Nuns of the Missionaries of Jesus congregation demonstrate in Kochi on Sept. 8 seeking the arrest of Bishop Franco Mulakkal, who is accused of raping a nun member of their congregation. (Photo by T.K. Devasia/ucanews.com)
Protesting Catholic nuns have gone onto the streets of Kerala's Kochi city to accuse police and the church of unjustifiably protecting a Catholic bishop accused of raping a nun in the southern Indian state.
Thousands of other people joined the nuns of the Missionaries of Jesus congregation on Sept. 8 as a group of activists started a hunger strike seeking the arrest of Bishop Franco Mulakkal of Jalandhar.
Demonstrators waved placards while speakers near the state's High Court and police headquarters maintained that authorities had not acted impartially in relation to Bishop Mulakkal.
The prelate was the subject of a complaint filed with police more than two months ago.
The complainant, who belongs to the diocesan congregation under Bishop Mulakkal, alleged the bishop raped her 13 times from 2014-16 at her convent when he visited Kerala from his diocese in northern Punjab state.
The bishop has said the nun fabricated the allegations after he initiated disciplinary action against her following claims she was having sexual relations with the husband of one of her cousins.
"We knocked on all doors of the church, including the Vatican," a nun of the convent, who is a blood relative of the accuser, told ucanews.com. "No one responded to our plea for justice." It was therefore decided to demonstrate openly, she added.
Protest leaders said police have sided with the bishop under pressure from the state's leftist government, which feared that politically influential Christians would turn against it.
However, investigating police officer K. Subash denied this was the case and told ucanews.com that an investigation is continuing. "A few more details have to be collected for the police to take the bishop into custody for questioning," he said.
Speakers at the protest rally said church authorities had not asked the bishop to step down to accelerate impartial investigation because they feared doing so would tarnish the image of the church.
However, a senior church official said it was unfair to blame the bishops.
"We are extremely sorry that this has come to pass," said Bishop Theodore Mascarenhas, secretary-general of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India (CBCI).
He said attributing any inaction to the CBCI was not justified as it had no jurisdiction in the case.
Besides, the nun at the center of the controversy went to police rather than approaching the bishops' conference.
"Now, we will have to wait for the police to complete the process of investigation," Bishop Mascarenhas said.
He believes that the matter is between two individuals of the church. "Should church authorities interfere before police complete the investigations, either party could accuse them of influencing the probe," he said. "Church authorities will definitely act when the police disclose their final findings."
The bishops were seriously concerned and would soon consider introducing measures to try and avoid any such situations arising in future, he added.
A federation of Christian bodies called the Joint Action Council told ucanews.com that about 7,000 people, including 30 nuns and 10 priests, attended the protest and predicted that the number of dissenters would swell.
Council member and lawyer Jose Joseph said the hunger strike, which he has joined, will not be called off until Bishop Mulakkal is arrested.
Bishop Thomas Mar Osthathios of the Greek Orthodox Church was among those who attended the street protest.
Indulekha Joseph, a member of the Church Reform Movement, said the delay in arresting the bishop had aided the efforts of him and supporters to intimidate the victim and witnesses.
Father Paul Thelekat, former spokesman of the Syro-Malabar Church, said church authorities should have responded much earlier to the cry for justice.
Capuchin Father Jijo Kurian, who joined the protest, said the Catholic Church, which always talked about a need for justice and mercy, had not taken an allegation of injustice within its ranks seriously.
He noted that the church had failed to launch its own inquiry. "This gave the impression that the church was with the hunter and not the hunted," he said, describing the nuns' battle for rights of women within the church as a milestone in church history.
Retired High Court judge Kemal B. Pasha and human rights activist C.R. Neelakandan were among others who addressed the protest gathering.
Justice Pasha said he suspects there are personal links between the accused and the police.
He noted that the reason Bishop Mulakkal had not to date sought anticipatory bail could be that he was given a secret assurance that he would not be arrested.
"We don’t know whether the rape happened or not," Justice Pasha added. "In a case like this, police should have arrested the person and made him undergo a potency test."