Kochi, Nov. 23, 2018: Featuring the photo of Bishop Franco Mulakkal of Jalandhar on the official calendar of Trichur archdiocese for 2019 is seen as the prelate’s clout in his home state of Kerala.
Bishop Mulakkal, who is accused of raping a 44-year-old member of the Missionaries of Jesus congregation under his authority, is now out on bail.
The court has forbidden the prelate from entering Kerala except to appear before the investigating officer once in two weeks.
The calendar, which is published by the Catholicasabha, the mouthpiece of the archdiocese, features pictures of all bishops hailing from the archdiocese. Bishop Mulakkal’s photo appears in his birth month of March.
The move has not surprised those supporting the survivor since it is in line with the patronage the Church has extended to Bishop Mulakkal. It had allegedly tried to cover up the crime and shield the accused when the nun complained to the Church authorities.
When the nun moved the police after failing to get justice from the church, the supporters of the bishop tried to influence her and the witnesses by offering money and institutional protection. They also threatened the nun and resorted to character assassination when she did not yield to the pressure tactics.
While some witnesses have bowed under pressure, a prime witness has died under mysterious circumstances leaving the case weak. Activists who are still standing behind the survivor are now being intimidated. The Church is even trying to remove a senior priest belonging to Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese, who has been spearheading a movement to bring justice to the nun.
Father Augustine Vattoly, who heads the Save Our Sisters (SOS) action council, has been served with a notice to explain his actions allegedly against the Church.
The notice was served by Jacob Manathodath, the apostolic administrator of the archdiocese, after the priest led a protest at the state capital of Thiruvananthapuram on November 14 demanding cancellation of the bail granted to the bishop and a timely investigation into the death of Father Kuriakose Kattuthara, the prime witness in the case.
The SOS has been demanding cancellation of Mulakkal’s conditional bail in the light of the continuing threats to the rape survivor and the nuns supporting her as well as and Bishop Mulakkal’s failure to hand over his laptop that investigators believe could provide key evidence in the case.
The bishop, who has been maintaining innocence, has missed two deadlines given by the police. The police believe that the device could support his defense if he is innocent as he claims.
However, Bishop Mulakkal has been reluctant in handing over the computer to the police. Meanwhile, the bishop’s office has informed the police of its inability to hand over the laptop, saying that it can’t identify the particular laptop as all devices in his office were upgraded recently.
Though the last deadline passed on November 5, the police have not verified the claims so far. SOS leaders believe that the bishop would produce the computer if the police initiate the process for cancelling the bail.
They feel that the reluctance on the part of the police could be due to pressure from politicians supporting the bishop.
Earlier, the police and the government were heavily criticized for their delay in arresting the bishop. Though the nun had lodged the complaint in June, the police arrested him only after the nuns hit the streets in Kerala.
Leaders of SOS feel that the government may have tied the hands of the police since the bishop is highly influential not only in the Church but also in the political establishment, which has its eyes on the Christian vote bank.
Political leaders are overwhelmed by the open support extended to the bishop by the Church and its various organizations. The Church continued the support even after the police found him prima facie guilty and arrested him.
While bishops and priests made a beeline to the jail where he was lodged after the arrest, special prayers for the accused were organised in many churches across the state.
The support grew after the bishop was granted bail by the Kerala High Court. People waited in large numbers outside the jail to see the bishop come out of the prison. He was also given a hero’s welcome when he went to Jalandhar.
Official bulletins of various dioceses in the state and even outside came out in support of the bishop. Many of them reprimanded the nuns and priests who led the protests for the arrest of Mulakkal.
Christward, the official bulletin of Jalandhar diocese, alleged that the arrest was due to pressure from the media. The bulletin described the situation after the bishop’s arrest as ‘the suffering church’.
The Missionaries of Jesus, to which the rape survivor belongs, has also been consistently backing the bishop. The congregation claimed that the nun who raised the rape allegation against Mulakkal was in an ‘illicit relationship’ with one of her relatives, and accused the bishop for ‘acting upon the complaint’ lodged by the relative’s wife.
They condemned the protest by five nuns seeking justice for the rape survivor saying they were trying to destroy the church. A delegation of nuns from Jalandhar even met Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and accused the police of arresting the ‘innocent’ bishop without any reason.
Meanwhile, Church authorities have defended the publication of Bishop Mulakkal’s photo on the calendar saying that it was printed since he remains a bishop who was temporarily relieved of his pastoral responsibilities.
Joseph Thaliyath, former chief editor of Catholicasabha, said that printing pictures of bishops belonging to the diocese in the calendar was practice followed by the magazine for a long time.
He said that the publication could not omit Bishop Mulakkal as he is still a bishop.
“The positions and titles in the church are not like that of people’s representatives and officials which cease to exist once they demit office. The position of the clergy remains the same as long as they are alive. They cannot be removed even if they are suspended or dismissed from the service,” Joseph said.
The magazine, he says, could not remove the picture of Mulakkal also because he is still an accused. The magazine cannot consider him guilty unless a court of law convicts him. Joseph alleged that the media that raked up the controversy is ignorant of the rules and procedures followed by the church.