On Friday, January 14, the Additional District and Sessions Court in Kottayam acquitted the Jalandhar diocese bishop Franco Mulakkal of the rape charges filed against him based on a complaint by a nun. The prosecution is likely to appeal the judgment in a higher court. However, just as with other sexual assault cases in the country, character assassination of the victim was present in this case too, but to a greater degree as the nun faced the wrath of organised systems within the church.
It was in 2018 that the then 46-year-old mother superior at the Missionaries of Jesus congregation in Keralaâ€™s Kottayam, functioning under the authority of the Bishop of Jalandhar, filed the rape case against Franco Mulakkal. What followed were horrendous accusations against the survivor inside and outside the court.
The victim blaming began with questioning the survivor nunâ€™s morality. The main argument was over the time taken by the survivor to raise the complaint. Her complaint said that she was raped 13 times by the bishop over two years since 2014. So she was questioned over why she did not complain after the first assault.
â€śThe entire attempt was made to look at the sexual assault survivor in a cold and mechanical manner. There was a consistent effort to psychologically put her down,â€ť Sandhya Raju, a lawyer who assisted the prosecution, had told TNM.
The survivor nun had on her side five nuns, who started the Save our Sisters movement, to support her and seek the arrest of the bishop. These nuns revealed that she had complained to the church many times and approached the police only after no action was taken, and that it was not easy for her to handle the pressure.
â€śInstead of extending support to her, the church took the initiative to do her character assassination. Not only in this case, in all cases against priests in the church, they have consistently stood with the accused. They questioned the survivorâ€™s morality and started spreading fake stories in order to protect the bishop. Many in the church consistently stood with the accused,â€ť Sister Jesme, a former nun, activist and writer, told TNM.
Even so-called progressive priests and nuns in the community spread rumours that the survivor and the accused were in a relationship, and what happened was consensual, Sister Jesme said.
â€śThe church resorted to character assassination of people who supported the complainant. Through social media, they continuously conspired and spread rumours against us. They alleged that we got money from Muslim extremists. At first, the church alleged that the nun and her family cheated the congregation of lakhs of rupees, and that she gave the complaint after she was caught. This allegation was never raised in court, they did not file any such complaint over cheating. Their next aim was to prove that the nun had no morality. They said this directly on social media and on news channels. Those reactions were all part of a conspiracy. They wanted to destroy the credibility of the complainant. They wanted her to withdraw the complaint. All this torture was done for that," said advocate Shyju Antony, convener of Sabha Sutharya Samithi, an organisation that supported the survivor, told the media.
Earlier the survivorâ€™s cousinâ€™s husband sent her (the nun) a lewd message. When the survivor informed her cousin about this, the latter filed a complaint defaming the nun. However, the case did not stand as there was no basis for the complaint. This incident was used by Franco in the court. The defence lawyer claimed that the survivor falsely filed a case against the bishop as he initiated action against her over the previously mentioned complaint. They also questioned the morality of the nun by alleging that she had a relationship with her cousinâ€™s husband. In many church circles, rumours were also spread that the survivor nun had relations with other men as well.
In WhatsApp groups, long notes against the survivor made the rounds.
â€śI remember every day in our church group there came a message raising allegations against the nun. It said she faked the complaint as she lost a higher post in the congregation. Some other messages said she cooperated with the bishop for so many years and now after she lost her position, she turned against him,â€ť Smitha Antony, a native of Kottayam district, said.
In a press meet in Thiruvananthapuram in September 2018, former legislator from Poonjar constituency, PC George, called the survivor a prostitute. â€śNo one has doubts that the nun is a prostitute. Twelve times she enjoyed it and the 13th time she called it rape? Why didnâ€™t she complain the first time?â€ť he said. Following this, he was reprimanded in the Kerala Assembly.
Meanwhile, posts with similar insinuations started doing the rounds on social media. Numerous Facebook groups originated in support of Franco. â€śOur church is going through a difficult phase now. There is a conspiracy against Bishop Franco. What is the authenticity behind the claims of the so-called victim? Those six nuns, including her, have conspired to remove the bishop from power,â€ť a priest announced in a church in southern Kerala, revealed one of the church committee members seeking anonymity. â€śThey even compared Franco to Jesus Christ, which many of us couldnâ€™t take. A clear victimisation of Franco and character assassination of the survivor was done in a majority of the churches. To an extent they were able to spread it among the believers too,â€ť he added.
In October 2019, the survivor filed a complaint with the Kerala Womenâ€™s Commission against the online harassment she faced from Francoâ€™s supporters. She also alleged that the bishop himself uses online platforms to defame her, adding that he and his supporters circulated a video identifying her.
The congregation to which the survivor belonged extended full support to the bishop. They even conducted an internal inquiry, where they claimed that the survivor was part of a conspiracy to defame the bishop as some of her demands were not met by him.
â€śThe trauma and pain she went through due to these attempts to question her morality is not small. Reading the FIR will give one an idea of what she went through,â€ť Jesme added.