Five nuns of the Missionaries of Jesus attend a protest on Sept. 22, 2018, seeking the arrest of Bishop Franco Mulakkal. The bishop accused of raping a nun is now facing court proceedings. (Photo: Christopher Joseph/UCA News)
A district court in southern India has dismissed a Catholic bishop’s application pleading innocence in a case that accuses him of raping a nun multiple times from 2014-16.
Kottayam district court in Kerala state on March 16 asked Bishop Franco Mulakkal of Jalandhar to face trial in the case and dismissed his discharge petition.
“Our discharge application is dismissed,” lawyer C.S. Ajay, Bishop Mulakkal’s counsel, told UCA News on March 16. He refused to comment on the future course of action.
However, lawyers following the case, the first such in Indian legal history, say this will help delay the trial of the bishop.“Strategically, it is a victory for the bishop. This effectively delays his trial as lawyers can now move higher courts,” said lawyer Anurag Singh of Madhya Pradesh High Court.
Bishop Mulakkal, based in the northern Indian state of Punjab, is accused of raping the former superior general of Missionaries of Jesus, an indigenous diocesan congregation under his patronage.
The petition sought a court direction to discharge the bishop from the case on grounds that there wasn’t sufficient evidence to prove the charges against him.
The charges against him were based on statements of individuals and not based on any material evidence, his lawyers reportedly argued.
The bishop had told UCA News that the allegations were part of a vendetta against him for initiating disciplinary action against the complainant nun.Singh said the bishop’s lawyers can now move the state's High Court with the same discharge petition. If the High Court’s decision also goes against him, the lawyers can move the Supreme Court.
“Legally, the bishop now needs to face trial only after the discharge petition is decided. Considering the slow pace of progress in Indian courts, that is sure to take years,” Singh said.
However, Singh said that if the High Court does not stay the trial process, the lower court can continue with it while the High Court hears the discharge petition.
The alleged offenses took place in the congregation’s convent in Kuravilangad, a town in Kottayam district in the southern state of Kerala, a Christian stronghold.
A special investigation team of Kerala police that probed the allegations filed a 2,000-page charge sheet against Bishop Mulakkal in April 2019.
Police arrested the bishop on Sept. 21, 2018, a fortnight after five nuns of the same congregation as the complainant staged a sit-in in Kochi, attracting public support from across Kerala.
The prelate, however, was released on bail on Oct. 15, 2018, by Kerala High Court and continues to live in Jalandhar Diocese.
The case has listed 83 witnesses including Cardinal George Alencherry, head of the Syro-Malabar Church based in Kerala.
The nuns who have campaigned for the arrest of the bishop said they are disappointed by the slow pace of the case and the bishop avoiding trial and justice.“We want a speedy trial in the case so that we can walk free,” Sister Anupama Kelamangalathuveli, one of the five nuns who continue to support the complainant, told UCA News.
Besides the discharge petition, the bishop’s lawyers also filed another case asking the court to restrain the media from covering the case on grounds that media coverage could defame the accused.
The court has now posted the cases for March 24.
“These applications are meant to prolong the trial,” said Shaiju Antony, joint convener of the Save Our Sisters movement that spearheaded the public protest against Bishop Mulakkal.
“However, we have faith in the judiciary, and the truth will come out even if it is a bit late,” Antony said.