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Updated: August 09, 2000 05:00 PM GMT
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Catholic groups in a southern Indian state have accused the Church of covering up the deaths of three nuns who they say were murdered, but Church leaders say the Catholics are misguided.

Various social action groups called on Kerala state Chief Minister E.K. Nayanar in a July 28 memorandum to "immediately order separate and effective police investigations" to probe the deaths. The nuns died during the past eight years, at least two of them under mysterious circumstances.

The most recent case is that of Sister Paulsi, 35, of indigenous Snehagiri (mountain of love) Missionary Sisters, who was found dead May 25 at her convent in Palai diocese. Palai city is 2,104 kilometers south of New Delhi.

"It is difficult to believe that these nuns who have had no history of previous health problems simply died one fine day," Joseph Pulikkunnel, director of the Indian Institute of Christian Studies and coordinator of the protest groups, told UCA News Aug. 4.

However, a member of Sister Paulsi´s community told UCA News on condition of anonymity that the deceased nun had been treated for high blood pressure and died of a heart ailment. She added, concerning the protests, "It is as if nuns cannot die in Kerala."

In November 1998, Sacred Heart Sister Jyothis, 28, was found dead inside a convent well in Thamarassery diocese. Local police said she committed suicide.

Sister Jyothis´ father, M.K. Jose, rejects the suicide theory. "My daughter was killed. I do not know how and why, but she was killed," he told UCA News.

Speaking Aug. 3, he said that with activists´ support, he petitioned the Kerala High Court in May 1999 for a fresh probe into his daughter´s death.

In March 1992, St. Joseph Sister Abhaya of Pius X Convent in Kottayam, 2,650 kilometers south of New Delhi, was found dead inside her convent´s well. Local police concluded that the nun committed suicide.

Following public protests, the government entrusted the case to the country´s Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). In November 1996, the CBI closed the case with inconclusive results.

In March 1997, India´s Supreme Court ordered the CBI to conduct a "fresh" investigation "sincerely, honestly and impartially." This probe called Sister Abhaya´s death "homicide," but no arrests were made for lack of evidence.

Some lay Catholics then formed the Sister Abhaya Action Council (SAAC) to expose an alleged Church coverup.

According to Sajan Varghese, a council member, "some priests with political connections murdered the nun." He said investigations have failed due to police connivance with Church authorities.

Activists maintain the case of Sister Abhaya was related to alleged immoral relations between convent residents and outsiders. They suspect that some people who wanted to guard their secrets killed Sister Abhaya.

Varghese noted that the untimely deaths of other nuns, including Sister Paulsi, evoked public suspicion because of Sister Abhaya´s case.

According to SAAC convener Siby Mathew, the autopsy report on Sister Paulsi says she died of "some strong poisonous substance inside her body." Catholics believe the nun was murdered and are eager to know the truth, he said.

Pulikkunnel said, "Some Church officials are trying to cover up the deaths of these nuns because they are directly or indirectly involved."

However, Father Gregory Naduviledam, chancellor of Changanacherry archdiocese, of which Kottayam and Palai are suffragan dioceses, told UCA News Aug. 1 that the activists behind the protests have vested interests.

He accused them of "playing politics to destabilize the Church" and of "spreading lies and falsehood." He also said that the Church prays for them to become true Catholics.

Palai diocesan Father Sebastian Puthenpura similarly said that the accusing groups have "lost their sense of belonging to the Church."

The Church authorities "also want to know the truth, but accusing the Church leaders of foul play smacks of mindless social activism with ulterior motives," he told UCA News Aug. 1.


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