Exploitation, trauma and sexual anarchy: Sister Lucy Kalappurakkal and Jesme's stories shed light on a church engulfed in moral turmoil

  • The tell-all autobiography of Sister Lucy Kalappurakkal comes at a time when the church in Kerala is going through a phase of intense moral turmoil

  • Once upon a time, the convents were coveted homes to which parents would willingly send their young daughters

  • Today, the case against Bishop Franco Mulakkal, accused of raping a nun in his diocese multiple times, is dragging on in the courts, along with several others

Karthavinte Namathil (In the Name of Christ), the tell-all autobiography of Sister Lucy Kalappurakkal, has come out at a time when the church in Kerala is going through a phase of intense moral turmoil. The case against Bishop Franco Mulakkal, accused of raping a nun in his diocese multiple times, is dragging on in the courts. A couple of months ago, Father Robin Vadakkumchery was sentenced to 20 years in prison for raping and impregnating a 16-year-old girl who was his student. The five nuns and an administrator who allegedly helped him were acquitted for lack of evidence. The case of the 19-year-old novice Abhaya who was allegedly murdered two decades ago by an older priest and nun is also still being battled in the courts. Abhaya was allegedly killed because she accidentally stumbled upon two priests and a nun who were in a “compromising position”.

Once upon a time, the convents were coveted homes to which parents would willingly send their young daughters to become “Brides of Christ”. Every Catholic family would aspire to dedicate, to the service of Christ, at least one son and one daughter. Middle-class families, as well as those struggling to eke out a living, thought the convents would give a safe refuge to their daughters. To parents from rich families, it was a prestige issue. They would give big dowries to their daughters when they took their vows. They also donated wealth in the form of land to the churches when their progeny entered the spiritual life. Even as the religious calling in the West declined, in Kerala, it flourished. But, after peaking in the 1960s and 70s the decline began. Today, the seminaries and convents in Kerala face shortages.

 Exploitation, trauma and sexual anarchy: Sister Lucy Kalappurakkal and Jesmes stories shed light on a church engulfed in moral turmoil

File photo of Sister Lucy. ANI

“Knowing all that is happening, why would any girl even want to enter the convent?” asks Sister Jesme, the author of Amen. “Why would parents want to send their daughters there?”

Jesme wrote Amen one year after she left the convent inside which she had spent several decades. That was 10 years ago. When she walked out she was the principal of a prestigious college in Kerala. She came out with nothing except a pension she started getting six months after she had left.

Jesme was the first one to speak about something which was not mentioned in public before: the sexual harassment of nuns inside the convents. She had first-hand experience of it. She told me she had entered the convent as a “soft and meek girl of 17”, full of hope and love for the life she had chosen to lead.

“I never once regretted devoting my life to Christ,” says the former 63-year-old nun. “Even today, he is the only one I love. And the one I turn to in my times of trouble.” What she spurned was the hypocrisy inside the convent, she says. “Actually that life changed me. Made me strong. I learnt a lot. I even learnt to say no.”

But it didn’t come easily. Everyone loved her for her softness, but it also meant she was open to all sorts of exploitation. Her superiors would make her work so hard that she had “no time left to pray.” Since she was always conscious that she had taken the vow of obedience she would do as she was told.

“We sisters are so fragile,” she says. “We know nothing when we enter the convent.” Especially, they knew nothing about sex. She tells me of a priest who took her to his room when she was in her twenties and forced her to strip because “he hadn’t seen a naked woman before” and he wanted to feel her breasts. And of a sister who would enter her room in the night and molest her against her will telling her to enjoy the experience of having sex without the fear of getting pregnant. If she complained to her superiors about these incidents, they would tell her to keep quiet as talking about it would bring a bad name to the convent. She wrote about all these experiences in Amen.

Nothing much has changed since then. Ten years later, Lucy too in her book speaks of young nuns being forced by the priests to stand naked before them for hours together even if they begged to be let off. She also speaks of consensual sexual liaisons. “A vast majority of nuns share an intimacy with priests that is against the basic morality of Christianity,” she says. Sometimes the affairs ended in pregnancies. In such cases, the nuns were either forced to abandon their babies or to leave the convent. Priests, on the other hand, continued as if nothing happened. She speaks of senior priests and nuns forcing themselves on younger ones resulting in mental trauma for the survivor. When such survivor nuns are sent to the priests for counselling they are further sexually harassed by the priests themselves, she adds.

Nuns and priests who have taken their vows of chastity seriously can get traumatised by these experiences. As both the nuns have pointed out in their books, the problem is they have nowhere to go and complain. For instance, when Jesme was forced to strip, she says she was told by the priest that he was giving her “training”. It was in a different town where she was a stranger and did not know the language. She was dependent on him to take her to the station where she was to catch a train. She could do nothing but obey.

This also explains why the survivor nun in the Franco episode did not complain earlier. She was in the thrall of the Bishop who was not just her superior but also the founder of her congregation. She had taken a vow of obedience and was obliged to do whatever he ordered her to do. Disobeying him could invite not just ostracism but also punishment. For instance, money to the convent could get cut off and she would be blamed. And so perhaps she submitted to being raped until she could bear it no longer.

Lucy has spoken several times about the need to remove the vow of chastity and allow both priests and nuns to get married. Sexual desires are there in men as well as women, she says, and expecting them to stay “chaste” only creates more problems. Forced “chastity” could result in deviant behaviour where the meek and weak become prey for the powerful.

When monastic life was a life of isolation and outside influences did not penetrate, maybe the archaic vows of chastity, poverty and obedience were easier to enforce. But today neither the nuns nor priests lead cloistered lives. Like everyone else in the outside world, they chat on their phones for hours and have sexual encounters as well. Obviously attitudes have changed and Lucy says she finds nothing wrong with that. Lucy herself invited the wrath of her superiors for breaking her vows of poverty and obedience when she bought herself a car with her own money and refused to obey her superiors when they commanded her not to support the survivor nun in the Franco case.

Expulsion from the convent can also cause financial problems. The money a nun earns goes to the convent which takes care of her maintenance. Even the money or property she brought with her when she took her vows goes to the church and she can never get it back. When she leaves she does not have a right to ask the church for money even for sustenance. Though there is a provision which says that the convent can take a charitable view and offer some pension, Jesme points out that charity cannot be forced and more often than not the women have to find means of survival on their own.

The priests are the ones who collect money for all church ceremonies. Their presence is also essential for every religious ceremony ranging from Holy Mass and weddings to funerals and communions. The power they wield is huge.

Lucy narrates several instances where priests misused this power to humiliate or exploit unwilling young nuns. When a nun went into a priest’s room for training or counselling or was inside his chamber for special confession, she could be touched inappropriately or molested by him and she would have nowhere to go and complain.

Jesme strongly feels that the entire system has gone to rot. All such institutions should be closed, she says, as there is no point in having a congregation when 90 percent of the inmates have no interest in spirituality. “Those who want to lead a spiritual life do not need an institution,” she told me. “They can become ascetics and continue to follow their own paths”.

Lucy writes in her book that most seminaries and convents are centres of sexual anarchy. “The grand churches and structures, built by using funds from India and outside, are just symbols of dishonesty and hypocrisy,” she writes. She feels the system has to undergo a radical change and the way of living has to be normalised and made more in keeping with the times.

Strangely in the midst of all this turmoil, the Vatican has not responded to any of the appeals made by the nuns who have suffered. So who then will stem the rot?

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Updated Date: Dec 06, 2019 13:48:54 IST