Two days ago, several news reports said that Bishop Franco Mulakkal, who is accused of sexually abusing a nun in Kerala between 2014-16, is likely to be reinstated. The reports said that this is because the Vatican is ready to accept the verdict by Kottayam Additional district court judge G Gopakumar who acquitted the Bishop in the case. This happened after the visit of Archbishop Leopoldo Girelli, the apostolic nuncio to India and Nepal, to Jalandhar, where he reportedly said that the Vatican will go by the decision of the lower court and that Bishop Franco is “innocent and free of all charges”.
However, India has an appellate system where a trial court is only the first rung. Further, the nun as well as the state of Kerala have appealed against judge Gopakumar’s verdict in the high court, which has been accepted. Advocate Vrinda Grover points out, “Then, there is the Supreme Court as well. This means that the matter will not be considered concluded till the highest appellate court does not give a verdict if the case is with them. The Vatican would have to await the judgment of the final appellate court before making its decision.”
Meanwhile, sources in Jalandhar as well those in the know of the case and in touch with the nuns say that this is false propaganda being spread by pro-Franco groups.
Sister Dorothy, a member of With the Nuns, a group that is supporting the survivor nun and others in their legal fight against Franco, also asserted that there is no move to restore Franco to his position in the church. She acknowledged that source-based reports claiming that the Vatican had accepted the lower court’s decision were shared with them. “However, when I got in touch with the people in Jalandhar, they denied that there was any such move. Even if the Vatican accepts the lower court’s verdict, it does not mean Franco is being given a clean chit. There are pro-Franco groups in Jalandhar and Kerala who want to portray it that way. The Vatican will not reappoint him till the case is pending with the higher courts,” Sister Dorothy said.
The Kottayam court’s judgment itself came under significant criticism for being regressive, ignoring significant pieces of evidence and testimonies, and disbelieving the nun because she did not fit the “ideal victim” mould, among other things. “These criticisms make the appellate stage even more crucial,” Vrinda pointed out. “This case is also not just about a fight or a quarrel; these are serious allegations of abuse of power, authority, and repeated sexual assault,” she added.
Brinelle D Souza, Chairperson, Centre for Health and Mental Health at TISS, and a feminist activist, said that even if the nuncio has said that Franco is “innocent” as per the lower court, he is stating facts. However, the context of gender justice in the court is a larger one, and should be taken more seriously when statements like this are made. “The nuncio should also have said that the matter is under appeal, because if someone is acquitted at the trial stage it does not necessarily mean that they are free from guilt. This could send out the wrong message to the people. The church needs to be careful about the nuances of the case. While it is good that the Vatican is acknowledging the judicial process of the country, they should be mindful that everyone is watching this case closely, and therefore nuance and sensitivity should be exercised when commenting on it,” Brinelle said.
Brinelle also noted that there are two perspectives from which the developments need to be looked at. One, that of gender justice within the church, and two, within the context of rising communalism in the country. “It is important for the church to be transparent about dealing with gender-based violence and injustice within the institution. And unless sensitivity and nuance are practised, the issue could be co-opted by the right wing in the country, given the vitiated atmosphere. Then it won’t remain about gender rights, but become about minority rights,” she said.
“It should also be remembered that criminal courts are required to gauge the forensic evidence and decide on an offence based on if it is proved beyond reasonable doubt. But this is not the case for the Vatican – it is undeniable that there are complaints by a nun of multiple instances of sexual assault over a period of three years. The present Pope has also categorically stated that the church will no longer look the other way if sexual abuse allegations are made against the church. If they reinstate Franco before the matter is legally concluded at the highest court, it would not give people the confidence that sexual abuse in the church is being addressed,” Vrinda said.
Sister Dorothy added that despite claims about what the nuncio said during his visit and denials of the same, he does not have the final word. “The nuncio has not analysed the verdict of the lower court like many of us have, so he may have been just stating the facts. However, the approval for Franco’s reinstatement, if at all, needs to come from the Vatican, which should ideally go by the law of the land,” she said.