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Indian bishops should prevent rather than wait for a cure

But does the resignation of a rape-accused bishop mark the beginning of a clean-up operation?
A nun speaks at a protest calling for the arrest of Bishop Franco Mulakkal, after he was accused of rape, in Kochi in the southern Indian state of Kerala on Sept. 22, 2018

A nun speaks at a protest calling for the arrest of Bishop Franco Mulakkal, after he was accused of rape, in Kochi in the southern Indian state of Kerala on Sept. 22, 2018. (Photo: Christopher Joseph/ UCA News)

Published: June 02, 2023 04:02 AM GMT
Updated: July 03, 2023 06:47 AM GMT

The Vatican has exercised extreme care and sensitivity to see it does not create any unnecessary upheaval in the Catholic Church in India in finally removing controversial Jalandhar Bishop Franco Mulakkal, whose arrest, trial, and subsequent acquittal in a case of serial rape of a nun in his diocese had become a global scandal and a deep embarrassment for the Church at large.

The bishop’s arrest in the case was the first such in any denomination in the country, though several bishops, particularly of the Churches of North India and South India have been arrested on charges of embezzling community funds, selling off properties, or graft in educational institutions owned by their dioceses. The CNI Bishop of Jabalpur, subsequently sacked, remains in jail pending trial for amassing wealth beyond his salary.

A trial court in Kerala found Mulakkal not guilty of sexual crimes against a nun of a diocesan congregation of women religious. The Kerala state government has appealed in the High Court to overturn the judgment and to punish the prelate for rape, a charge that carries a long prison term.

The nun, who gave evidence in court, also challenged the ruling. She had filed a police complaint in 2018 accusing him of raping her 13 times between 2014 and 2016. She had submitted a complaint even earlier, in June 2017, to her superiors and the hierarchy, but no action was taken.

The nun also complained she was being harassed by her convent. Rome had turned down her appeals against her convent superiors.

The police arrested the bishop after days of civil protest. The charge sheet was filed in court after a delay of seven months.

"The judgment surprised civil society, as it did the legal fraternity and a sorority of women religious and activists"

The case had become a cause célèbre amongst gender activists and civil society and hogged media headlines and TV eyeballs for months. Street protests were held by women religious and joined in Kerala by other women.

The judgment surprised civil society, as it did the legal fraternity and a sorority of women religious and activists who had joined in solidarity with the complainant. To them, it had become a test case on a law platform as years of complaints of Church inaction on allegations of sexual harassment and exploitation in several dioceses and religious provinces had either been hushed up or ignored by the hierarchy and superiors.

The nun and the bishop were both born and raised in Kerala, which has a politically and economically powerful Catholic community that has given many clergy and prelates to the Indian Church in the 20th century and continues to do so, though in lesser numbers.

The nunciature as well as the apostolic administrator of Jalandhar, retired Bombay Auxiliary Bishop Agnelo Gracias, were technical, precise, and minimalistic in their official statements.

The apostolic nunciature said the resignation was requested by Mulakkal. It was not a “disciplinary measure imposed upon him, but as pro bono Ecclesiae, especially for the good of the diocese, which needs a new bishop.”

The nunciature admitted the issue have had caused divisions in the dioceses. The current Jalandhar administrator was simultaneously reappointed till Rome chooses another prelate.

Mulakkal would retain his ecclesiastic rank and would henceforth be known as bishop emeritus, the title of all retired bishops. Normally bishops retire when they reach the age of 75, without being asked to do so by the Holy See.

In an unusual, even rare, move, Mulakkal, who has shaved off his trademark salt and pepper beard, released a video message in Malayalam, his mother tongue, saying “The Holy Father Pope Francis has accepted my letter of resignation … as I went through a turbulent period over the last few years.”

"It will continue to haunt the Church in India which has not faced the Western ignominy of charges of mass pedophilia"

While the bishop has sought prayers for his future ventures, he has not given any details of what they would be. It remains to be seen whether he will stay in Punjab, or if he will find a home in some parish or institution in Kerala, or perhaps even outside India.

The Mulakkal chapter will be reopened when the case comes up for hearing in the Kerala High Court and may be in the Supreme Court of India. The process may take years, and till it is finally buried in the graveyard of history, it will continue to haunt the Church in India which has not faced the Western ignominy of charges of mass pedophilia in the late 20th century but has its share of allegations of cases being hushed up and victims coerced into silence.

Alas, the papal action will not easily heal the wounds of the diocese. Jalandhar, in Punjab, is among the few dioceses in North India with a healthy and vigorous Catholic population.

They are mostly Dalits, and together with the Dalit Christians of Tamil Nadu and Andhra, are the engine of the legal and social agitation for constitutional rights for those who converted to Christianity from the former Hindu untouchable castes. That case too is before the Supreme Court of India.

A large section of the laity has also long demanded that they be given a bishop of their own community, a demand also voiced by Dalit Christians in many other dioceses.

The future new bishop of Jalandhar will have his task cut out for him — to heal the wounds and rebuild trust and the image of the Church in the eyes of Catholics and the majority Sikh and Hindu population of the region.

The convent too will continue to be in the public gaze for a long time to come. The administrator or the new bishop will have to take a call on the future of this diocesan order which also needs a bit of a shake-up.

The damage to the Church in India, and to the hierarchy, for not taking early action on complaints of gender violence has, however, already been done. 

"These are not the only dioceses where the prelate or senior clergy has been accused"

But the action in Jalandhar, and a few weeks earlier in the case of Mysore Bishop Kanikkadas William who has been sent on leave, may indicate that the Holy See has woken up to critical issues in the Indian Church.

William denied charges of moral turpitude, corruption and breaking his vows. But faced with a growing protest by diocesan clergy and social movements, he was asked to go on leave.

These are not the only dioceses where the prelate or senior clergy has been accused by the laity, women religious and sections of the clergy of either committing sexual violence or remaining deaf and blind to complaints of such crimes.

These actions also burnish the image of the nunciature which had taken a beating under Archbishop Giambattista Diquattro whose term from January 2017 to August 2021 was marked by the nunciature largely refusing to meet complainants, laity or religious, who came up with issues of criminality, inefficiency or corruption.

Archbishop Leopoldo Girelli who took over as the new apostolic nuncio to India in 2022 has hit the ground running. He is said to be more accessible and compassionate and gives the impression that he is listening.

Major issues await his attention, especially from states such as Odisha, caste matters in Tamil Nadu and cases under the federal government’s Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO) in several regions, including Mumbai.

Prevention, says the old jungle adage in India, is better than a cure.

Well-wishers of the Church, and there are many more than we reckon among Hindus and others, hope that there will be some transparent process of upholding the Church’s own code of gender justice, as much as the national penal code, which will strengthen the Church and enable it to better face the accusations hurled against it by state-sponsored vigilantes and extreme right-wing political and cultural groups.

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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