that the verdict had now divided the nuns and some clergy members. “Will Mullakal be the apt and salvific person to lead that diocese?” he asked.

Edited by: Kate Martyr