Church and sexual abuse: Catholics, State have been silent for too long; Kerala rape must cause Vatican to act

Editor's note: This is the first in a multi-part series that investigates sexual abuse in the church and the institutions that it runs. The articles that follow rely on interviews with victims, abusers, those accused of abuse, church elders, parish members and state officials to examine the role of the three institutions that are critical to the issue: The Church, the community, and the State.

Whenever there is a report of sexual abuse that comes to light in the media, everyone sits up and gets outraged. It is fashionable to fantasise cutting off and/or pouring acid over the private parts of male perpetrators and predators. Calls to hang them and skin them alive become hashtags and trends on social media. Once we have done that enough times in our heads, we feel we have addressed the issues and quietly go about our everyday lives.

That is why the case of the five nuns, who have come out in protest and made themselves vulnerable to a highly self-opinionated and judgemental public, is a watershed moment with no parallel hitherto anywhere in the world. At a time when sexual misconduct by the clergy has rocked the Catholic Church in the US and elsewhere around the world, and the packed closets of decades of abuse have been tumbling out, India is seeing its own closet moment.

Five nuns of the Missionaries of Jesus have been on protest for over 10 days against the rape of one of their own, a 44-year-old nun who was no less than a former Mother-General. This means that she was not a fledgling novice, but was someone with power and authority within her order. The complainant says that she was raped 13 times between 2014 and 2016 by Bishop Franco Mulakkal in his room, whenever he visited the order during that period. The order to which the nuns belong comes under his direct authority. Her oral complaints to her Mother Superior and written complaints to others in the hierarchy did not have any redressal.

So, she filed a 114-page police complaint in June this year. The police had summoned the bishop for questioning only once since the complaint, and no action other than that has been taken against him. The power structures both within and outside the Church have been quick to condemn the nun who lodged the complaint and remarkably threw their weight behind the accused bishop in being neutral to be "read" as taking his side.

All the above information is in the public domain.

Nuns on protest in Kottayam, Kerala, seeking Jalandhar Bishop Mulakkal's arrest for rape. Firstpost/TK Devasia

Nuns on protest in Kottayam, Kerala, seeking Jalandhar Bishop Mulakkal's arrest for rape. Firstpost/TK Devasia

The issue having been highlighted has become a topic of national debate on a wide variety of platforms. Although the matter has been under the spotlight, what is more remarkable, and not entirely surprising is the silence of the wider public on the matter. The reasons are many. For whom do the alarm bells ring? None. Over the years, the reporting on sexual violence and abuse has been something that we have grown to hear about with increasing frequency from all quarters. We have heard of rapes on the streets, in moving buses, cabs, during communal clashes, against Dalit and Adivasi communities perpetrated by a higher caste, gangrape, child rapes, rapes of orphans in State-run shelters, academic institutions, gay rapes, incestuous rapes, marital rapes, custodial rapes, rapes in institutions for persons with disability and so on.

The rape of a nun did not exactly create outrage for the larger public. It just expanded the territory of the crime. In fact, very few such reports ever cause public outrage and resultant swift action by the authorities. In the case of the repeated rape of the nun, unfortunately more people are inclined to take the case of the bishop rather than the nun. The reasons are many. The alleged assaults happened a few years back. Once is rape, but 13 times? Why did she go to his room? How could a Man of God do such a thing?

According to a 2005 report, there were 17.3 million Catholics in India, and the vast majority of them have been silent. The only people making some noise are a few feminist movements. The reasons for the silence are many. Many are of the view that it is an internal matter for the Church to clean its dirty linen. People of faith within the Church believe that retribution will come from above, so it is alright to let the bishop go scot-free at the moment. He will be ultimately punished if guilty.

Some people would like to hush up the matter or stay silent, biding time until this blows over and dies a death of amnesia in the public arena. For them, this tragic episode — even if untrue — hurts the reputation of the Church, which is already under a cloud of several issues, corruption being chief among them. The Church is slowly but surely losing its place of prominence as a moral authority. The rape incidents does little to help its image. Self-preservation always trumps efforts to administer justice. Every time.

