The Kerala Catholic Bishops' Council (KCBC) on Monday issued a press note in the aftermath of the arrest of Jalandhar Bishop Franco Mulakkal, who was accused of raping a nun multiple times between 2014 and 2016. Criticising the priests and nuns who stood in solidarity with the survivor nun, the KCBC said that these protestors were not in 'keeping with the Christian values, rightful interests of the Catholic Church and even the statutes of their religious congregation.'
This is not the first such statement from a church body that is problematic, for various reasons. TNM is going to look at the important arguments in the statement, and analyse it.
‘Don’t tarnish image’ – but what has the Church been doing?
The press note states that the judgement in the case should not be impaired by pressure from any corner, and no attempts should be made to tarnish the image of the accused or the complainant.
"Since the case is sub judice the KCBC thinks that it is not right to comment on the truth and falsity of it. At the same time, the further enquiry and the trial of the case should take place impartially and without pressure from any corner… We pray that full justice take place in this matter. It is not to be forgotten that any conscious attempts at tarnishing the person, honour and the dignity of the complainant and the accused are not in keeping with justice and fairness."
This statement, ironically, is in direct contradiction to the actions of the Church prior to the arrest of the Bishop.
The accused – a powerful leader of the diocese of Jalandhar – was only arrested three months after a complaint was filed by the nun at the Kuravilangad police station. It further took 14 days of protests by the five nuns who were backing the survivor, and hundreds of other supporters (some even went on a hunger strike) for the police to summon the Bishop and question him, leading to his arrest on Friday.
Meanwhile, attempts to tarnish and silence those who supported the survivor nun were made by different sections of the Catholic church. On September 13, the Missionaries of Jesus congregation, to which the complainant belongs, revealed the identity of the survivor with her photograph and a statement which attempted to prove the innocence of the Bishop. According to the sisters, the authorities within the congregation even actively discouraged other nuns from attending the protest.
‘Separate the accused from the institution’ – but why is the institution backing the accused?
The second point made in KCBC's letter alleged that vested interests were attempting to disrupt the order of the Catholic church.
"We should be vigilant about those who try to put down the Church on account of an accusation against a single individual. When a reputed Indian journalist was accused of a sexual offence by his own female colleague and he was jailed no one went ahead accusing all media personnel. When a minister in Kerala had to resign on account of a similar accusation no one pointed their finger against all the ministers and politicians. So also when a Supreme Court Judge was accused of a similar case, because of which he had to resign from the chairmanship of the State Human Rights’ Commission, no one had attacked all the judges of the Supreme Court nor the judiciary in toto. Now as an accusation of sexual molestation is raised against a bishop of the Catholic Church some with vested interests and some sections of the media have taken it as an occasion to implicate the Church and the bishops as a whole, without even having the investigation completed,” the statement says.
The Catholic Church has been in the dock worldwide for harbouring and protecting sexual offenders without providing victims (women and children) with a mechanism to seek redressal. In a public statement, the protesting nuns have even said that they had spoken to several authorities within the Church regarding the issue, but their attempts were futile.
Unlike sexual offence in other institutions, be it the media or the judiciary, where workplace harassment laws are in place, the Church itself has no organisational guidelines on dealing with harassment, rape or other offences. This is because the institution believes the clergy to be servants of god, who commit no sin (which is clearly not the case). This makes it hard to detach the institution from the rape-accused individual. The only way to ensure this is to scrutinise the way the organisation itself is structured and bring about reform.
At this point, it is also clear that the Church has put its weight behind the rape-accused Bishop, but has not lent any support to the survivor, who is also a part of the institution. This calls for sharp criticism against the Church for its biased and bigoted stance on the issue.
‘We did everything by the book’ – really?
"The KCBC had also let it known that it had requested the Church authorities to act at the earliest possible upon the complaint registered by the nun. Yet as the complaint of the nun was under the consideration of the police and the court, it was not right from the part of the Church authorities to hastily act upon the same matter. At the same time without waiting for the conclusion of the police enquiry the Church authority has acted by withholding Bishop Franco Mulakkal from the administration of the diocese of Jalandhar. Hence when the nun made a complaint appropriately towards the Church authorities due redressing action has come without delay. Therefore the argument that the nun did not get justice from Church does not stand," the statement claims.
The survivor nun, her family and the other nuns have produced enough evidence to expose this lie. In the last two years, they have approached many authorities within the Church, and have even written letters to the Archbishop, the Nuncio and the Vatican.
“Legal redressal was the last resort after we exhausted all possible ways to settle the issue within the congregation. We spoke to the Kuravilangad church vicar and requested him to remove us from the Diocese of Jalandhar. He, in turn, asked us to speak with the Bishop of Pala, who sent us to Archbishop Alanchery. We even wrote letters to the Vatican Nuncio in India, but received no response from them. In the meantime, the survivor was being abused verbally and psychologically by the Bishop,” Sister Josephine, one of the nuns who was protesting, told TNM.
Following the police complaint, several attempts to hush up the case were made by authorities within the institution. In a leaked audio tape, Catholic priest James Erthayil was heard bribing the nuns with land to get them to withdraw support to the survivor. The Church failed to take cognisance of this issue and address the offenders.
‘Rightful interests of Catholic Church’ don’t include nuns’ safety?
"Whatever the reasons were, the fact that some priests and nuns agitating in the streets giving occasion to the enemies of the Church to attack the Church and the Church authorities and to disdain even the sacraments, has caused much pain to all who love the Church. We hope that the members of the Church and the public will recognize that their action was not in keeping with Christian values, rightful interests of the Catholic Church and even of the statutes of their Religious Congregation," the statement by the spokesperson of the KCBC concluded.
The 'whatever reason' as the statement frivolously mentions is a serious charge of rape. And the statement betrays the real interests of the KCBC – the image of the Catholic Church, and not justice.
Should the ‘rightful interests of the Catholic Church’ not be that the nuns – who are part of the Church – can live without fear of sexual abuse? Should not their values dictate that the survivor is heard and action is taken against the Bishop, if and when he is found guilty?
Instead, the KCBC has made it clear that they have a problem with the protesters, and not with the accused. And that in itself exposes their ‘neutral’ stand that they claim to be professing.