Kerala nun who lost rape case against bishop deluged by letters of support

The Guardian [London, England]

January 21, 2022

By Hannah Ellis-Petersen

Activists, artists, film-makers and nuns across India write to 50-year-old after court clears Franco Mulakkal

Hundreds of letters of support have poured in for a nun in Kerala after a court acquitted a bishop accused of raping and abusing her over two years, in the first case of its kind to hit the Indian Catholic church.

The handwritten letters from activists, artists, journalists, film-makers and fellow nuns across India have expressed outrage at last week’s court verdict that cleared Bishop Franco Mulakkal of all charges of sexual abuse after the judge said the victim, a 50-year-old nun, was not a “sterling witness”.

Mulakkal, who headed the Roman Catholic diocese of Jalandhar, was accused of raping the nun on 13 occasions at the Missionaries of Jesus convent in Kottayam, Kerala, between 2014 and 2016.

The nun took her case to police in June 2018, and in 2019 Mulakkal was formally charged with wrongful confinement, rape, unnatural sex and criminal intimidation, becoming the first Indian bishop to be arrested in connection with sexual abuse. Mulakkal denied all allegations.

The landmark case exposed deep divisions and systemic flaws within the Indian Catholic church when it came to addressing allegations of sexual assault. It was only taken seriously after fellow nuns protested in support of the alleged victim.

The trial, which began in 2020, lasted almost two years, and last Friday Judge G Gopakumar found Mulakkal not guilty of all charges. Gopakumar questioned why it had taken the nun so long to report the full extent of the alleged sexual abuse and expressed doubts over her testimony and motives.

Gopakumar said there had been “exaggerations and embellishments” in the nun’s witness statement, and that she had been “swayed under the influence of others who had vested interests in the matter” and “made every attempt to hide certain facts”.

“The in-fight and rivalry and group fights of the nuns, and the desire for power, position and control over the congregation, is evident in the case,” wrote the judge. “The claim of the victim that she was raped on 13 occasions under duress cannot be taken reliance on the basis of her solitary testimony. There is no consistency in the statement of the victim.”

B Kemal Pasha, a former judge at the Kerala high court, called the verdict a miscarriage of justice, adding that a “delay in reporting such a case cannot be the reason for the acquittal”.

S Harisankar, the police chief who oversaw the case, said he had “fully expected a conviction” and the verdict would “send a wrong message to society”.

In an effort to show widespread support for the nuns who have been fighting the case and urging them not to be disheartened by the verdict, a letter-writing campaign began in India this week.

Hundreds of handwritten letters to the nuns have been posted on social media expressing solidarity. The actor Geetu Mohandas wrote a “note of gratitude, of thanks, for standing tall to tell your story where many have been silenced.” Another actor, Rima Kallingal, spoke of how she had been inspired and strengthened by the sisters. “I will never be able to thank you enough for this new chapter for Kerala,” she wrote.

The film-maker Leena Manimekalai, who is fighting her own #MeToo case of sexual harassment, wrote: “Your voice is ours, your strength is our lantern.”

The film critic Anna MM Vetticad, wrote: “I stand with you in your battle for justice within an indifferent church establishment and an Indian justice system that has chosen to shame you.”

The Kerala government has said it will appeal against the verdict. Sister Anupama, one of the nuns who had been the public face of the campaign, told reporters outside the court that they would “continue this fight until the day our fellow sister gets justice”.