Why Bishop Franco Mulakkal was acquitted, even though no witnesses turned hostile

The court considered the statements by main witnesses either contradictory or unreliable.
Franco Mulakkal
Franco Mulakkal
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The judgment acquitting Bishop Franco Mulakkal of raping a nun strikes at the foundation on which the prosecution appears to have built the entire case. When the matter went to court four years ago, it was widely believed that the sheer number of witnesses who had turned up to testify against the bishop would weigh in favour of the complainant. But that was far from what finally happened.

A total of 39 people – a majority of them nuns from the Missionaries of Jesus convent in Kottayam’s Kuravilangad where the alleged assaults were committed – stepped forward as witnesses in the case. And although none of them turned hostile, their testimonies were dismissed as either unreliable or ill-motivated by Kottayam Additional Sessions judge, G Gopakumar.

Dismissing the female clergy en masse as power mongers, Judge Gopakumar observed that “The in-fight and rivalry and group fights of the nuns, and the desire for power, position and control over the congregation" is evident in this case.

The judge was also not satisfied with the explanation provided for seeming inconsistencies in the statement of the star witness in the case, Sr Lissy Vadakkel. She was the first person the victim approached for help in 2014. While in her statement to the Kottayam police, Sr Vadakkal backed the allegations of her colleague. However, In a letter to another senior nun, Sr. Alphonsa Abraham, Sister Lissy claimed that she had been forced by the police to testify against Bishop Franco. This appeared to weigh heavily on the judge’s mind as he dismissed the clarification by Sr Lissy that she wrote the contradictory letter fearing a backlash from the church establishment for going to the police.

The judge also felt that the statements of Sr Neena Rose and Sr Anupama, who were listed as witnesses three and four, were not consistent with statements made by the survivor. The prosecution said that in September 2016, the survivor-nun had attended Fr Xavierkhan Vattayil’s session at the Meditation Center at Attapadi, along with Sr Anupama and Sr Rose. Noticing that she was looking disturbed and had spent an inordinate amount of time delivering her confession to Fr Vattayil, the two companion nuns asked the alleged survivor if she was alright. According to their statements to the court, the two nuns said that this was the ocassion when the survivor told them that Bishop Franco had raped her multiple times since 2014. They said that she also told them that she was not able to stop the accused from visiting her convent.

But the court observed that another statement of the survivor contradicts this. In her statement to the police, the survivor had said that she did not tell the companion nuns she was raped, but just said, "When bishop comes I will have to sleep with him." A TV interview of Sr Anupama, in which she says the same thing, was also quoted in the judgment to cite the contradictions.

Speaking to TNM, the investigating officer Inspector General Harisankar said that there was no abnormality in contradictions in statements as the incident happened years ago. "The contradictions are natural when the witnesses speak truth out of their memory. Since this incident happened years ago, they spoke out of their memory, they haven't recorded it anywhere. When these contradictions are considered, its context has not been considered," the officer said.

He also said that the survivor did not use rape at first because she did not know the difference between, rape, sexual assault or harassment. "The section will differ in all these but a nun might not know that much legality," he added. Sources in the prosecution team told TNM that the survivor was also reluctant to reveal details even to her companions, as that would mean that she would be ousted from the church for losing her virginity.

Importantly, the survivor did not initially reveal anything about penetrative rape to the doctor who examined her. "She did not reveal any history of penile penetration to the doctor," the court observed. Moreover the first medical report has said "No penetrative sex accoring to victim."

Speaking to TNM the investigative officers said that being a woman who joined a nunnery at the age of 15 and as somebody who places a lot of emphasis on her chastity, the survivor was extremely hesitant in the initial period to reveal that there had been penetrative sex.

Survivor's cousin Meena* and her complaint

A crucial section that went against the complainant and led the defense to cast aspersions on her character is that in 2016 the survivor's cousin Meena (name changed) filed a complaint with Sr Regina, the superior general of Missionaries of Jesus, claiming the survivor and Meena’s husband Ravi (name changed) were having an affair.

In court, however, Meena clarified that she wrote to Sr Regina out of spite after she quarreled with Ravi over a series of messages he sent the survivor. The prosecution also said that the complainant and her brother had confronted Ravi about the messages. Yet, the court dismissed Meena’s statement in the court by saying that she could not have lied in her complaint to Sr Regina as she is a respectable person. Judge Gopakumar observed, “But it is doubtful whether a lady of the stature of Meena who is a teacher by profession would malign the reputation of her own husband, who is a lawyer practicing at the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India, for a silly verbal brawl..." While in Sister Lissy’s case, Judge Gopakumar was not willing to accept her explanation that she was forced to write the letter for her own survival, in Meena’s case the judge maintained her complaint was not fake, even though she said it was.

The court also said that the survivor is hiding certain facts. "This is a case in which the grain and chaff are inextricably mixed up. It is impossible to separate the grain from the chaff. There are exaggerations and embellishments in the version of the victim," court said.

The judgment also goes on to note that disciplinary action was taken against the alleged survivor based on Meena’s complaint. The prosecution’s argument – that the disciplinary action was taken at the instance of Bishop Franco because the survivor refused his advances – did not convince the judge.

PW5 Praveen

The prosecution listed another key witness, a taxi driver named Praveen, who helped the survivor escape the convent. It said that in December 2016, when Bishop Franco allegedly informed the victim that he would be visiting her at the convent, her companion Sr Neena arranged for Praveen to arrive at the back gate of the convent and drive her away. However, the bishop did not arrive on the designated day and Praveen’s booking had to be cancelled. On the day when the bishop did arrive, Praveen refused the job and demanded to know the reason for the mysterious assignment, the prosecution said. Sr Neena had no other option but to reveal the alleged threat from the bishop.

Though Praveen confirmed this sequence of events, the court did not find his statement reliable. “It is very difficult to believe the version of prosecution that a nun would openly disclose to a taxi driver that a bishop is threatening another nun to share a bed with him. One must remember that the witnesses have taken all pains to keep the secret," judge Gopakumar observed.

Another major failure according to the judge was that the police could not find the phone to which the bishop allegedly sent messages to the victim. The investigation officer told the court that the mobile phone was disposed of by some scrap dealer and they couldn't trace it. The laptop used by the survivor was also not produced before the court. It is to be noted here that even Franco’s phone was not submitted by the defense to disprove allegations that he sent her messages, the defense said that his phone had been disposed of. 

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