Pope Francis’s four-day conclave last week in Rome, to address the issue of rampant sexual abuse in the church, was billed as a landmark event. As senior church officials from all over the world flocked to the Vatican, there was hope that the church would — this time round — offer more than empty reassurances.
Outside the gates of the conclave, hundreds of survivors of abuse, rape, assault stood waiting, as also the children of "celibate" priests, who wanted some form of acknowledgement or recompense for the trauma they had endured.
In Kerala too, survivors of sexual abuse perpetrated by members of the clergy awaited the outcome of the Pope's conference; perhaps he would address their problems as well? The nun who has accused Bishop Franco Mulakkal of rape had written to the Pope over a year ago, asking for help with her case. Then there was the minor girl who was raped by her parish priest in 2016, and then gave birth to a child that he claimed was not fathered by him. A DNA test and a police investigation resulted in the priest being imprisoned. In both these cases, the Church in Kerala had stood by the perpetrators rather than the survivors. Would this change after Pope Francis' conclave?
India has a population of over 24 million Catholics who form 2.3 percent of the population, as per the 2011 Census. However, the issue of sexual assault by the clergy is rarely spoken about in public. Although there have been a couple of tell-all books written by nuns who left their convents, the church in India has not found it necessary to probe the issue in depth or set up any self-regulatory mechanism.
Now, the issue has come to the fore. Kerala, which has the largest population of Catholics in the country, also produces the largest number of priests and nuns. And it is here that the problems are surfacing.
The incidents which triggered this unrest have been extensively reported — the rape allegations against the powerful Bishop Franco Mullakal (who was arrested, then released after three weeks on bail, when the nun who had accused him filed a police complaint) and the rape of the minor by the (now convicted) parish priest.
In the Bishop Franco case, the nun had appealed to the church for help before going to the police. She found herself ostracised by the church; now she and the handful of sisters who stood by her have held fast against the lack of institutional support. The case of the parish priest included some sordid attempts to silence the minor survivor.
Older nuns are now slowly beginning to speak out about the harassment they faced when they were teenagers and novices. They had stayed silent thus far for a number of reasons. Some cited the importance placed on chastity as a reason for not speaking up. A nun who had been sexually assaulted by a priest when she was in her teens had complained to a senior in the church about the incident. She says she was advised to "keep away" from the priest, and was responsible for protecting her own chastity. Others had to stay on in convents despite suffering abuse because they were financially dependent on the church and would face social boycott if they left.
Church officials — who are mostly male — euphemistically term sexual assaults “rarest of rare transgressions” and say their prevalence is exaggerated by the media.
Survivors, however, now want zero tolerance for the problem of sexual abuse and full protection from the church. They do not want to be deprived of their livelihoods or face social boycotts, when they are not the ones at fault. As one nun said: “I came here because I wanted to serve God and the people. Why should I leave because someone else misbehaves with me?”
The papal conclave ended with vague promises of concrete measures and special programmes. For the survivors in Kerala, this means nothing — except a continuation of their trauma and uncertainties.
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Updated Date: Feb 28, 2019 09:35:23 IST