By Flavia Agnes
Mumbai: The Church in India is facing some serious challenges, both external and internal.
At one end is the shocking news of “missing babies” from an adoption center in Ranchi, “Nirmal Hriday,” run by the Missionaries of Charity (Mother Teresa’s sisters as they are popularly referred to).
The news channels are having a field day blowing up the controversy to the hilt and inviting politicians with a stated anti-minority bias in order to sensationalise the issue and inviting nuns and bishops to cross swords with them in order to provide dinner table entertainment.
The number of missing children keeps changing each day and as per each channel, from 250 to four to just one and again to 58 and so on.
I myself have been invited to be in some of these discussions where the panellists belonging to political parties have not only blamed nuns of financial irregularities by “selling babies for a price double that of what is provided under the Central Adoption Resource Authority (CARA) guidelines,” but extended this to selling babies into sex trafficking or even further, to conversions, a favorite preoccupation with Christian-bashers.
Subramanian Swamy has gone public with his demand that the Bharat Ratna conferred on Mother Teresa should be revoked (posthumously) and her Nobel Peace Prize similarly withdrawn.
The matter is serious and needs to be investigated thoroughly, beyond the political rhetoric. An employee and a nun are arrested and they seem to have confessed. But there is a need to go beyond that and get to the root of the problem so that it does not recur in other adoption centres.
The concern is that the Child Welfare Committee (CWC), which is a quasi-judicial body set up in every district with a mandate to regular checks, lapsed in their duty of due diligence. Only when a news story breaks out they spring into action.
In Maharashtra, when the high court-appointed committee conducted checks, it came to light that not only there are gross irregularities in state-aided homes, but there have even been murders and gross sexual exploitation of physically and mentally challenged children. Many of the homes are run by politicians.
Instead of focusing on systems which failed, the focus seems to be on Catholic nuns and on Christian institutions, feeding into the current anti-minority political sentiment.
This concern is expressed by Bishop Theodore Mascarenhas, Auxiliary Bishop of Ranchi, as well as Cardinal Oswald Gracias, head of the highest Catholic authority, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI).
But even while this controversy has been raging, the Church is also rocked by an internal problem — sexual abuse of women and nuns by priests and bishops. At least 13 priests belonging to either the Roman Catholic or the Syrian Orthodox Church are facing police enquiries.
The latest in this series is the complaint filed by a senior nun a few days ago, that Franco Mulakkal, Bishop of Jalandhar, raped her 13 times since 2014. This is not the first time that allegations of sexual abuse have been made by nuns or by other women against priests. But since a bishop is involved, the issue has become of great concern. The bishop has responded by saying that this is a retaliatory by her since he himself has filed a complaint against the nun and family members for blackmailing him.
Sexual abuse and humiliation which nuns and others who serve in Church institutions are subjected to has been spoken about in hushed tones. There have been some instances of nuns leaving the religious order, and speaking or writing about their experiences of humiliation and sexual abuse. But most often the victims do not talk about it for fear that they will be ostracised since the institution of priesthood is extremely powerful.
Cases of abuse by preachers and heads of mutts and dargahs also get reported periodically. The convictions in the Ram Rahim and Asaram Bapu cases are recent examples. One of the first cases that the Majlis followed under the then newly-enacted law of child sexual abuse was by a maulana in the central suburbs of Mumbai.
But within the strictly controlled Catholic Church structure it is possible to bring in remedial measures to address the abuse. But the Church authorities have dragged their feet in bringing in a policy for protection of vulnerable people associated with Church institutions. In this setting, the alleged sexual abuse by the Jalandhar bishop was a time bomb waiting to explode.
There is an unequal power equation between priests and nuns and also women in general. Church institutions are steeped in patriarchy which is difficult to dislodge. Religious women (nuns) do not have the power to manage Church affairs or Church institutions. These continue to be male bastions.
Change is extremely slow and women continue to be treated as subordinates and handmaidens at the service of the male hierarchy. Within such lopsided power structures, it is not surprising that women are abused. Very little rights discourse takes place within these institutions.
Where the victims/survivors are concerned, there is apprehension that their superiors will also not support them and a complaint may result in the complainant having to leave the convent, and she may not even get social acceptance outside.
But this time, the victim nun has withstood the pressure. When her initial complaints were ignored, she boldly approached the police. Sadly, the Church’s stand has been evasive and Catholic news bulletins have put out a narrative blaming the victim. The bishop has asked several lay people to write letters supporting his stand and making the nun look like a manipulator.
In view of the mudslinging that has gone on since she filed the complaint, some Christian women activists and associations of various religious orders, including the Indian Christian Women’s Movement (ICWM), the Conference of Religious India (CRI) women’s section, and the Forum of Religious for Justice and Peace, have written letters to the Pope and the cardinal that the bishop should be relieved of his religious duties to facilitate a fair and impartial investigation.
The letters stated that people’s faith in the credibility of the Church to implement its policy of zero tolerance in abuse matters would continue to erode if the accused bishop remains in his position at the Jalandhar diocese.
It would be interesting to see how both these cases will pan out in the coming months, but it is important that investigations are conducted in a fair and unbiased manner.
[Flavia Agnes is an Indian women’s rights lawyer with expertise in marital, divorce and property law. She has written and published numerous articles on themes of minorities and the law, gender and law, law in the context of women’s movements, and on issues of domestic violence, feminist jurisprudence, and minority rights. Since 1988, Agnes has been a practicing lawyer at the Mumbai High Court. Along with Madhushree Dutta, Agnes is the co-founder of MAJLIS, meaning ‘association’ in Arabic, “a legal and cultural resource centre” that campaigns for and provides legal representation for women. Since its inception in 1990, the center has provided legal services for 50,000 women, and counseled three times as many.]