Controversy

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“A Catholic nun has alleged that he (the bishop) had sex – natural and unnatural – with her 13 times between 2014 and 2016. Thirteen is believed to be an unlucky number. Recently, we stayed in a cottage at a resort in the Havelock Island in Andaman and Nicobar. We noticed that after cottage number 12, there was 12A, followed by 14. There was no cottage numbered 13.”

The sentence is bizarre, no doubt. But this is the exact line that a Catholic Church magazine has used to discredit the rape allegation that a nun made against a bishop.

‘India Currents’ is a magazine run under the patronage of the Capuchin of Krist Jyoti province of North India, and on their issue dated July 9, they published a piece titled ‘Villains as Victims’ – in response to the multiple allegations of rape filed against the Jalandhar diocese bishop, and several priests of the Orthodox church.

Ironically, the issue in which this was printed dealt with the subject of women’s safety and talked about how India was recently ranked as the most dangerous country in the world for women.

A portrait of the bishop as a man above reproach

The piece was written by a person called AJ Philip, and attempts to not just play down the two recent cases and whitewash the role of the accused priests, but also questions the victims’ testimonies, and squarely blames them for the rapes.

The piece begins with an unnecessary anecdote, where Philip describes a jovial encounter with the Jalandhar priest and how he helped the author do a memorable story on a soon-to-be canonised priest.

“You may wonder why I narrated these anecdotes,” he writes. “I did so as a disclaimer, because the bishop is now in the news for reasons which do not do him or the church proud.”

Umm, so there should be no investigation against a man accused of raping a nun on 13 occasions, because he helped the author write a story?

Sure.

Victim blaming, 101

But the bizarre piece, unfortunately, does not end there. Nor is it the only cringeworthy thing the author says. Throughout the piece, Philip deliberately mixes up allegations of rape with some flawed idea of consensual sex.

Take for instance his description of the sex for silence row that rocked the Kerala Orthodox church. Philip continuously uses the word rape inside single quotes – and the result is a clear attempt to discredit the allegation.

“She is a high school teacher, who deals with hundreds of students everyday ... True, when she began to be ‘raped’ she was not a teacher. She was only 16,” he says.

“In the ordinary circumstances, when such a terrible thing as ‘rape’ happens, is it not usual for the girl to tell her parents, especially her mother? Is it true that the man or boy who ‘raped’ her at age 16 was her own boyfriend who, a few years later, became a priest? Can that be called “rape” by a priest?” he asks.

Read: Kerala Church 'sex for silence' row: Crime Branch to probe case

As his tone becomes more incredulous, Philip says, “In the Orthodox Church, an adult person has to confess his/her sins to the priest at least once a year. The story of the woman in question is that she told the priest about her ‘sin’ and it encouraged him to ‘rape’ her. She kept on confessing and the priests kept on ‘raping’ her! … At no point did this school teacher feel that she was being led up the garden path by some sex-hungry priests.”

Either AJ Philip is not familiar with the power dynamics women are forced to navigate in their everyday lives, or he’s in deliberate denial for his #SavethePriests campaign.

Complaining against authority figures - social, religious or political - requires immense bravery and, more often than not, women are implicitly and explicitly told it’s in their ‘best interest’ to not complain.

And nowhere in the article does Philip speak of the systemic oppression that was probably meted out to the woman, to ensure her silence in this case.

‘Vultures as vulnerables?’

On the second case that has rocked Kerala, the author writes, “To return to the bishop, a Catholic nun has alleged that he had sex – natural and unnatural – with her 13 times between 2014 and 2016. Assuming that what she says is true, can a person who reached the status of Mother General in her religious order be ‘raped’ 13 times? Did she complain after the first, second, third, fourth and fifth rapes?”

Read: Kerala Catholic nun accuses bishop of rape, files police complaint

Clearly, Philip hasn’t been informed that rapes are usually expressions of power and, no matter how highly ranked a woman is in her field, she is not automatically spared from gender-based violence.

The accused bishop, incidentally, filed a case against the nun claiming that she and her family were harassing him. On this, the author writes, “Once a person becomes a nun or a priest, he or she leaves the family to become part of the larger family of the church. But in this case, the family members are with her through thick and thin. If the bishop had really ‘raped’ her, he would have been vulnerable and would not have dared to take action against her.”

‘Vulnerable’, yes. Of course there are no other words to describe a man in a position of power, accused of raping a woman lower down the hierarchy, 13 times in two years.

He ends his ‘argument’ by saying, “While the police will, hopefully, gather evidence about the 13 rapes which may or may not have happened, the point to be noted is that sex is never a one-sided affair.”

Because, “Billions of men and women copulate every day for reasons I do not have to explain. This has been happening right from the days of Adam and Eve. But a modern-day Eve finds it convenient to claim that she was raped when she is caught in the act.”

Repeat performance

This isn’t the first time the church has tried justifying the conduct of its members in the most bizarre ways. When a minor was allegedly raped by a priest and was impregnated by him in 2017, the Kerala Catholic Bishops' Council said that this case is an ‘exception’ among the 9033 catholic priests in Kerala.

The council then puts the blame for sexual violence and child sexual abuse squarely on ‘consumerism’.

“Consumerism is indeed a situation affecting everyone in the world and priests are also in the world. It is in celibacy and in virginity the crisis become apparent first, then it will become a crisis of fidelity in marriage with extramarital and premarital sex. Women are presented as commodity both in media and in advertisements and all commodities as marketed with girls and women where human body is dehumanized,” the council declared.

Main image credit: Flickr image by Steve Johnson