Franco Mulakkal features in Kerala church calendar: Open support for rape-accused shows bishop's influence remains intact

The featuring of the photo of rape accused former Jalandhar Catholic bishop Franco Mulakkal on the official calendar of Thrissur archdiocese for 2019 has not raised any eyebrows in his home state of Kerala.

Mulakkal, who is accused of raping a 44-year-old nun from Missionaries of Jesus congregation under his authority, is now out on bail. The prelate is forbidden by the court from entering Kerala except to appear before the investigating officer once in two weeks, but he is kept in the prayers of faithful Christians by the Thrissur diocese by including his picture in its calendar.

The calendar, which is printed and published every year by the Catholicasabha, the mouthpiece of the archdiocese, features pictures of all bishops hailing from the archdiocese. Mulakkal's photo appears in his birth month of March.

The 2019 calendar of Thrissur diocese features Franco Mulakkal. Image courtesy: TK Devasia

The 2019 calendar of Thrissur diocese features Franco Mulakkal. Image courtesy: TK Devasia

The move has not surprised those supporting the survivor since it is in line with the patronage the church has been extending to Mulakkal. The church had tried to cover up the crime and shield the accused when the nun from the Kuravilangad convent in Kottayam district took her complaint 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 the survivor 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.

Fr 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 Manthodath, the apostolic administrator of the archdiocese, after the priest led a protest at the state capital of Thiruvananthapuram on 14 November demanding cancellation of the bail granted to the bishop and a timely investigation into the death of Fr Kuriakosoe 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 the 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 defence if he is innocent as he claims.

However, 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, sayin that it can't identify the particular laptop as all devices in his office were upgraded recently.

Though the last deadline passed on 5 November, 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 polie and the government were heavily criticised for their delay in arresting the bishop. Though the nun had lodged the complaint in April 2018, 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 organisations. 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 a fellow nun 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 Mulakkal’s photo on the calendar saying that it was printed since he is still a bishop despite the fact that he was temporarily relieved of his pastoral responsibilities by Pope Francis in September.

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.

The pictures of the prelates are published against the date of birth or their feast day. He said that the publication could not omit Franco 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 was raking up the controversy without knowing the rules and procedures followed by the church.

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Updated Date: Nov 23, 2018 15:20:33 IST

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