Kerala rape case: Despite Jalandhar diocese PRO's letter confirming ouster from convent, protesting nuns remain defiant

Five nuns from Kuravilangad Convent fighting for justice for their fellow nun, who was allegedly raped by Jalandhar bishop Franco Mulakkal, hoped the diocese would help them to bring out the truth in the case when they received a letter from the apostolic administrator. Agnelo Rubfino Gracias wrote four days ago to assert that they will not be ousted from the current convent as long as they are needed for the court case pending in Kerala.

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Bishop Agnelo Rubfino Gracias' email. Firstpost/TK Devasia

Their hopes were dashed soon after when diocese public relations officer Father Peter Kavumpuram, a trusted lieutenant of the rape-accused, came out with a clarification saying that the apostolic administrator had no power to intervene in the administrative affairs of their congregation and, therefore, the transfer order issued by its superior general will remain in force.

When the nuns questioned the authority of the priest to override the decision of the apostolic administrator, Kavumpuram claimed that he had issued the clarification with the nod of the former. The nuns, who belong to Missionaries of Jesus, a congregation founded by Jalandhar diocese, have viewed this as an indication of the writ of Mulakkal still running in the diocese.

Gracias, a retired auxiliary bishop emeritus of Mumbai, was appointed as apostolic administrator by Pope Francis on 20 September, 2018 after he received a request from Mulakkal before he proceeded to Kerala to appear before the police to be temporarily relieved of his pastoral responsibilities in the diocese.

The nuns had written to the bishop on 16 January seeking his intervention against the transfer of four of the five nuns who were in the forefront of the protest, demanding the arrest of Mulakkal. They had termed the transfer of the nuns, who lived with the rape survivor, to different locations in Punjab, Jharkhand, Bihar and Kerala as part of an attempt to split them and sabotage the case.

The administrator said in his reply to the nuns that he was surprised and dismayed at seeing the letter issued to them by Sister Regina Kandamthottu, superior general of their congregation. "I am giving a directive to the superior general that she will not issue any letters to the five of you without my explicit permission," Gracias said in his email adding that the Church wants the truth to emerge.

Hours after the email was made public, the PRO issued a clarification, saying even though the congregation of Missionaries of Jesus is of diocesan right, the internal running of the congregation is left to the superior general and her council.

"The Bishop of Jalandhar does not normally interfere unless the overall interests of the church demand such interference. By this clarification the apostolic administrator has not interfered in the internal affairs of this congregation. Therefore, the order issued by the superior general last year to the nuns to return to their rightful communities is not cancelled but stands," Kavumpuram's statement said.

Father Peter Kavumpuram's clarification. Firstpost/TK Devasia

Father Peter Kavumpuram's clarification. Firstpost/TK Devasia

The nuns have rejected Kavumpuram's statement and asserted that they will continue to stay in the Kuravilangad convent with the rape survivor till the case is over. "We believe that Gracias is the apostolic administrator of the Jalandhar diocese. But when we see the kind of statement being issued by the diocese PRO, we doubt whether Mulakkal still wields power in the diocese," Sister Anupama, a representative of the protesting nuns, said.

The nuns and the activists supporting them suspect the hand of Mulakkal behind the statement. Their suspicion stems from the fact that the Missionaries of Jesus has been batting for the bishop ever since the rape survivor lodged a police complaint in June last year saying that he had subjected the nun to rape 13 times between 2014 and 2016.

As soon as the nun had approached the police, the congregation set up an internal probe commission, which eventually declared the bishop innocent. The probe report said that the victim along with the five nuns had conspired against Mulakkal and framed him with wrongful intent.

After the bishop was arrested in September, 2018, a delegation of the congregation met Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan and said that the police investigation into the rape allegation was biased. Later, they observed a fast as an act of penance for the congregation being responsible for the arrest of the bishop.

A convention organised by the Save our Sisters forum. Firstpost/TK Devasia

A convention organised by the Save our Sisters forum. Firstpost/TK Devasia

The congregation had in November asked the Kerala police to shift the rape survivor and the five nuns to government run shelter home citing lack of financial resources to ensure their protection.

Contrary to this, the supporters of the bishop had offered crores of rupees to the nuns to bury the case. A priest close to the bishop had offered Rs five crore and 10 acres of land to the nuns to withdraw the case.

Mulakkal, who has established hundreds of institutions, including a construction firm, across the diocese, wields huge command over not only the Christians but also the political establishment in Punjab. His power extends beyond Punjab too.

The activists backing the nuns point to the failure of the Church to act on numerous complaints filed by the rape survivor before she moved the police as an indication of the influence he maintains over the top hierarchy in the Church.

The delay made by the Kerala police in arresting the bishop after the nun lodged a formal complaint on 29 June, 2018 is also seen as a reflection of the influence he wields over politicians in the state.

The police acted against the bishop three months later only after public opinion mounted against the bishop. The Left Democratic Front (LDF) government, that has been running a campaign for the empowerment of women following the Supreme Court verdict over the entry of women of all ages in the Sabarimala temple, has not been sympathetic to the nuns.

The government has been sitting on a representation submitted by the five nuns, who are key witnesses in the case, seeking its intervention to oust them from Kuravilangad for around a month now. The survivor nun had also written a separate letter to the chief minister, seeking his help in the matter, saying the aim behind the move to oust the five nuns from Kuravilangad was to single her out and to harass and torture her. She had expressed the fear that her life would be in danger if such a situation arose.

The National Commission for Women had also written a letter to the chief minister urging him to ensure the protection of the nuns. The "Save our Sisters Forum", formed to support the nuns in the case, had organised a convention at Kottayam on 10 January seeking the government's immediate intervention against the move to shift the nuns from Kuravilangad.

With the Jalandhar diocese refusing to acknowledge the apostolic administrator’s order to the congregation not to shift the nuns without his permission, the nuns pin their hopes on the government. However, activists are skeptical about getting justice from the government at a time when the ruling front is trying to get Christian support in the coming Lok Sabha election.

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Updated Date: Feb 11, 2019 13:28:31 IST

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