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Tortured, persecuted for stir against ‘rape’: Nuns who stood by survivor

Author: Disney Tom
Publication: The Times of India
Date: January 31, 2019
URL:      https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/tortured-persecuted-for-stir-against-rape-nuns-who-stood-by-survivor/articleshow/67765948.cms

At St Francis Mission Home in Kuravilangad, 22 km from Kottayam and in the Roman Catholic heartland of Kerala, six nuns go about their daily chores, meeting people, visiting the sick, tending the vegetable garden and hurrying to the chapel when it is time for prayers. Yet, beneath the seeming calm, there is a storm.

These nuns are under the threat of excommunication because one of them, a former mother superior in this convent, dared to speak out after she was allegedly sexually abused by Franco Mulakkal, at that time Bishop of Jalandhar, for more than two years from 2014 to 2016. The other five nuns stood by her and bore witness. In the history of the Catholic Church, for a few nuns to turn against their bishop — and, by extension, the Church —was an unprecedented act of courage. Now, they said, they are paying the price.

“Ever since the issue came to our attention, we have petitioned church elders. We wrote to the apostolic nuncio (Vatican representative in India), to Kerala’s main cardinal and to three separate ecclesiastical bodies in Rome, all to no avail. Now the Church is torturing us and are trying to pick us apart one by one,” Sister Anupama told TOI at the Kuravilangad convent.

Five of the nuns have been served notice by the Church, asking them to vacate the convent and rejoin their communities in far-flung parts of the country. There is also the daily dose of insults, innuendo, a drastic cut to their already meagre monthly allowance and the “threat of bodily harm”. They have somehow endured -- with the help of lay organisations, social activists and a handful of vocal priests determined to defy "the Church’s entrenched patriarchy".

One such priest says that what the Church is doing in the Bishop Franco case is incompatible with the teachings of Christ. “According to canon law, the Church has the right to transfer nuns. But law is not everything. Instead of standing by the survivor, they are singling her out,” said Father Augustine Vattoli, a prominent priest in the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, a denomination in communion with the Roman Catholic Church.

Sister Lucy Kalapura, from the Franciscan Clarist Congregation, participated in protests against the accused bishop, including in front of the Kerala High Court. In the months since, she has been issued notices by her convent, accusing her of violating rules of religious life and warning her of the likelihood of an expulsion.

Sister Jesme, a former nun whose autobiography ‘Amen’ exposed alleged sexual exploitation within the Church about a decade ago, said, “Survivors either end up in a home in Canada or a kitchen in some Church-run centre. People are either too trusting or scared to speak out about these atrocities.”

Vattoli, Kalapura and Jesme are, however, rare voices. The Church in Kerala has enormous influence on the laity over theological and ecclesiastical matters. “The Church has a strong organisational structure, maybe even stronger than the communists. Its leaders have good relationships with political parties. So who will speak on issues like these,” said Sunny M Kapikad, one of the state’s leading public intellectuals.

The Church itself has stuck to a strictly juridical line. “Full facts are yet to be available regarding this matter. The nuns’ problems then and now seem to be centred on transfers and postings. No one within the Church would ever face any pressure just because they raise an allegation. But they should be able to prove the charges,” said Father Varghese Vallikkat, spokesperson of Kerala Catholic Bishops’ Conference.

Politicians are playing it safe. Opposition leader and senior Congress leader Ramesh Chennithala said, “These are issues pertaining to a religious organization. I can’t comment on it.”

MA Baby, CPI-M politburo member, was more forthcoming. “Recent incidents raise doubts about whether there is a means within the Church for nuns, priests and the laity to democratically raise their grievances. We need to evaluate whether the Church in Kerala is showing an attitude compatible with the views of Pope Francis,” he said.

Meanwhile, investigation into the nun rape case is almost complete. “We waited for enough evidence before we arrested Bishop Franco (now out on bail). The chargesheet is ready and will be submitted soon,” said Kottayam SP Harishankar.
 
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