Kerala nun rape case: Catholic Church's unwillingness to back survivor shows it still places the powerful above powerless

The Catholic Church in India does not seem to have received the Pope's message.

Naveen Nair September 27, 2018 19:35:37 IST
Kerala nun rape case: Catholic Church's unwillingness to back survivor shows it still places the powerful above powerless

On Tuesday, on a visit to the Baltic states, Pope Francis acknowledged that the sex scandals rocking the Catholic Church are driving away believers. He added that the church had to change if it has to keep future generations. The Pope's comments might be a result of a high-impact report detailing decades of sexual abuse and their alleged cover up in Germany. But the Catholic Church in India does not seem to have got the message.

Kerala nun rape case Catholic Churchs unwillingness to back survivor shows it still places the powerful above powerless

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

On the same day the Pope called for introspection, the Kerala Catholic Bishops’ Council (KCBC), the state arm of the Catholic Bishops’ Council of India (CBCI)—the highest governing body of Catholic Bishops in the country—sent out a press release unequivocally lending its support to the rape accused priest Franco Mulakkal and even expressed its apprehension whether the bishop will get “a chance to prove his innocence.

The KCBC defended its actions. “There are a lot of issues behind this matter. It is easy for a third person to ask why we are not supporting the victim. But being a decision making authority, we can only take an equidistant approach,” KCBC spokesperson Reverend Varghese Vallikkatt said. Though the KCBC attempted to walk a fine line—saying if the allegations are proved correct, the accused should be punished—its tone is decidedly 'anti-survivor'. The organisation has also denounced the protesting nuns, calling it an attempt to ‘tarnish the church’.

The nuns aren't surprised. The Save Our Sister (SOS) Action Council, which spearheaded the protest, reacted sharply to the KCBC note. “It is not the nuns who took to the streets for justice that brought disrepute to the church, but the people who continue to shield the accused and not stand by the survivor who are actually bringing shame to the church and its legacy,’’ a statement from SOS said.

On Tuesday, Pala auxiliary bishop Jacob Murikkal, visited Mulakkal at the Pala sub jail. Mulakkal has been remanded in judicial custody till 6 October. The auxiliary bishop would not have made such a visit without the knowledge or direction of the top brass, which sends a pretty clear message. The KCBC defended the visit, saying the church has ministries for jails and such visits by bishops and others—working for reformation of criminals behind bars—is routine. But the church failed to acknowledge reports that the auxiliary bishop spent close to fifteen minutes with Mullakal.

Prominent women activists said they are not shocked by the church's stand. “The church is a highly patriarchal institution (like many others),’’  said P Geetha. “You cannot hope for change after just one protest. That is why even after the bishop had been arrested, such institutions find it so difficult to accept it. The church is being exposed because women within the organisation showed the courage to come out into the open.’’ Geetha added that the church's stand, which comes after the nuns put up a brave fight, reeks of 'desperation'.

The church is also seemingly punishing those who stood with the protesting nuns. Sister Lucy Kalappura, who belongs to a church in north Kerala's Thamarassery diocese, is the latest victim. Though she belongs to a church hundreds of kilometers and four districts away from Ernakulam—ground zero as far as the protest against Mulakkal was gathering momentum—Kalappura went all the way there to express solidarity with the survivor.

Kalappura even gave interviews to local television channels in support of the survivor. When she returned to her parish, the Mother Superior ordered Kalappura to stop  performing her duties. Thankfully, things changed after Kalapurra's supporters stormed the church last week, surrounded the priest and demanded that she be allowed to resume her duties.  “Apart from taking bible classes and other duties, I have been actively involved the parish community and its believers,’’ Kalapurra said.

“It is this relationship with the common man that they wanted to break by placing these restrictions. They are aware that I always stand with what is right. But by God’s grace and support of the believers, it has been revoked,’’ Kalapurra added. However, that's not all. Kalapurra has been harassed and threatened over social media.  A local daily run by a section of the church even openly ridiculed Kalapurra.

“When I went to the protest, I didn't have any particular agenda against anyone. I just wanted to support the nuns. But now I realise I ruffled a few powerful feathers. I know there will be more sanctions against me and I may be harassed. But that does not deter me from doing what is right,’’ she added. This is perhaps the first time that such defiant voices are echoing within the church. Which may be the reason why the church wants to discredit the protest and calls it an attempt to “malign the church’s reputation.’’

Church plays victim card

The KCBC note called the protest “a concerted effort to bring in lawlessness within the church by destroying the discipline therein, obedience to authority and its unity.” The note added, “Some priests and nuns agitating in the streets giving occasion to the enemies of the church to attack the church and the church authorities and to disdain even the sacraments, has caused much pain to all who love the church… we hope that the members of the church and the public will recognise that their action was not in keeping with Christian values, rightful interests of the Catholic Church and even of the statutes of their religious congregation.’’

Reformists feel the church is alarmed and playing the victim card to keep the flock together. “This is a tactic to ensure that the supremacy of a few inside the church remains unquestioned,’’ said George Joseph of Kerala Catholic Reformation Movement (KCRM). “If the nuns and fathers start protesting and the believers join in, their supremacy and control will be lost. That is why there is a desperate attempt to play the victim card.’’ Joseph added that the intervention by believers on the behalf of Sister Lucy is a sign of better things to come.

But not all see such hope. Reverend Augustine Vattoly, a priest-turned-activist based in Kochi, takes these rumblings of reformation inside the church with a pinch of salt. “The church will never change its stand. We've seen it right from the Sister Abhaya murder case. As long as power and money remains in the hands of a few influential individuals, you can't hope for any honest reformation. When Pope Francis took over, there was such hope. He wanted the church to be a ‘church of the poor’. But does anyone listen?’’ asked Vattoly.

That the 274-odd Catholic Bishops across India maintained a shameful silence when the protesting nuns hit the streets stands as a testimony to the power that someone like Mulakkal enjoyed over the years. It is that same power which makes the church reluctant to openly admonish Mulakkal and hail the bravery of the nuns.

Church defends itself

The church has rubbished any notion of being 'anti-victim'. Vallikkatt further said the church only learned of the accusation through media reports.  “See, if there is a complaint of such nature, the concerned person should have submitted it before some higher authority of the church. Do you think action would not have been taken? But they directly took to the street,’’ Vallikkatt added.  When told that the survivor wrote to the church on a number of occasions but did not receive any assistance, Vallikkatt said that complaints only pertaining to administrative duties were received. This is a charge the police refuted even before Mulakkal's arrest.

“As far as we know, the allegations of sexual abuse were made before the police and not church officials. This is very clear. At this moment, we have no option but to remain equidistant from the survivor and the accused,’’ Vallikkatt said. The church also claimed it acted against Mulakkal by moving him out of the post of bishop before his arrest. However, the church did not initiate his ouster. In fact, it was Mulakkal who wrote to the church offering to temporarily step down.


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