Dr Astrid Lobo Gajiwala
The Indian Church is bleeding, and my “holy anger” is now laced with deep sorrow. Did it have to come to this?
Women religious, priests and people from the pews, protesting publicly against the silence of the Indian bishops; leaders of the Missionaries of Jesus, attacking and disowning their own sister to protect a bishop who is the patron of their diocesan congregation.
What is at the root of this heartbreaking division within the Catholic Church in India? In truth, multiple battles are being fought.
n the face of it, a 44-year-old nun, a former superior general of her order, accuses a 54-year-old bishop of raping her repeatedly; the bishop protests his innocence; the matter lands in the courts.
In reality, a woman is challenging the power structure in the Catholic Church that has been in place for centuries, one in which women are on the lowest rung with nuns as the “handmaids” of the ordained men they are expected to serve with total obedience.
The case has uncovered shocking negligence by the bishops in dealing with a serious allegation of assault, and gaping holes in canon law and church protocols and procedures. And it has revealed different and contradictory understandings of the nature of the Church and of what it means to be Catholic.
Unbowed by the silence, inaction and obfuscation of the many different religious authorities – from her parish priest and local bishops to the apostolic nuncio, senior members of the Curia and to Pope Francis – to all of whom she appealed in person or by letter in a year-long struggle to have her allegation taken seriously, the woman finally filed a 114-page police complaint in June this year.
On September 8, seven sisters, five from her congregation, broke their vow of obedience and sat in protest outside the Kerala High Court, calling for the arrest of Franco Mulakkal, the bishop of Jalandhar diocese in the northern state of Punjab. Over subsequent days, the nuns were joined in their protest by more nuns, priests and concerned Catholics, making for an unprecedented demonstration of the divisions in the Catholic Church in India. Meanwhile, from across the seas, “Voices of Faith” and the International Union of Superior Generals (UISG) lent their support.
The nun’s painful journey from one closed door to another has exposed the travesty of what passes for processes of investigation of allegations of abuse and harassment in the Indian Church. There are no effective structures to deal with allegations of sexual assault by priests and bishops. Women have to plead their case to celibate men who make the law, adjudicate it, and execute it; men who belong to the same brotherhood as the accused.
It is not surprising that every cry for help by the nun who alleged that she was the victim of assault was met either with references to protocol and canon law – “this is not a matter for the Syro-Malabar Church, Jalandhar diocese belongs to the Latin Rite”; “the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India can do nothing, only the apostolic nuncio can intervene where a bishop is concerned” – or with silence.
Until recently. After the public protests and widespread local media coverage, the bishops’ conference finally issued a statement on September 15.
It began with an expression of the bishops’ “distress regarding the developments connected to the accusations against Bishop Franco Mulakkal of Jalandhar”. There is no mention of the nature of the allegations or of the nun who has made them. It then goes on to explain their silence – “The CBCI has no jurisdiction in the issue of individual bishops … Silence should in no way be construed as siding with either of the two parties.”
This statement was seen by some as an attempt to create ambiguity about the accusations and display solidarity with a fellow bishop. Whether to read it as an exoneration of blame for inaction or as an admission of guilt for inaction depends very much on where one stands.
A memo of the investigating police officer, dated August 13, concluded that the accused had raped the nun.
The memo was submitted to the Kerala High Court and was in the bishops’ possession. Yet the bishops did not ask Mulakkal to step down pending the results of an inquiry.
No preliminary internal investigation was initiated. He was left free to use his power and resources to garner support in the Catholic community and manipulate the investigation.
According to supporters of the accused bishop, “The nun was a former Superior General, surely she was not so powerless; why did she remain silent for so long?”
Supporters of the nun who alleges she was raped, however, are asking: “How can 160 bishops claim to be powerless; could they not exercise their collective moral authority to get a fellow bishop to step down while an investigation took place?”
As a woman who was closely involved with the drafting of two landmark documents of the Indian bishops’ conference, the Gender Policy (2010) and the Guidelines to Deal with Sexual Harassment in the Workplace (2017), the critical questions for me are, how can the bishops remain neutral when their Gender Policy advocates “zero tolerance” of violence against women, and why did they fail to follow their own Guidelines that mandate gender-just structures, procedures and timelines for addressing cases of sexual abuse?
The answers are in the invisible fine print – the Policy and Guidelines do not apply to the bishops. The bishops claim that they have no authority to take action against a fellow bishop.
The case has exposed a number of serious flaws in the Catholic Church. A culture of silence shrouds the issue of sexual abuse the world over, and India is no exception. Victims fear that they will not be believed, or worse, that they will be blamed for seducing an “innocent man of God”.
The case has also drawn attention to the loophole in canon law that allows bishops to avoid taking action against their fellow bishops, and to the might of the ordained hierarchy, which has unquestioned access to the resources of the Church and can demand the allegiance of their priests and their flock.
It has thrown the spotlight on the subservience of women religious – masquerading as “obedience” – and on the second-class status that the pervasive clericalism of the Church imposes on all women.
Further fundamental questions are being raised among Indian Catholics about the meaning of “being Church”. The bishops, including the accused, and their supporters are regarded as “the Church” while the protesting nuns and their supporters are denounced as “enemies of the Church”.
A line is being drawn between those who believe that the Church must have a prophetic voice, demanding justice not only in Indian society but within the Church, and those who believe that internal dissent and calling the Church’s leaders to account will only harm the Church, especially in the current climate of sharpening Hindu nationalism.
Indian Catholics are torn: do I remain silent about abuse and harassment in the Church in order to protect its image in a largely non-Catholic and potentially hostile society, or do I speak out for the values of the Gospel and seek to cure the Church of its sickness, whatever the cost?
The accused bishop has now been arrested, leaving the Indian Church with mixed feelings – relief that justice will now take its course, and a lingering pain at what it has gone through.
The bishops have issued a statement, asking for prayers for healing: for the accused bishop, first of all, followed by “the nun concerned, the Diocese of Jalandhar and the Congregation of the Missionaries of Jesus”.
It is indeed time for healing and rebuilding in the Indian Church. The credibility of the bishops has been destroyed, and can only be restored if, in future, they are seen to follow their own guidelines for dealing with allegations of sexual harassment.
A good beginning would be to provide the nun alleging that she was raped with practical and spiritual support and to rehabilitate the ostracized sisters who stood by her and protect them against possible persecution.
Immediate steps must be taken to put an end to the exploitation of novices and religious sisters by clergy in positions of power. As Pope Francis puts it: “To say ‘No’ to abuse [the Church must] say an emphatic ‘No’ to all forms of clericalism.”
As the wounded Indian Church limps back to normal I hope that the bishops find the courage to make some hard decisions for reform, and that the faithful find the courage to hold them accountable, for, in the words of St Catherine of Siena, we need to “Speak the truth in a million voices. It is silence that kills.”
[Dr Astrid Lobo Gajiwala is a scientist, theologian and writer. She is an alumna of Voices of Faith, and contributor to Visions and Vocations by the Catholic Women Speak Network, published next week by Paulist Press at £14.99 (Tablet price, £13.49).]