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Indian nuns question Church's silence in rape case

Women religious have expressed support for the complainant nun after a court acquitted Bishop Franco Mulakkal

Indian nuns question Church's silence in rape case

Indian women protesters hold placards and chant slogans demanding the arrest of Bishop Franco Mulakkal in Jalandhar on Sept. 12, 2018. (Photo: AFP)

Published: January 24, 2022 06:26 AM GMT

Updated: January 24, 2022 07:27 AM GMT

Catholic women religious in India have come out in open support of a nun days after Bishop Franco Mulakkal of Jalandhar was acquitted by a court of rape charges made by her.

“As women religious, we express our solidarity with the victim-survivor and her companions who have walked with the victim with a lot of courage, dignity and determination in their fight for justice,” said the Conference of Religious India (CRI) in a letter to Cardinal Oswald Gracias, president of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India.

They also appealed to the cardinal to “reach out” and provide all possible help to the nun and five nuns supporting her while questioning the sustained silence of the official Church on the matter.

The letter dated Jan. 20 has no endorsement from any priest. But Apostolic Carmel Sister Mary Nirmalini, the newly appointed national president of the CRI, said she had been inundated with so many phone calls from both religious men and women as well as laypeople from around India after Bishop Mulakkal’s acquittal last week.

“The issue here is not that most religious women are completely taken aback with a totally unexpected verdict against the sisters, but a section of the clergy and people have been celebrating the verdict as a victory for the Church,” Sister Nirmalini said.

“Right from the beginning of the case, the victim sister and her companions were subjected to all kinds of innuendos and insults. Hardly any church authorities supported them. How come a bishop who is accused of rape is part of the Church and the victim along with her supporters are not?” asked Sister Nirmalini, who as the CRI president represents close to 125,000 Catholic religious.

We really wonder if this will make other women ever step forward or would leave them with no choice but to suffer in silence

The CRI, in its letter, said this was shameful while expressing the collective disbelief and shock among the women religious at the verdict in the case “where sisters have been apparently denied justice.”

A trial court in the southern state of Kerala exonerated the prelate on Jan. 14 of all charges including raping the nun, a former superior general of Missionaries of Jesus, a congregation under his patronage.

The nun had accused Bishop Mulakkal of raping her 13 times during his visit to her convent in Kuravilangad in Kottayam district of Kerala between 2014 and 2016 on grounds that the prosecution “failed to prove the charges against the accused.”

Referring to reports of the nun and the prosecution together planning to appeal against the verdict in the higher courts, the CRI said: “Whatever the outcome of their appeal in the higher court, our serious concern now is if the Church has a forum where religious women who suffer sexual abuse from their bosses, be they priests or bishops, can present their cases and where they would be heard sympathetically.”

“As you know well, while the religious women are rendering incredible service in society and are the face of the Church, we have no power or jurisdiction. Where do we go? Should all religious women knock on the doors of the court for justice? We really wonder if this will make other women ever step forward or would leave them with no choice but to suffer in silence,” it added.

The CRI commended the “prophetic role” played by the nun and her supporters “by raising their voice against an unjust and appalling system within the Church.”

“Nobody paid any attention to the victim who approached several church authorities before she was made to go public and to the court to seek justice. Her companion sisters had the grit to fight the power and might of Bishop Franco. The sisters with no financial backing or support from the Church went through their dignity being stripped as women through many ways in which power was being wielded against them,” the CRI letter said.

Earlier, Sisters in Solidarity, a group comprising nuns, doctors, lawyers and other professionals, also urged Cardinal Gracias to reach out to the survivor and her companions and ensure their safety.

The official Catholic Church, however, continues to remain silent on the burning issue that continues to dominate media headlines and social media platforms.

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