Power, lust and church: Mulakkal verdict brings focus back on sex abuse in convents despite ‘checks’

News Laundry [New Delhi, India]

January 19, 2022

By Nidhi Suresh

The question of a ‘delay’ in rape complaint cannot be answered without understanding the power structures that underline life within Catholic church.

“Because the framing (of law) is not if he is guilty, the framing is if he is found guilty,” said bishop Franco Mulakkal in 2018, in an interview with Republic TV.

In 2018, a nun at the Missionaries of Jesus convent in Kottayam accused the bishop of raping her 13 times between 2014 to 2016. Nearly four years later, he was acquitted citing lack of evidence, with no witness turning hostile and multiple nuns alleging that they too were harassed by the same bishop.

In the 24 pages of the “victim’s version” within the 289-page judgement were details of how Mulakkal had forcefully undressed, fingered and grabbed her, and kissed her breasts. “He also made an attempt to insert his sexual organ into the mouth of the victim, and rubbed his penis on her face.” The nun alleged that he forced her to hold his penis, ejaculated on her and then “after the incident, using his power, authority and position, he threatened her that if she attempted to disclose the incident to any one, she would be eliminated”.

“It took her eight hours to recount everything. She had to remember dates, details of her life, the violence itself. It was traumatic but ultimately, still what she gave was a sterling statement,” said Sandhya Raju George, one of the advocates representing the nun.

On January 14, despite the “sterling statement”, Mulakkal was acquitted by the trial court in Kottayam and continues to be the head of the diocese under which the survivor nun’s congregation falls. The survivor and five other nuns who supported her live inside the convent, a little away from the other inmates and under police protection. “She is scared. Now, he can do anything he wants to her,” said Sandhya Raju George.

A glaring question that the judgement keeps coming back to is “the long delay in reporting the matter also remains unexplained”. But this cannot be answered without understanding the structures of power that underline life within a convent.

Locating the power

Former Kottayam SP S Harishankar, in his statement to the press after the acquittal, briefly locates this power dynamic. “What you have to understand here is that this is a woman living within a fiduciary relationship (one involving management of responsibilities). Her entire existence itself is dependent on the accused. He is one who gets to decide if she should remain dead or alive. In a situation like this you cannot expect a woman to immediately come forward and complain.”

When a young woman decides to become a nun, three important vows are said to guide her life there on: poverty, chastity and obedience.

Sister Julie George, a nun who joined the convent when she was 20 after being influenced by her friends, explained that usually the men perform the important rituals, while nuns are expected to clean the altar, decorate it and ensure the place is ready for when the priest or bishop takes the stand.

A priest, who spoke to Newslaundry on the condition of anonymity, explained that when a nun joins a congregation, she makes a decision to be a foot soldier of God. “A nun takes a vow to do a certain specific kind of work and live a certain kind of lifestyle,” he said. “The structure is such that only men have agency to perform rituals. So this gives them a very different kind of power; it’s more than political power. Even the official decision-making bodies within a Catholic church are monopolised by this clergy of celibate men.”

The priest said that no woman has or can ever be part of the clergy while the men are placed on a higher religious pedestal. A section in the judgment referred to this as it pointed out that the nun testified that she considered Mulakkal “like God”.

Sister Julie George explained for a nun, bishops are very important, not just spiritually but for daily life. “Our congregations, we come under a bishop. We have to be on good terms with the bishop or else life becomes difficult.”

This structure is dictated by the canon law﹘written for the governance of the church.

The priest said that in terms of agency for nuns, they are generally in charge of the maintenance of their convent, the records, expenditure, and a lot of times they end up teaching at the missionaries and recruiting other nuns. In certain congregations, nuns even own property but that depends on the congregation. “In this case, this particular congregation falls under the patronage of the bishop of Jalandhar which at that time was Franco Mulakkal.”

Sister Julie said that in her congregation, nuns are more independent but “congregations founded by bishops are completely suppressed and oppressed by the bishop. That was the kind of convent this survivor lived in. Even financial expenditure or how much money a nun can get per month is completely decided by that bishop.”

