Death in the Nunnery


October 31, 2008

AFTER THREE decades of service, Sister Jesmi decided to leave the Congregation of the Mother of Carmel (CMC), an order of nuns under the Catholic Church in Kerala. Citing mental harassment from her superiors as the reason, she also took voluntary retirement from the principal’s post she held at St Mary’s College in Thrissur, one of the state’s best institutions of higher education. Sister Jesmi preferred to leave even though she knew she would have nowhere, apart from her sister, to turn for survival. Ineligible for benefits from the church, she is also debarred from demanding the return of her parental property, bequeathed to the church when she joined the order.

Four months ago, a 37-year-old nun from Alappuzha in southern Kerala was found filmed in a pornographic clip circulating via MMS, and was defrocked and sent home. The nun, who worked as a receptionist at a CMC mission hospital near Kochi, was having an affair with the hospital driver, but claimed she had no idea he was filming her. Today, nobody has a clue as to her whereabouts, or even whether her home has accepted her. She, too, has no claim over the property her parents gave the church.

In August this year, Sister Anupa Mary from Kollam in southern Kerala hanged herself in her convent room, leaving a suicide note blaming the Mother Superior, Sister Albeena. Anupa’s father, Pappachan, alleges that Albeena subjected his daughter to sexual abuse, and claims Anupa spoke of it a few weeks before she died to her mother and sister, though they kept quiet about it. There is now a police investigation against Albeena, but it is moving at a grinding pace.

Nuns who give up their vows, whether from choice or compulsion, have a bleak future in Kerala as there is no mechanism for their rehabilitation. The faithful and the Church view them with contempt; often, so do their families. Survival becomes extremely difficult leaving, in many cases, suicide as the only solution, one that has claimed the lives of 15 nuns over the last 14 years.

It was in this context that the Kerala Women’s Commission approached the CPM-led state government, requesting it to enact legislation prohibiting girls under 18 from taking the veil, and prosecuting parents who forcibly send their daughters to nunneries. It also wanted protection of a nun’s share in family property and legal provisions to retrieve property bequeathed to the church, at least for those who leave their orders on grounds of harassment.

“When a Kerala girl becomes a nun, her share of her parental property is normally given to her to cover her living expenses. But should she decide to renounce her vows, she gets nothing. Such girls are in urgent need of a rehabilitation programme,” says Kerala Women’s Commission chairperson Justice D Sreedevi.

But the church leadership is not ready to listen, and is attacking the entire Commission for its ‘anti-minority’ demand, even terming its members ‘Marxist devils’. “The Commission is trying to effect changes in a universal Catholic norm, which is based on canonical law,” says Father Paul Thelakkat, spokesperson of the Syrio-Malabar Church. “As everywhere else, only a girl who completes Class XII is admitted to a Kerala convent. She then goes through a minimum five years training, meaning that she does not become a full-fledged nun until she is at least 22. So the question of inducting a minor into the nunhood does not arise.” As per figures available from the church, Kerala has more people turning to religious life than anywhere else in India. The state has 33,226 nuns.

THE ISSUE took a serious turn after the opposition Congress joined the bandwagon, calling the Commission’s demand a challenge to religious freedom and demanding Sreedevi’s ouster. Unwilling to antagonise the church, with which it is already at loggerheads, the state government is now soft-pedaling the issue. “It is just a wish of the commission,” says CPM state secretary Pinarayi Vijayan. “Everyone can express their wish. Neither the party nor the government have taken a decision on the issue so far.”

“We are not against a religion or their legitimate rights,” counters Sreedevi. “The Commission has received several complaints of torture in convents, on which we based our recommendation to the state government.”

Not all Kerala Christians are opposed to the Women’s Commission’s efforts, however. Joseph Pulikunnel, a prominent Catholic thinker and social activist, says Church officials neither admit to problems within the community, nor try to understand the reasons that drive nuns to suicide. “They always try to hush up such cases; they blame the victims and their families and protect the guilty,” he alleges. Pulikunnel welcomes the legislation the Commission is demanding, and says there is no question of its constituting an interference with religious freedom. “They are only trying to protect the basic human rights of those entering nunhood. The church ought to welcome the recommendation and try its best to get the proposed legislation implemented,” he says.

The death last year of Sister Lisa, whose body was found in the guest room of her convent near Kottayam in central Kerala, is now snowballing into an avoidable controversy for the Kerala church. Sister Lisa is said to have consumed poison; a suicide note claimed “disappointment in life” as the reason for the 34-year-old nun’s extreme step. Her father, Joseph Thottathil, says she was unhappy with her impending transfer to another convent; but when the Women’s Commission sought details, they were stonewalled. The same unresponsiveness greeted their request for information about the mysterious death of another nun five years ago.

Skirting the requirements of justice is something, however, that the Church in Kerala has long witnessed. The state High Court has come down heavily on the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) for its poor progress in an over-15-year inquiry into the murder of Sister Abhaya at a convent in Kottayam. Two priests and a nun are under the CBI scanner, but the agency refuses to arrest them “for want of evidence”. Abhaya was allegedly murdered for accidentally witnessing the priests in a compromising position with the nun.

Sister Alice Lukose, a former proponent of liberation theology, says unless the church is able to offer women a ‘new vision’ and a ‘new way‘ of committed life, religious congregations for women will face a crisis of existence. “Today, in every field, women are equal; in every field women have come up, except in the church. The moment the church acknowledges and allows women to be different, the church would be different,” she says.



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