Part of a social media post that presented Bishop Franco Mulakkal, who faces trial on rape charges, with Pope Francis on the feast of St. Francis of Assisi on Oct. 3. (Picture: screengrab)
A group of Catholic women in India have launched a campaign seeking the removal from office of a bishop facing rape charges, saying his continuation could mislead Catholics and adversely affect justice.
Sisters in Solidarity, a group comprising nuns and Catholic laywomen, circulated a letter after a social media post appeared on Oct. 4 picturing Bishop Franco Mulakkal of Jalandhar with Pope Francis.
The post extended greetings on the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, presenting Bishop Mulakkal and Pope Francis on either side of the saint's picture.
"This is sending out a wrong signal to the people of the diocese and beyond, especially in his [the bishop's] home state of Kerala," their letter said.
Bishop Mulakkal's trial began in Kerala on Sept. 16, two years after a Catholic nun complained to police that the bishop raped her 13 times from 2014-16 while he visited the nun's convent in the southern state.The nun is a former superior general of Missionaries of Jesus, a diocesan congregation that functions under Bishop Mulakkal.
The women's group said they "are perturbed to see" the greetings on social media post presenting Bishop Mulakkal along with Pope Francis on the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, the second patron saint of the diocese.
Days before police arrested Bishop Mulakkal in September 2018, the Vatican removed him from his administrative roles by appointing an apostolic administrator. But he retains the title as the diocese's bishop and continues to reside in the bishop's house in Punjab state.
Bishop Mulakkal maintains that the nun cooked up the story with malafide intentions after he initiated disciplinary action against her violations of religious norms and financial misappropriation.
However, the Catholic women said the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India (CBCI) has also accorded legitimacy to Bishop Mulakkal by presenting him as bishop of Jalandhar in its 2020 directory.
"These are ways in which both the Jalandhar Diocese and the CBCI are legitimizing" Bishop Mulakkal's "position and projecting his acceptance as bishop," their letter said.
The women's group said they "fear his position as bishop of Jalandhar gives him leverage to intimidate the survivor and the witnesses in the ongoing trial."
Ordinary Catholics are not aware of the technicalities in the functioning of the Church "as they go according to images and visual communications sent to them like the greetings [that appeared on social media]."
Such Catholics tend to defend their bishop "to the intimidation of the survivor and her small band of survivors and witnesses," the group said.
The group was formed to support the rape complainant and five other nuns from the same congregation supporting her. It happened after some members of the hierarchy openly supported the bishop.
The group said they had approached top church leaders seeking to remove Bishop Mulakkal from the Jalandhar bishop's house. "But there has been no action on the part of the Church," they said.
They also blamed the patriarchy in the Church for women not being taken seriously. "The position of women in the Church continues to be second class and subject to the position of the male leaders," they said.
Virginia Saldanha, a Catholic theologian and member of the group, said church leaders must keep Bishop Mulakkal out of the Jalandhar bishop's house "until the court pronounces its judgment, in the interest of justice."
A Jalandhar diocesan priest, who did not want to be identified, denied that the diocese or Bishop Mulakkal had anything to do with the social media post.
"The post is an attempt to create confusion among the people," he told UCA News on Oct. 6. "Someone has used the occasion to target the prelate for nothing."