Sister Julie elaborated that the practice of nuns attending to the priests and bishops is a very “traditional and oppressive” concept. This “attending” to the clergymen involves “kneeling before the priest or bishop, kissing the ring, ironing his clothes, attending to his basic needs, basically giving him all their attention. The patriarchy is very happy with this.”

The extent of power exercised by Mulakkal is evident in the number of times the judgment refers to how the bishop asked nuns to iron his cassock and how other nuns “took his suitcase and bag to the room”. The bishop also controlled the complainant by often threatening to stop giving funds for the kitchen renovation work happening inside the convent.

There are several references to the kitchen work in the victim’s version. “She went inside with the permission of the accused. When she handed over the cassock, the accused asked her to bring the papers of the kitchen work. She took the papers and knocked on the door. On getting permission from the accused, she entered the room. But the accused suddenly slammed the door and grabbed PW1 (the nun) from behind. She was numb with terror…she asked the bishop what he was doing? Accused replied that it was he who sanctioned the kitchen work and held her tight. He forced her to lie down on the bed. He lifted her dress. He grabbed her breasts and squeezed them and pulled her inner wear down. The accused tried to push his penis forcefully into her mouth.”

In another instance, it stated that “PW1 (the nun) feared that she would be done away with”. “Accused warned her that it was he who sanctioned the money and that he can stop it again. She opened the door and went to her room. She was so embarrassed that she couldn’t speak out. She knew that Bishop Franco would go to any extreme to eliminate all those who stand in his way.”

Father Augustine Vattoli, among the few priests who came out in support of the survivor, said “You have to understand how difficult it is for a nun to come out against a bishop.” “In fact, how many priests have openly come out? Barely any. Why? The church is all powerful. Look at what happened to Sister Lucy and me. So it’s very easy to ask why she didn’t come out earlier,” he said.

In 2018, soon after he participated in protests against Mulakkal, the Catholic Church sent Vattoli a strongly-worded notice warning him of “strict action”. Sister Lucy Kalappurakkal, who organised protests supporting the nun, was expelled from her convent on “disciplinary grounds” in June 2021.

Was there any delay in the complaint?

Former Kottayam SP Harishankar explained that it is incorrect to say there was delay in reporting the incident because “there was continuous action in reporting the incident within the church”.

Governed by canon law, the church has its own legal mechanisms which its inmates rely on. In many ways, nuns are to consider the canon law of higher value than a country’s penal code.

In 2017, the Catholic Bishop Conference of India issued a guideline to deal with sexual harassment at work place. It said institutions must have an ‘Internal Complaints Committee’ and listed out the process of redressal of complaints.

According to Laurie Goodstein, the Vatican correspondent of the New York Times, it was in 2019 that Pope Francis, in response to a question by another reporter, for the first time agreed to sexual abuse within the church. The same year, the Pope issued what was called a “ground-breaking” law which required all Catholic priests and nuns around the world to report sexual abuse and cover-ups by their superiors to church authorities. The law also gave whistleblower protection.

The same year, after Mulakkal’s case became public, the Kerala Catholic Bishop Council also published a guideline for protecting minors and vulnerable adults. The guideline suggests that if found guilty of abuse, a priest or bishop may be defrocked, that is, removed from priesthood.

Given all these internal mechanisms, the survivor in the Mulakkal case tried to file an internal complaint, not once or twice but 14 times.

By the end of 2014, a little after the sexual abuse began, the nun began resorting to oral and written mechanisms. This included her approaching at least six priests, one spiritual mother, seven other sisters, three cardinals and three bishops. The nun also wrote a letter to the Apostolic Nuncio, and when she got no response, she also sent him two emails. The Apostolic Nuncio is a Vatican representative who is an ambassador or diplomat of the Holy sea; he reports to the Pope. She also wrote to Pope Francis. But she was compelled to approach the Kerala police when all these internal mechanisms failed.

According to the priest quoted above and Sister Julie, these internal mechanisms are a mere “eyewash”.

