Kerala nun rape case is India's 'Spotlight' moment: Role of State more important than ever in this battle with Church

The Oscar winning film Spotlight looked at the investigation into child sex abuse by priests of the Catholic Church, and how the Church when told about these crimes, rather than take action tried to cover them up, sending the priests to new parishes where they could continue unchecked abuse. India has her own Spotlight moment.

It has been over two and a half months since a nun filed a FIR alleging that Bishop Franco Mulakkal of the Roman Catholic Diocese (Jalandhar) had raped her over a dozen times in the last two years. The news caused shockwaves in the church, the Catholic community, and in society at large. Since then, there have been other nuns who have come forward with accusations of abuse by the same Bishop. Since the 29 June, when the nun filed the charges, the police has been investigating the case. Given the organisational might of the Church, the investigations are moving at a snail’s pace. After a protest by others nuns on the inaction on this issue, the Kerala High Court has directed the police to submit an action taken report.

 Kerala nun rape case is Indias Spotlight moment: Role of State more important than ever in this battle with Church

Representational image. Reuters

In the meantime, the intimidation of the survivor has begun. She is a survivor on multiple levels. At the first level is the sheer case of the power differential between the Bishop of Jalandhar and the nun. In a strictly hierarchical organisation like the Church, the gap between a Bishop and a nun is huge. Female nuns, in any case, are not thought to be equal to male priests. And, this translates to how secular criminal justice system views the two. The nun has already been interviewed by the police 10 times, the Bishop only once. And, there is a tremendous inertia in moving the case ahead.

This difference in power has an even more devastating consequence for the nun as a member of an organisation — namely the Missionaries of Jesus, a Roman Catholic order for women. She has been vilified by her own organisation. And, there is the entire organisational might of the order against her. The Missionaries of Jesus have come out in support of the Bishop, calling him an ‘innocent soul’; and saying they were ashamed of the protesting nuns.

Just to emphasise the point, the Missionaries of Jesus are a female order, that are supporting a powerful man accused of rape, while shaming the survivor. At the third level is the public abuse and intimidation, by powerful men close to the Church. Recent comments by Poonar MLA, PC George comparing the nun to a prostitute brought him a rebuke from all sides. But, the damage is done. Survivor shaming is an old game in rape cases, and the powerful use it well to their advantage.

This story has been played out many times on national and international media. A powerful man with powerful friends, made all the more powerful by the backing of organised religion, in this case the Catholic Church versus the powerless survivor of sexual assault — either a child or adult. The tendency for the rich and powerful to make a deal among themselves to protect their own, and sweep the victim under a carpet is huge. But, that does not serve the interests of justice.

And, this is where the State comes in. The role of the state in a democratic, secular, republic, is to protect the rights of the individual, not of organisations or cabals of the powerful. And, this is where the State needs to act. This is not a Church matter. It is not up to the Church to exile or reassign the Bishop. It is a state matter. And, it is necessary for the state to act. Rape is a crime and the punishment for this has to be meted out by the criminal justice system.

And, this is what is meant by being truly secular. Truly secular is not giving a free pass to all transgressions by senior members of organised religion. Truly secular is ignoring those affiliations in the pursuit of justice. The state must become blind to the religious associations of the survivor and the accused and look at it as a case where the Indian Penal Code has been violated, and rights of a citizen have been trampled upon; and work in the interests of the survivor to deliver justice. And, therefore in the interests of justice, the Bishop needs to be treated not as a member of a powerful organisation, but as any man accused of rape. And, that means him being arrested for the crime. This is what the state needs to do. The big question is whether it will have the courage to do what is right.

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Updated Date: Sep 11, 2018 13:29:02 IST