Nuns in Kerala seek pension, claim the Church leaves them high and dry in old age

Many tales of harassment and sexual exploitation of nuns in monasteries have come to light recently, but very little was known to the outside world about the true living conditions of the nuns, especially the aged ones.

A plea made by a group of 10 nuns in Kerala for the pension introduced by the state government for unmarried women has filled this gap. The application submitted to the Thiruvananthapuram city corporation by the nuns from St Anne’s convent in the state capital reveals shocking state of affairs in nunneries.

The nuns, all aged above 60, have said in their application that the convent was not paying them enough money to meet their personal needs, including medical expenses. A report in the The Times of India on Tuesday said that the nuns were not being given money even to buy medicines for various ailments they are suffering from.

The national daily quoted Sister Agnes, 63, one of the applicants, as saying that they had moved the application for the government pension, which is Rs 1100 per month now, as they felt it would help them make both ends meet. The nun refused to talk when Firstpost contacted her. She handed over the phone to the convent provincial, who said that the report in the daily was not true. She said that the newspaper had published the news item without taking the version of the convent authorities.

“The nuns have submitted the application for pension not because they are not taken care by the convent. We are meeting all the requirements of the sisters. We sought the pension as we felt that the nuns, who remain unmarried throughout their lives, have a right for it,” the provincial told the Firstpost.

However, a source close to the convent said that the claim was not true. “The nuns, who approached the government for pension, are a neglected lot. Hailing from poor families, they were mostly employed for cooking food, washing clothes and running errands. As they convent does not pay any money for these jobs, the nuns have no personal saving to meet their needs,” the source said.

The source said that the convent authorities were hiding the facts due to pressure from the Church, which is already hit by several scandals. The Trivandrum diocese of the Latin Catholic Church, under which the convent comes, has directed the nuns not to pursue the matter as it will dent its image in the public.

It cannot afford bad publicity at a time when girls are not coming forward to join nunneries. The Church has observed a 30 to 40 percent fall in the number of girls opting for religious vocation. The main reason attributed to this is the shrinking family size and growing career opportunities for women. The Church has been looking towards less developed eastern states to meet the shortfall.

A study on the condition of nuns by Carmelites of Mary Immaculate (CMI) priest Joy Kalliath also adds growing disillusionment with the life in convents among nuns as another key reason. The study found that a large number of nuns in the state was disillusioned with the religious life they opted for when they were very young.

The report of the study published in Sathyadeepam, a Catholic weekly published from Ernakulam, said that the practice of grading nuns on the basis of educational, social and economic backgrounds being followed by nuns has been turning a large number of nuns isolated and disillusioned. “This grading allows nuns from financially well-off families with higher educational qualification get greater influence and better treatment in the convents. Those from the poor backgrounds feel like they are being treated as servants. This has been making them feel sidelined and isolated,” the report said.

The study found nearly 20 percent of about 40,000 nuns in the state were feeling mentally insecure and unaccepted in convents. Five percent of them appeared unsettled in the religious life and felt disillusioned.

The study, conducted in the wake of spike in suicides by the nuns, said that these nuns have been increasingly finding solace in suicides.

Reji Njallani, chairman of Catholic Priests, Ex-priests and Nuns Association, said this was the condition of aged nuns in most convents in the state. “They convents use them as long they are healthy. Once they become old and lose their health, they are discarded,” Reji said.

He told the Firstpost that the condition of professionally qualified nuns, who work in various church institutions and government departments, was also no different. The convents take a major share of the salaries they get. They also takes the pension when they retire leaving very little for their personal needs. “The plight of the priests is also same. They are pushed into priests’ homes or forced to go to their homes when they become old. The families of most nuns do not welcome them as they give the share of the family property to the congregation that recruits the nuns. As they are not trained to lead the lay life, they continue in convents at the mercy of the Church,” he said.

Representational image. PTI

Representational image. PTI

Reji said that majority of such nuns and priests were taking the sufferings in their stride since they have nowhere to go if they quit the vocation. Those who raise their voice against injustice are harassed and tortured. Many of them are branded mentally unstable and lodged in mental asylums.

Reji said that the association of ex-priests and nuns was formed to find a solution to these problems. The association has established an open church in order to help them earn a livelihood. He said that the association was ready to take care of the aged priests and nuns if the Church admits their inability to look after them.

He said it was not fair on the part of the Church to seek the government assistance since it is already given several concessions, including grants for various institutions run by the Church and tax exemption. Government assistance is meant for the poor and the downtrodden. “The Church in Kerala has huge wealth. They build churches costing millions of rupees, but they are not ready to spend even a fraction if it on the priests and nuns who have served it for long. The bishops and priests who control these funds are leading luxurious lives” Reji said.

He has urged the government to order an inquiry into the ill-treatment of aged priests and nuns as it was a clear case of a human rights violation. Meanwhile, the Thiruvananthapuram Corporation has referred the nuns’ application for pension to the government as the rules does not provide for pension to those who have chosen unmarried life on religious grounds.

“The government orders on welfare pension is mum on nuns and sadhvis who lead a celibate life. We have sought the government clarification as we have no powers to include any new category in the pension scheme,” said Geetha Gopal, corporation welfare committee chairperson.

Officials in the finance ministry acknowledged receipt of the application. However, they said that the ministry was yet to take a decision on the plea. The government needs time as the issue will have wider implications, a senior official said. A spokesman of the Trivandum diocese of the Latin Church, under which the St Anne’s convent comes, said that the Church will not support the plea for pension as the nuns had opted for a life of service. He said that the nuns had approached the government without consulting them.

The spokesman said that the nuns might have been misled by some external forces with the ulterior motive of maligning the image of the Church. He affirmed that the Church will not shirk its responsibility in supporting the nuns and priests when they become old.

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Updated Date: Apr 12, 2017 10:49:58 IST

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