Kerala rape case: Protesting nuns refuse to leave convent; claim transfer order designed to alienate survivor, drive her to suicide

"Our life is in danger" read a placard one of the nuns were carrying while sitting on a protest at the Kerala High Court junction in Kochi in September 2018, demanding the arrest of Jalandhar bishop Franco Mulakkal in connection with the alleged rape of their fellow nun.

The five nuns who led the protests against Mulakkal and the activists who supported them have now begun to feel the fear for real after four of the protesting nuns were asked to leave the convent and comply with an earlier transfer order. Their congregation superior general Regina Kadamthottu had ordered their transfer in May 2018 to four different locations in the country.

File image of nuns protesting in Kochi against the delay in action against Franco Mulakkal .PTI

File image of nuns protesting in Kochi against the delay in action against Franco Mulakkal .PTI

Last year, the nuns took to the streets after the Kerala Police dilly-dallied on a complaint filed by the rape survivor in June 2018. She had accused the bishop of raping her 13 times at the St Francis Mission Home at Kuravilangad in Kottayam district between 2014 and 2016. The nun had approached the police after the church authorities, including bishops and Pope Paul Francis, ignored her complaints.

The four nuns who are currently living with the rape survivor at a mission home under the Missionaries of Jesus Congregation established by the Jalandhar diocese view the transfer order as part of a well-planned attempt to torpedo the case against the bishop who is now out on bail.

“We had launched the protest to ensure justice to our fellow nun. We will not move out of Kuravilangad until we achieve our objective,” asserted Sister Anupama, who has been transferred to Amritsar in Punjab, where the writ of the accused still runs.

The nuns claim that they might not be killed directly but mentally tortured in such a way that they may be forced to commit suicide. The death of Father Kuriakose Kattuthara, a key witness in the case, under mysterious circumstances at Dasuya in Punjab on 22 October confound their fear.

The nuns have not been feeling safe even at the Kuravilangad convent. Three nuns who were brought from Punjab to Kuravilangad in the wake of the protests have taken control of the convent isolating them totally.

“After the nuns from Punjab took charge of the mission home, we are not assigned any duty. They neither talk to us nor allow us to interact with the outside world. They treat us like terrorists. Till the issue cropped up we were active in every sphere of the mission home. We feel caged after we lent support to the rape survivor,” asserts Sister Anupama.

She said that the nuns from Punjab were also trying to obstruct their activities within the mission home. She said that the workers they engaged for setting up a poultry farm and kitchen garden were threatened by the mother general, who is one of the nuns who came from Punjab.

Sister Anupama claims they were enduring the harassment for the sake of the rape survivor. She fears that the mental trauma that the rape survivor is undergoing will worsen if they leave her at this stage.

“Our company is the only relief to her now. We will not abandon our sister in such a precarious condition. We will continue at Kuravilangad at all costs until the case is settled,” asserted Anupama.

Church activists supporting the nuns firmly believe that the actual intention behind the transfer is to torpedo the case. George Joseph, a member of the Joint Church Council (JCC), said that the transfer is part of a larger plan to withdraw all support to the rape survivor so that she either withdraws the case or commits suicide.

Many supporters of the bishop had approached the nuns earlier for a compromise. A priest close to the bishop had even offered 10 acres of land in Kerala and funds to build a separate convent for the six nuns at Kuravilangad if they withdrew the case. The nuns, however, have refused to yield.

The plan to withdraw support to the rape survivor was made after the moves for compromise and even threats failed. Ernakulam-Angamali Archdiocese Apostolic Administrator Mar Jacob Manathodath started implementing the plan by warning Father Augustine Vattoli, a prominent face in the nun’s protests, of punitive action for acting against the Church.

The Mananthavadi diocese in Wayanad district joined the move by banning Sister Lucy Kalappura, who had participated in the nuns’ protest at Kochi, from all church activities including teaching the Bible, offering Holy Communion and even attending worship services.

After the Church was forced to withdraw the ban following widespread protests from the laity, the Franciscan Clarist Congregation (FCC) to which Sister Lucy belongs stepped in by issuing a notice to her to explain her alleged anti-Church activities as a prelude to disciplinary action.

While Father Vattoli submitted an explanation stating his stand, Sister Lucy has ignored the notice to appear before the mother superior of FCC at Aluva and explain her position. In response to the explanation submitted by Father Vattoli, the Church has spared him of immediate action if he steps down from his position in the ‘Save Our Sisters’ (SOS) Forum.

Though the priest, who is the general convenor of SOS, has given up the post, he has clarified that he will continue to support the five nuns and the rape survivor and will also pursue all commitments he has made towards the society.

The decision of the nuns and the priest to defy their authorities have set the stage for a confrontation with the Church. The nun’s rape case has already turned as a rallying point for various organisations of the laity fighting for reforms within the Church.

Most of the organisations have been demanding an end to the authoritarian rule of the Church by bishops and cardinals. They apparently want the temporal powers of the Church transferred to a committee of the laity. A group demanding legislation in this regard has aligned with the nuns’ movement. The support base of these groups has been swelling with each move of the Church in support of the rape accused.

Observers feel that if the Church authorities attempt to take action against any of the nuns or priests involved in the battle for justice to the rape survivor, it may trigger a movement that the Church may not be able to contain easily.

Besides the sexual abuse cases, a land scam at the Ernakulam-Angamaly Archdiocese and several similar scandals in other dioceses have put the Church on the defensive. Church activists, therefore, believe that the Church may not like to escalate the situation by taking action against any priests or nuns. If they do, it may plunge the Church in Kerala into its worst crisis in the history.

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Updated Date: Jan 18, 2019 16:39:06 IST

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