By Jacob Peenikaparambil
TV channels in India have been beaming since September 8 the visuals of five Catholic nuns and their supporters demanding justice at a sit-in before the High Court in Ernakulum, Kerala.
The demonstration has become a huge embarrassment to Catholics and a scandal to all faiths. It may the first time in India that nuns have protested publically against a bishop on account of sexual abuse. The failure of the Indian Church leaders to resolve a serious issue that erodes and corrodes the Church’s credibility is a sad commentary on its governance system.
Why is the Church leadership that speaks of zero tolerance against sexual abuse so lethargic to take action against a bishop accused of raping a nun even after nearly 80 days?
In her June 28 police complaint, a 46-year-old member of the Missionaries of Jesus congregation alleged that she had been sexually abused by Bishop Franco Mulakkal of Jalandhar 13 times between 2014 and 2016. Since it is a congregation under Jalandhar diocese, the has unlimited authority over the sisters.
The nun and her family members had reportedly approached various Church authorities for justice and made recourse to the law of the land as the last resort only after they failed to get any response. They resorted to public protest because of the state authorities’ undue delay in taking action against the bishop. They wanted to draw the attention of the government as well as the Church. The protest has been getting more and more support from the civil society, priests and nuns from other religious congregations.
However, the protest has been used by the media and by vested interests inimical to the Church in India. The Church’s inaction in the case has dented its credibility and moral authority beyond repair. It is also alleged that the survivor, her associates and her family members are harassed tremendously. There are also allegations of bribing the survivor and her associates and even threat to their lives.
Abusive statements such as the one made by legislator P C George have added to the agony and humiliation of the survivor. The legislator called the nun a prostitute. “Is there any doubt that the nun is a prostitute?” he asked. This kind of behaviour on the part of a lawmaker is a slur on the state that presented itself as a role model to the world in tackling the recent deluge that engulfed Kerala.
The allegations against the bishop are grave and reasonably substantiated not only by the survivor but also by other members as well as circumstantial evidence. In normal circumstances this would attract serious penal action by the state and the ecclesiastical authorities.
According to the media reports Kerala police on August 13, informed the Kerala High Court that their investigations have revealed that Bishop Mulakkal had raped a nun on several occasions at her convent in Kuravilangad in Kottayam district.
The investigating officer, District Superintendent of Police P K Subhash, filed a statement in the High Court that said, “The available evidence collected so far revealed that the accused Bishop Franco committed an unnatural offence and raped the nun repeatedly on different dates from May 6, 2014, to September 23, 2016, against the will and consent of the victim by abusing his dominance over her as Bishop of Jalandhar. The offence was committed after confining her in the guest room No. 20 of St Francis Mission Home, Kuravilangad.”
The Kerala High Court on September 10 directed the state government to file an affidavit detailing the steps taken on the nun’s complaint. The court also asked the state government if it has provided adequate security to the victim and other nuns who are witnesses.
When the sisters of Njarackal convent of Ernakulum archdiocese fought against a gross injustice, the Conference of Religious of India (CRI) and the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) sided with the bishop and the parish priest. The CMC Congregation, to which the sisters belong, tried all kinds of pressure tactics and harassment to dissuade the sisters from their struggle for justice. No bishop from Kerala expressed any sympathy to the struggling sisters. Finally the sisters got justice from the Supreme Court.
History is being repeated in the case of the nuns of the M J Congregation also.
The CRI, which is expected to protect and safeguard the interests of the religious, has miserably failed to take any initiative to resolve the issue. The women and men religious have a prophetic role to play and they are not expected to dance to the tunes of the bishops when issues of justice are involved. The CRI is a collective body of the religious congregations in India. The silence and inaction on the part of the CRI are inexcusable. The Executive Committee of the CRI should have met and asked the Bishop of Jalandhar to step down until he is proved innocent in a court of law.
The silence and inaction on the part of the CBCI vindicate that it is only a decorative body incapable of any intervention when a grave injustice is committed within the Church. The CBCI executive committee should have met and asked Bishop Mulakkal to step down when a serious allegation of sexual abuse was made against him by a nun.
The CBCI and CRI may not have the legal authority to ask Bishop Mulakkal to step down, but they should have used their moral authority. It is a normal practice among the politicians and ministers that when a serious allegation is made against a person in authority he/she steps down and allows the law to take its course. The continuation of the accused person in authority can hamper or adversely affect the investigations.