Sister Julie George said that even if the internal mechanism is in place, it is the clergymen who dominate it. “Men are the ones running these committees. It is not victim-friendly and so a priest is hardly ever held accountable.” “Who knows if these letters really reach the Pope or not?”

Not just in India

In 2016, when a woman in Kerala accused a priest of sexually harassing her over email and messages, the bishop suggested she go to another priest and subsequently was temporarily transferred, but within a month he was back to the same church. Such instances have been reported across the globe.

There was an uproar in 2002 when the Boston Globe newspaper’s ‘Spotlight’ team detailed the deep-rooted system of transfer and cover-up of priests in cases involving sexual abuse. In 2005, an Indian priest in Minnesota was accused of molesting minors, including nuns. He was briefly suspended but quickly reinstated. In 2006, a BBC documentary titled Sex Crimes and Vatican showcased the systemic rot within the church when it came to accountability for sexual violence within the clergy. In 2018, 23 nuns in Chile were expelled from the congregation for reporting sexual abuse.

“Why are so many nuns committing suicide? There is a serious mental health crisis here. They’re closeted and silenced too often,” said advocate Sandhya Raju George.

According to a report published by The International Journal of Indian Psychology in 2020, an article titled ‘uncertainty in deaths of nuns in Kerala over 30 years﹘an overview’ claimed that since 1987, in Kerala alone, bodies of over 17 nuns were found in various convents. Nuns were found dead in their rooms, the wells or in water tanks. The research stated that in all cases, “neither the convent authorities nor the diocese and Kerala Catholic Church has lodged an FIR or investigated to find out the reason for the deaths. Almost every case was initially closed by stating as ‘normal deaths’.”

Loving and hating the patriarchy

The Catholic church expects all inmates to strictly remain celibate. If a nun is found unchaste, she is expected to leave the congregation and give up nunhood﹘she is considered unchaste even if she is sexually abused.

Regarding Mulakkal’s case, Father Nathan, who believes this to be a “completely patriarchal” approach, said, “Especially for people who have vowed chastity, to stand in the witness box and talk about sexual assault is something that is very traumatic. And if there is no truth to it, no nun will not come out and say it happened.”

The “victim version” had pointed to the nun’s fear of being considered unchaste. “She knew that if she spoke out, she would be expelled from the convent. She thought that she would be killed. Hence she chose to remain silent.” When she was assigned Bible reading, the prosecution explained how she could not hold the Christian holy book.

Sister Julie George added that while “no other institutions are as patriarchal as the church”, there are nuns who are “happy” about this and Mulakkal’s acquittal.

Sister Ann Mary from Thrissur is among such nuns favouring the verdict. According to her, the survivor and the nuns supporting her, instead of being “obedient to the rules and regulations of the congregation”, “wanted more power and position” and “created a drama” because they wanted property. She believes that the case is financially and politically motivated. “Look how many Hindus and Muslims are supporting this case. It is not a genuine case.”

She also accused the nuns for having tried to “destroy the reputation of the Catholic church”. She said if she ever faced sexual assault, “I have no right to raise my voice. If it is a genuine case, of course my congregation will support me.” She also questioned the alleged “delay in reporting” the crime. “I don’t understand what is going wrong with this lady…If she is really obedient, she would never have gone out of the way like this.”

Power and lust

Section 376C of the IPC specifies a punishment of five years in jail for anyone who, in a position of “authority”, “takes advantage of his official position” to commit sexual violence on someone he has control over.

The judgment also harps over this question by asking if it is “proved that the accused was a person in authority or that he is in position of control or dominance over PW1”. It dedicates 13 pages to discuss the relationship between “power and lust. “Power and lust often play equal part in sexual violence. Power inequalities/imbalances, in terms of age, strength and money, often go along with incidents of rape, particularly when the surrounding community allows a veil of silence to cover the behaviour of the predator.”

It concludes, “As far as this case is concerned, there is ample documentary and oral evidence to conclude that the accused was exercising real authority over the congregation and the nuns. He is definitely a person in authority. This point is accordingly answered.”

But despite this deep dive into the bishop’s power over the nun’s life, Mulakkal today stands a free man.

With research assistance by Saeeduzzaman