New Delhi: In June this year, a senior nun alleged rape by Bishop Franco Mulakkal, the head of the Latin diocese of Jalandhar. What followed was a vortex of the worst crisis that the church had encountered in recent times.
The nun alleged that she was sexually assaulted multiple times since May 2014 at the church’s guest house in Kuruvilangad. She further said that she had approached the church hierarchy but her repeated pleas were ignored, after which she decided to go the police.
As the country split its opinion on whether to believe the survivor, her fellow nuns took to the streets, staged protests, thus forming what was possibly the biggest rebellion that India’s church had seen from the inside. The nuns called out the male hegemony that existed in the church and demanded Mulakkal be stripped off his position and power. The protesting nuns said they knew of many other cases where women were exploited and yet the higher authorities decided to remain mum.
As protests gained momentum, Kerala MLA PC George called the survivor a prostitute. The nun went silent but Kerala continued to buzz with slogans of protest and anger, led by the survivor’s fellow nuns.
After over two months of protest, police arrested Mulakkal. The Bishop spent three weeks behind bars but was granted bail in October. He went home to Jalandhar to a hero’s welcome. The Church threw him a welcome party. The rape accused wrote a letter to fellow Bishops where he described his time in jail as “a holiday period”.
The case grabbed the attention of the country and divided the almost 28 million Christians in India. While many like George targeted the nun, there were many who joined the protesting nuns against the Church’s response. The nuns had also written to the Vatican to intervene, but received no response.
The case took an ugly turn when, in October, a key witness was found dead. Father Kuriakose Kattuthara, who had filed a complaint against Mulakkal and had supported the survivor nun, was found dead in Jalandhar. His family alleged that it was a planned murder.
The church still stayed silent and so did Mulakkal. Voices of protest rose again with those supporting the nun alleging that they were shocked to know of the death of the man who had supported them throughout the ordeal. Even as this case gathered momentum, four priests from Malankara Orthodox Church were arrested for allegedly raping and blackmailing a woman who had been attending their church for years.
The cases of sexual exploitation challenged those who believed in the ultimate power of the priest in a church. Otherwise, too, it brought to fore the deepening fault lines within the faith and its believers. A news report quoted Vijay Goria, chairman of the Samson Brigade Christian Youth, as saying that they would take to the streets if Mulakkal was found guilty since he was their religious head and would continue to remain so.
While the church clergy has refused to come out in the open and speak of the various allegations of sexual assault, Archbishop Kuriakose Bharanikulangar, at a convention in New Delhi, apologised for the scandals caused by the church.
The survivor nun refused to speak after the constant backlash that she received for coming out. Her fellow nuns, however, have vowed to keep up the fight for justice. Many also believe that a settlement outside court would taint the church. There are others, like Dr Aruna Gnanadason, the former executive director for Planning and Integration in the General Secretariat of the World Council of Churches (WCC) at Geneva, who has been vocal about the church being patriarchal.
The Mulakkal case goes to trial next year. And so does the faith.