Five nuns from the Missionaries of Jesus make a sign of unity on Sept. 22 as they end their indefinite strike in Kochi in the southern Indian state of Kerala. They were seeking the arrest of Bishop Franco Mulakkal after he was accused of raping one of the sisters. The bishop was arrested on Sept. 21. (Photo by Christopher Joseph/ucanews.com)
The slogan shouting has ended. The indefinite strike led by Indian nuns has been called off. The protest venue remains deserted. A bishop accused of molestation has been jailed. But many see a new beginning in this "end" to the latest drama to ensnare the Church in southern India's Kerala.
The protest against a nun's alleged rape by a Catholic bishop, and the hierarchy's purported attempts to cover it up, refuses to die down.
Several Indian theologians and local leaders say this should serve as a wake up call for the Church to amend its systems and ways of thinking.
"It's good the protests happened. They were an act of desperation. Nuns have had no voice here and have had to suffer in silence, but this is no longer acceptable," said Father Rudolf Heredia, a Jesuit priest and former professor at St. Xavier's College Mumbai.
Five nuns from the Missionaries of Jesus began a public protest on Sept. 8 in the southern Indian city of Kochi seeking the arrest of Bishop Franco Mulakkal of Jalandhar Diocese. He was accused of raping one of their nuns. They ended their demonstrations on Sept. 22, a day after he was arrested.
The protest began two months after a nun filed a police complaint saying the bishop, a patron of their congregation, raped her 13 times between 2014-2016.
The nuns said the victim had petitioned clergy at all levels over the last year, from their local parish priest to Pope Francis, but they either ignored her entreaties or refused to take any action against the bishop.
They said this forced them to seek assistance from the police and then take their calls to the streets to attract more public attention to their cause.
"The Church leadership should have immediately set up a probe into the issue and not let things come to head like this," said local theologian Kochurani Abraham.
Critics say now is the time for some serious introspection.
"The Church hierarchy should examine where it is going wrong. Why are people blaming [the nuns for their actions]?" Abraham asked.
Flavia Agnes, a social rights activist, said the way the Church has handled the matter calls for a re-think about the merits of having a fully patriarchal leadership.
She said the Church leadership has no female representation. "All power wrests with men, so they support each other," she said.
The Church has guidelines to deal with cases of sexual harassment. But "unfortunately they don't apply to priests and bishops," she added.
Others say the Church should examine ways of making its mechanisms for dealing with allegations of sexual violence and embezzlement against high-ranking clerics more transparent.
Abraham and Agnes said senior prelates often claim they are helpless and have no recourse to take action against a bishop who faces such charges as the Church forbids them from getting involved.
According to Church law, only the Vatican can decide on such cases and take actions against a bishop.
This was highlighted by a recorded phone call between the victim and Cardinal George Alencherry of India's Ernakulam-Angamali Archdiocese. The call was later leaked.
On the tape, the nun can be heard asking him how her complaint is progressing. In response, the prelate tells her he cannot interfere as the accused belongs to a Latin rite, which is different from his Syro-Malabar background and traditions.
"I don't buy the cardinal's argument," Abraham said. "If a daughter goes to her father and complains about a serious problem, would he drive her away like this?"
The Vatican's system for investigating cases like these appears to be flawed, she said. Most probes do not even keep the victims updated of the latest developments, if there are any, she added.
Astird Lobo Gajiwala, a lay theologian, said bishops must be held accountable for their actions.
"Maybe it's for those in power to review and revise the laws and procedures that are applicable in these matters," she said.
The Church would benefit from having a "crisis management" team and committees to deal with cases of sexual abuse, she suggested.
"But those committees must be headed by women, and the recommendations must be implemented, not just written down on paper," she said.
"We need more women and men to be part of the Church's decision-making process in order to fill this vacuum of skills, expertise and experience," she added.
Gajiwala, an activist and member of the Indian Bishops' Council for Women, said women should "stop waiting for bishops to mete out justice. India has laws that address violence against women and sexual harassment, and we should avail of them."
Father Heredia said he also supports reporting crimes committed within the Church to civil authorities.
"If any abuse is reported, the church must follow civil law and report it to the police," said the Jesuit, a founding director of the Social Science Centre at St. Xavier's College Mumbai.
"When it comes to the sexual abuse of minors, people can even be penalized for not reporting things they see of know of," which should deter wrongdoers from trying to hide from the truth, he said.
"We have to do away with clericalism. If that's not dealt with properly, it will manifest itself in some form of abuse by the authorities," he warned.
The Church hierarchy has a lot of questions to answer these days, said Ram Punyani, a physician, author and rights activist.
"The exploitation of women in whatever circumstances is highly regrettable. The Church should open its eyes to such exploitation and come out openly against abusers," Punyani said.
This article was first published 3.10.2018.