I was devastated: Franco case prime witness Sr Lissy on how her letter was used
The survivor nun in the Bishop Franco case had told police and later the court that the first person she confessed her ordeal to was Sister Lissy Vadakkel, her ‘spiritual mother’ who was part of another congregation called the FCC Provincial Home. In his judgment acquitting Bishop Franco Mulakkal of rape, judge G Gopakumar has called Sister Lissy, the prime witness in the case, an unreliable one. The judge bases it primarily on three grounds: Sister Lissy knew about the alleged rape in 2014, however she did not seem to know about subsequent incidents. (The survivor nun alleged that Franco raped her 13 times between 2014 and 2016). The judge also questioned why both the survivor and Sister Lissy did not speak up till 2018. But the most damning piece of evidence, according to the judge, is a letter that Sister Lissy wrote to her Mother Provincial General on February 5, 2019 in which she uttered a few ‘lies’.
Speaking to TNM, Sister Lissy says that she is shocked that her letter was used to discredit her and the survivor. “I clearly told the judge the reason I wrote the letter, why has he not believed me?” she asks.
From the time the survivor went to the police with her complaint against Franco, Lissy says she was under pressure from her convent to not become a part of the case. “When the police asked for my statement in September 2018, I was scared. Towards the end of that month I got pneumonia and was admitted to a hospital in Hyderabad. In October, I secretly met the police who had by then come to Hyderabad and gave my statement.”
Later, the police also asked Sister Lissy to record a statement before the magistrate. This time, too, she went to Kerala on the pretext of taking part in a prayer and recorded her statement.
“However, I knew that I should inform my superiors, else I was worried what would happen to me. I was also reading in the news how Sister Lucy Kalapurakkal was being treated by the FCC. When I informed my senior, she told me to give in writing. Since I did not want to invite their wrath, I made up a story that two policemen, whom I had seen on TV, had asked me to give a statement and therefore I did,” she recalls. Sister Lucy Kalapurakkal had faced the church’s wrath for speaking against Franco. She was given several warnings for her ‘lifestyle’ and ousted from the church in 2019.
Sister Lissy also points out that she felt protective towards the survivor nun who was like a daughter to her. “If people in the church knew that she was violated, they would not allow her to continue as a nun, so I added in the letter that she wasn’t violated. I just wanted to protect her. None of us want to leave our convents, this is where we have lived and where we intend to live till our death,” she says.
But did the Sister not realise that her letter could be used in court? “I didn’t know all this. I thought since I had told the police and the magistrate the truth, the letter I wrote to the convent for my survival did not matter. When advocate Raman Pillai (Franco’s lawyer) held up that letter in court, I was devastated. I was upset that my privacy had been violated, that Franco could even get his hands on a letter I gave within my congregation,” she says.
Judge Gopakumar notes in his judgment that “it is not proved that the accused had any role in the internal matters of FCC provincial house”. However, the judgment raises no questions on how Franco and his lawyers were able to procure an internal letter which FCC had demanded from Sister Lissy.
Sources in the prosecution told TNM that in its appeal in the High Court the team would highlight that Sister Lissy’s explanation – that she wrote the letter in order to avoid being expelled from her congregation – has not been considered at all by the judge.
“I came to the convent when I was 19 years old. This is my world. I thought that a statement to the magistrate would be considered final. The survivor nun did tell me about the rape. The judge has taken my letter into account, then why has my statement before a magistrate been disregarded?” she asks.