Kerala nun rape case: The Church is patriarchal, men are fully protected, says ex-World Church Council member

Even if the Churches in India don't hold Franco Mulakkal responsible, he is accountable to the Vatican. The Pope is watching, says Dr. Aruna Gnanadason.

Greeshma Kuthar October 03, 2018 15:17:37 IST
Kerala nun rape case: The Church is patriarchal, men are fully protected, says ex-World Church Council member

Editor's note: This is a multi-part series that investigates sexual abuse in the Church and the institutions that it runs. Articles in the series 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.


Dr. Aruna Gnanadason has served as the executive director for Planning and Integration in the General Secretariat of the World Council of Churches (WCC) at Geneva, before which she was the coordinator of the Justice Peace and Creation Team and of the Women's Programme of the World Council of Churches. Gnanadason speaks to Firstpost regarding her work on addressing violence faced by women within the Church and how the task of dealing with the systemic nature of such abuse is far from easy.

Can you tell us more about your book, No longer a Secret: The Church and Violence against Women?

I wrote this book at a time when the World Council of Churches was pushed to talk about sexual abuse because there had been an incident of rape on the eve of the inaugural Assembly session of the WCC in 1991. An Orthodox Priest from Eastern Europe raped a young Canadian woman. Both of them had come to attend the assembly. This incident shook the very foundation of the WCC. I walked into the WCC the same year. When I moved to Geneva to be a part of this organisation, the first task that I had to address was: what is the WCC going to do about this? I had been working on women's movement for years in India and I went with a very strong critique of the Church.

The church is one of the most patriarchal institutions in the world and the violence against women which happens within the Church is usually met by silence from the Church. This is why my book was called 'No longer a secret'. Till then, only women and that too, a few, would talk about abuse. But after this incident, we came to the conclusion that this isn't a women's issue. This is an issue for the Church. Everybody had to get involved.

Was there reluctance on the part of members of WCC, like we see in present day cases?

Absolutely not. Everybody was determined to address this incident. Policies were put into place to ensure that those working with the WCC were protected. The pastor was summarily sent back to his home church, which is considered as a disgrace. The victim was urged to file charges but she chose not to. We supported her in the ways she wanted us to. This is how my life started in the WCC.

Wasn't it difficult though, talking about the violence within?

Kerala nun rape case The Church is patriarchal men are fully protected says exWorld Church Council member

Dr Aruna Gnanadason met Pope Francis as part of the Ecumenical Delegation of the Reformed Churches.

It was, but I straightaway insisted that we talk about violence against women in the Church. Many were speaking about violence out there, but they could not handle the discussion when the violence was being perpetrated within the institution. Firstly, we organised mock courts where we had women testify on violence they faced in the church. This was an exercise to familiarise those who have lived through the experience of an abuse within the institution. Secondly, we tried hard to deconstruct the theology women are taught. Often, the suffering of women is equated with how the Christ suffered and died on the cross. They are asked why they can't bear it when Jesus did. In the same decade, the story of an Indian woman from Madurai shook the state of Tamil Nadu. For seven years, a Church elder beat her while she worked for him and she suffered in silence. He went on to marry her sister and would abuse them both. Finally, her brother involved local organisations and the local police to get them out of the house. Theologically, women are brainwashed into believing this notion of suffering, that this is what God has called them to do and that they shouldn't challenge any kind of violence, as they've been put in their places to suffer. We did a lot of work to challenge these value systems and the attitude of the Church.

Did it help change the mindset?

It is difficult to gauge. Despite of what we started back then, till today you have women tell you that this is a life they accept. Suffering is seen as redemptive. Especially within the Catholic Church. Jesus dying on the cross is portrayed to have this element of salvation to it. Most of the nuns within the Catholic Church grow up with these images, of how they should bear suffering. It is their duty to do so. Whether we take the case of the Jalandhar nuns of the Catholic Church or the smaller establishments referred to in your series, the abuse faced by women within the Church is justified in this manner. Women are made to believe that they should be silent within the framework of the Church. My mother used to tell me that the priest at our Church is God's representative. She used to get really worried if I spoke up against them. This is the culture. This is the systemic way of keeping oppression intact. It is not a thing of faith; it is what the Church believes things should be.

