From girls sold to European churches to Bishop Franco case: Kerala's nun story

For decades, they have been meek. Now, the nuns are learning to speak for themselves and ask for justice.
From girls sold to European churches to Bishop Franco case: Kerala's nun story
From girls sold to European churches to Bishop Franco case: Kerala's nun story
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Nearly half a century ago, Father Cyriac Puthenpurackal, who was in charge of an independent diocese in Ettumanoor in Kottayam district, was accused of “exporting” more than 800 young Catholic girls from Kerala to Germany in what came to be known as the “nun-running” scandal of the 1960s and early 70s. The girls, who mostly came from poor families, were apparently under the impression that they were going to be trained as nurses or teachers; but they actually landed up doing domestic work in the convents of Germany.

In the 1960s, the German convents were finding it difficult to maintain the huge nunneries which were built at a time when many local girls were willing to take their vows. In Kerala, on the other hand, large Catholic families were still eager to dedicate some of their children to the Church.  Father Puthenpurackal and his associates exploited this situation and recruited young catholic girls from the backwoods of Kerala, and sent them to Germany, promising them that they would be given vocational training.

By the mid-1960s, the export of these girls was at its peak. Each of the many convents in Kerala got at least a dozen new recruits every year. There was no shortage of nuns in Kerala. But the girls who were sent to Germany were not necessarily ones who were intending to become nuns.  Only after they reached Germany did they realise they had been lured under false pretenses, and that the German convents had actually paid money to get them over to do manual work. The money went into the pockets of the priests, and the families did not even know they had sold their daughters.

A foreign newspaper broke the story of these girls who were being used as bonded labour in the convents. Soon, there was an uproar in India. The Bishops of the Syro-Malabar Church in Kerala and the Catholic Church in Germany were found to be involved in the transactions.

Many papers both in India and abroad carried articles about these girls. But not too much effort was made to trace them and bring them back. In 1983, when the old scandal was almost forgotten, the name of Father Puthenpurackal re-surfaced. He was at his old game again, and this time the girls were being sent to Italy.

‘Escape’ from Italy

Mercy and Jessy who had “escaped” from an Italian convent and returned home with the help of a relative who lived in Italy, spoke to me then as I was doing a story on this issue. They had been told they would be trained as nurses, they said, but instead as soon as they reached Rome, they were made to dress as probationers in nuns’ clothing.

The girls came from a village in Kottayam and had hardly stepped out of their own district before. Their families were poor and illiterate. They trusted the Father implicitly when he said they would be trained abroad, and would get good jobs when they returned. But instead, they said, they ended up cleaning the long corridors, large windows and huge bathrooms of the convent.Their passports were confiscated when they landed, and like the couple of other nuns from Kerala who were in the convent, they, too, were treated like bonded labour. The Church had paid Rs 15,000 per head for them, they said. They finally escaped with the help of a relative of one of the girls who lived in Italy.

Recently, a journalist and filmmaker tried to trace some of the women who had been sent to Germany with the help of old newspaper reports which specified which convents they had gone to. They could trace only a few of them. Some were in good positions in the German convents, others had died, and some had returned to India. Maybe many had also escaped.

But all that is history.

Today Kerala is also facing a shortage of nuns.  Families have shrunk, educated girls seek other career opportunities and the number of girls having a true “vocation” has dwindled to three or four per year. Kerala which has one of the oldest Christian communities in the country was once the largest producer of nuns. Today, there are hardly any young nuns in the convents. More girls from Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and the North East seem to be taking the veil.

Nuns in Kerala are not treated on par with the priests. When they enter the convent as brides of Jesus, they are expected to pay a dowry to the church. The churches therefore would prefer to get girls from well-off families who might even bring a share of their ancestral property with them. Many of them work as teachers or nurses in the institutions run by the church. The salaries they get are confiscated by the Motherhouse. While their living expenses are taken care of, they have no spending money, and many of them depend on their visiting relatives to give them a little extra money. If they leave the convent, they are supposed to get back the amount they paid and some compensation, so that they can survive on their own in the outside world; but often they have to fight for this and settle for a lesser amount. 

The convent, therefore, has a kind of stranglehold on the nuns as years of living inside the cloister makes them unprepared to face the outside world. Also, since the discipline of obedience is drilled into them, they cannot escape the clutches of powerful Bishops, Priests and Mother Superiors who could turn out to be predatory.

Even when a nun is murdered inside the convent, the murderers may never be brought to justice. Take the case of 19-year-old Sister Abhaya. In 1993, her body was found floating in a well inside the premises of her convent. Twenty five years later, the case against her alleged murderers is still going on.  At first her death was deemed to be a suicide, further investigation over several years finally zeroed in on three suspects: a nun and two priests whom Sister Abhaya might have found in a compromising position when she went at 4 am to get some water from the kitchen. The three were arrested only 15 years later in 2008 and were out on bail in January 2009. Two years later, they filed a discharge plea. And, seven years later in 2018, one of the priests, who was the third accused, was acquitted. Will Sister Abhaya’s family ever get the justice they seek?

Inside the convent

It is not as if the convent is a cosy, serene haven for the nuns. In 2009, Sister Jesme, who had spent more than 30 years as a nun, left the convent after she took VRS when she was the principal of a school. After she came out, she wrote a scathingly critical book called “Amen”, about the oppression nuns face within the convent. Writing from her own personal experiences, she described sexual misconduct on the part of priests as well nuns. She said she was sexually harassed by a Mother Superior of a convent who told her that this was the best kind of sexual relationship they could have as there was no danger of pregnancy. She described how senior priests preyed on novices. She also wrote of a respected priest who took her to his room when she was in Bengaluru. He stripped and ordered her to do the same and touch him. All the while, he was telling her about senior priests and bishops and the relationships they were in.

Sister Jesme’s book caused a furore and senior Church officials dismissed it as a “book of trivialities.” Even her family abandoned her as they did not want to be rejected by their society.  The convent turned her out without any money though she had served them for thirty years. She was labelled a prostitute by some Church officials. Today, almost a decade later, Sister Jesme looks happier for having taken that decision to leave the convent. She has now come out with another book, this time in the form of a novel.

The alleged rape of a nun by Bishop Franco has brought all these problems to the fore again.  Only this time it is a bit different. The nuns are now learning to speak for themselves and ask for justice.

To those who ask why she allowed herself to be raped repeatedly and why did she not leave the convent immediately after the first time, the answer becomes self-evident. The Bishop was the powerful one, the man she had been taught to trust and obey. Obviously, complaining to her superiors about him did not help. If she had left the convent, she would have not only been penniless she would have also have been socially ostracised.

The rise of her fellow nuns in her support is an act of great bravery. Hopefully the Church as well as society and the government will give them protection and enable them to fight for the justice they deserve.

Views expressed are the author's own.

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