Bishop Mulakkal would have stepped down if CRI and CBCI had asked him to do so or recommended to Vatican to divest him of his episcopal responsibilities and powers until he is declared innocent by a court of law. Then the entire Indian Church would have been saved from the shame and humiliation it has been undergoing for more than two and a half months. It is very sad that the leaders of these two organizations failed to use their moral power. They should have asked themselves, “If Jesus were here what he would do?” Then they would not have waited for Vatican to act.
The individual bishops in India cannot pass the buck to the Vatican. None of the bishops has shown the courage to ask Bishop Mulakkal to step down. If half a dozen bishops of India had the guts to ask publically him to step down the scenario would have been different.
The religious sisters are the labor force in most dioceses. One of them publically aired her pain and humiliation of sexual abuse by the Jalandhar bishop, but the other prelates in India sadly failed to express their sensitivity and compassion. It needs extraordinary courage emanating from deep pain for a sister belonging to a diocesan congregation to complain against a mighty bishop of sexual abuse. The bishops in India failed their prophetic role and the role of a compassionate shepherd. Keeping silence when one is expected to speak is a grave sin.
The gag order of the Superior General of the Congregation of Mother Carmel (CMC) not to speak for or against the issue and not to participate in the protest by five nuns is a denial of the freedom of expression guaranteed in the Indian Constitution. What she wrote in a circular to the members is diametrically opposed to the prophetic role the religious are expected play in the Church and the society.
“We all know that the issue that happened at Jalandhar diocese are making headlines in the media. We need to pray together for the issue. We, CMC sisters are not going to cooperate with anyone who tries to influence us with regard to this issue. CMC sisters have to be very careful not to talk for or against this issue or spread any message via WhatsApp or participate in any protests. I expect everybody’s cooperation in this issue. May God bless you.”
It seems that the Superior General is not aware of the fact that the issue happened at Kuravilangad in Kottayam district of Kerala and not in Jalandhar. One wonders how such a gag order could be issued without knowing and ascertaining the facts.
The Church in India has to learn some lessons from this sordid episode. It the Church has to be relevant and remain an influential force in the Indian society it should have better coordination and unity among the dioceses irrespective of the rites.
The division of CBCI on the basis of the three rites has emaciated the Church in India. Much of its energy and resources are being wasted for unnecessary multiplication of institutions and competition. The competition among the three rites is a curse to the Indian Church.
As a result the Church is not able to respond effectively to the grave challenges facing the country and the minority communities. The Church in India should not be a victim of the ‘divide and rule policy.’
The CBCI has to evolve a mechanism for conflict resolution and crisis management. Two committees may be appointed for dealing with complaints and disputes. One committee consisting of 70 percent lay Catholic women of high calibre should deal with the complaints of sexual harassment and abuse within the Church institutions and organizations.
Another committee consisting of 50 percent laymen and women and 50 percent priests and women religious should address disputes between the diocese/bishop and religious congregations. These committees should have the right to receive complaints and study them and their recommendations should be implemented by the Executive Committee of the CBCI. The Church in India should assert its rights and take decisions related to its internal matters.
The process of appointing bishops lacks transparency and participation of various sections of the Church, particularly the laity. As a result incompetent persons without integrity could be appointed as bishops. An Electoral College at the diocesan level, consisting of priests, women religious and laity, both men and women, should elect three candidates and the Pope appoint one of them as the bishop of a diocese. As imported bishops sometimes create havoc, this practice may be discontinued.
The administration and decision making process in the Church is to be made transparent and participatory. Money and power can corrupt those in authority in the absence of checks and balances. According to the teachings of Jesus the leaders in the Church are to be servants of the community. Hence they are not masters but custodians and stewards who are to be accountable to the community. Systems and process are to be put in place to make the bishops and priests accountable to the community of the faithful.
The systems and practices within the Catholic Church in India to a great extent are the imperial and colonial legacies. They have nothing to do with Jesus Christ. They need change.
One of the immediate changes needed is relieving the women religious from performing the household chores in the Church institutions like bishop’s houses, seminaries, pastoral centres, parishes etc. Women religious are to be treated as equal partners in decision making in the institutions and organizers where there is collaboration between the diocese and women religious congregations.
Strict norms are to be put in place for starting any new religious congregation for women. The approval for new congregations for women is to be given only after getting recommendation by an expert committee of women of high calibre appointed by the CRI.
(Fr Jacob Peenikaparambil is the president of the Forum of Religious for Justice and Peace, an advocacy group for women religious. The member of the Carmelites of Mary Immaculate congregation could be contacted at email@example.com)