How do you challenge the gender roles within the Church?

We have terrible stories in the Bible. Feminist Theologians have been unravelling them by calling them 'Tales of Terror'. These are stories of rape by brother, fathers and others in positions of power. The stories are in the scriptures and it is time the Church spoke about them. There must also be a great attention given to how we bring up our children. One of the questions that my grandson was asked in Sunday School recently was, "How many wives did King Solomon have?" Instead of telling what was wrong with King Solomon, we are asking our children about the number of his wives. This sort of message is constantly going to boys, that there are things they can do and things they cannot do. This is women's work and so on. The other day my grandson happened to mention something on the lines of, "Amma can't do this!" I asked why. He said, "Because she is a woman".

He is not even 5 and he is the son and grandson of two strong feminists. He has picked it up from all over - popular culture, TV and even the church.

This title No longer a secret is prophetic for the times we live in. The nuns coming out is sort of representative of this. Did you expect this to happen sooner though?

The fact remains that little has changed since 1997 within the Reformed churches, the non-Catholic denominations. Yes, more women are ordained and women are in leadership positions and we even have one woman Bishop here in India. That is all very cosmetic. The institution remains patriarchal; there has hardly been any change. That is where we are stuck. I was in the top leadership team within the WCC. The men meet over a drink and make their decisions and they just inform the women. I had to toe their line in order to survive there. That is why I left after 22 years. If the woman is a feminist in that space, there is no space for her.

You went to the Vatican recently. You've met the Pope. What was the experience like?

We went as a part of an Ecumenical Delegation of the Reformed Churches, on how we as Christians must work on the principle that justice is at the heart of the faith. When I met Pope Francis he held my hand, and it was a very warm handshake. I wanted to tell him to listen to the women of the Church. But I couldn't get myself to say it. I regret not saying it. Just before I went to the Vatican, I had heard that the Pope had suggested the setting up of a Women's Commission.

See, we need to understand that the Vatican is worse than a State. They have commissions for everything and only commissions take decisions. It is very hierarchical. Pope Francis is himself a justice oriented, liberation theologian and I am told that he is trying his best to bring about reform. So, I asked a question to this young Priest who was accompanying and taking the delegation around the Vatican in order to provoke him. I asked him about the proposed Women's Commission and whether the Pope will listen to the decisions of the women in it. The Priest told me with a straight face, that no such commission is in the offing and the Pope makes such statements from time to time.

They won't materialise. The Vatican is huge and powerful, with vast amounts of wealth and known for its power struggles, palace intrigues and so on. For instance, this Sisters letter to the Vatican, I am sure it was stopped from reaching the Pope, by those within the hierarchy. But still, the message about this struggle did reach Pope. The Nuncio of India was called. A conclave of Bishops has been scheduled for February 2019.

How has the ICWM supported the survivor nun?

ICWM accompanied the survivor nun at every step. As soon the issue became public, we attempted to contact the apostolic nuncio to India Archbishop Giambattista Diquattro but were told he had left the country.

What she has gone through is earth shattering. Just think about this woman. Can she go back and be an ordinary sister in her ministry? Impossible. The senior nuns decided not to take her side. It is such a mess. The five nuns who stood by her side, showed that women could break all expectations and do something like this. The Sister who is the survivor herself could do this because of the inspiration of her family. Her family, especially her brother, believed her and backed her.

Her family stood by her and urged her to take it to court if required. But look at Franco. He has broken every vow. He is no longer a celibate and his congregation hasn't denied this. But the congregation continues to consider him one among them. That is how strong men within the institution are, devoid of ethics and still completely protected. Even if the Churches in India don't hold him responsible, he is accountable to the Vatican. The Pope is watching. The reputation of the Vatican has hit such a low note that they've no other recourse but to take action, which they will.

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