Politically too, there is resistance on the part of the State to intervene, due to vote bank concerns. Or so it is believed. But the reasons may be more complex than that. Men will defend other men even when they are separated by ideology, party, colour or race. Power will come to the rescue of power in order to keep the status quo. Have we not seen politicians of every hue always taking the side of evil corporations and powerful banks? MLA PC George calling for a virginity test of all the protesting nuns is a classical example of how men of power will shield other men in power. The police force is predominantly men and therefore, its reluctance to act.

Sexual abuse whether within the Church or outside of it should concern us all. The power dynamics that create and perpetuate the crime are universal. Inequality is the solid rock upon which the structures of society are built, and the Church is not exempt from it. Rape is just a manifestation of this inequality. Unless the Church and the society of which it is a part address the structural gender inequality at all levels, we will continue to hear incidents more brazen than these from all sides.

There are three kinds of sexual harassment: Gender-based, unwanted sexual attention and sexual coercion — all of which are widely prevalent. One leads to the next in a vicious cycle of violence. While the cultural narrative focuses on rape, most of us will not even register or protest an act of gender-based harassment which is far more prevalent. They occur every day in every space. A missed opportunity, a slight, an insult, a humiliation are far too common to report. How many times have woman lost out on a promotion, equal wages, learning opportunities or been asked questions on their competence, simply because of their gender?

How often are women asked to make the coffee or clear the plates in an office space? That is no big deal. Often women have to work harder to prove their competence. Their work and contribution often goes unrecognised. They have to try harder to get approvals from their superiors for even trivial things that men get effortlessly. Because of the power differential, women learn to suffer in silence. Women are conditioned to ‘put up’ with, ignore or minimise such harassment. Research from all over the world accumulated over 30 years shows that sexual harassment and abuse is more likely to occur in environments that are male-dominated and where hierarchical relationships exist in the institution.

The Church is a classic example of a predominant, if not all-male, leadership with a strict hierarchy where women are vastly outnumbered within its power structure. The nuns are isolated from the world outside by design. The culture of the Church is tinged with misogyny and male privilege. A report in Women Church World, dated March 2018, published in conjunction with the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, published the testimony of a nun identified as only Sister Cecile, which is very revealing.

She said that the generous service and obedience of nuns led to them being exploited and underappreciated. She described how nuns were often chosen to provide the domestic services of cooking, cleaning and laundering for cardinals, bishops, parishes and other church structures with little or no financial compensation to their religious orders, no contractual arrangements and no formal work schedules — the sort lay people would have. This according to her and other sisters who were interviewed leads to situations marked by ambiguity and often great injustice.

A lack of recognition or respect is also a problem, as their work is considered less valuable or appreciated than that of consecrated men. In the report, a Sister Marie asked how a priest can let a religious woman serve him his meal at a table and then “let her eat alone in the kitchen once he has been served”. They remarked how religious women and nuns almost always end up as the domestic workers for the consecrated men. A Sister Paule stated that assignments do not always take advantage of a woman’s qualification, explaining that there were sisters with doctorate degrees in theology, who were assigned cooking and cleaning jobs ‘without explanation’.

Sisters often keep quiet and say they are happy due to their vows of poverty, obedience and loyalty to their order, but experience great confusion and deep discouragement. Interestingly, most priests do not take a vow of poverty. Not only do the priests wield more power but also considerable wealth within its institutions. It is obvious that the male hierarchy and patriarchy is at the root of the problem.

For all the faltering progress that most institutions have made over the past century with regard to gender parity within its ranks, the Church has been the last to catch up. Mary Magdalene was a close friend of Jesus', and Phoebe was a leader of the early church, but we are yet to see a woman cardinal in more than 2,000 years of the history of the Catholic Church. The wings that have begun to flutter in Kerala are sooner or later bound to create repercussions in the Vatican.

Also Read

Church and sexual abuse: Pope has never done much about these incidents, says ex-nun Mary Chandy

The author is a paediatrician and a public health expert. She is also part of the Indian Christian Women's Movement (ICWM).


Updated Date: Sep 17, 2018 16:25 PM

Also See