The Pulse

A Nun’s Rape and a Priest’s Mysterious Death Jolt Catholic Church in India

Will justice be done?

Priyanka Borpujari
A Nun’s Rape and a Priest’s Mysterious Death Jolt Catholic Church in India
Credit: CC0 image via Pixabay

A Catholic nun has alleged that he [the bishop] had sex – natural and unnatural – with her 13 times between 2014 and 2016. Thirteen is believed to be an unlucky number… Billions of men and women copulate every day for reasons I do not have to explain. This has been happening right from the days of Adam and Eve. But a modern-day Eve finds it convenient to claim that she was raped when she is caught in the act.

These sentence, part of an article titled “Villains as Victims,” appeared in India Currents, a magazine run under the patronage of the Catholic Church in India. The sentiment within sums up the response of the Catholic Church toward a 44-year-old nun in Kerala, in India’s south, who has filed a complaint with the police against a bishop for raping her 13 times since 2014. Following a long-drawn process where the nun was first ignored and then threatened, the accused – Bishop Franco Mulakkal of the diocese of the northern Indian town of Jalandhar – was interrogated at length and then arrested. He was let out on conditional bail after three weeks.

A week later, on October 22, Father Kuriakose Kattuthara, who had testified against Mulakkal, was found dead in his room.

Now the rape survivor and five nuns who have been supporting her are facing threats from their own congregation, the Missionaries of Jesus, of being transferred away from Kerala. The five nuns have been asked to join different convents across the country in a move to weaken their case against Mulakkal.

Christian institutions in India have been hushing up crimes at their altar, leaving scores of believers disappointed with their spiritual institution. In a case dating back to 1992, a Catholic nun was found dead in a well in a convent in Kerala. The local police had closed the case back then, calling it a suicide. The case was reopened by the federal Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and nearly 16 years later, two priests were arrested on charges of having an illicit affair with the nun. Last year, several persons were arrested in the alleged cover-up of the rape and pregnancy of a 16-year-old girl, who had been raped by a priest in Kerala.

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Bishop Mulakkal had been serving as the Bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Jalandhar since 2013. The 44-year-old nun, attached to the Missionaries of Jesus congregation in Kottayam in the state of Kerala in south India, accused him of raping her 13 times between 2014 and 2016, when he would visit Kottayam. Her written complaints to the Roman Catholic religious order for women, as well as to the Mother General of Missionaries of Jesus, went unheard. No action was taken. Finally, she approached the police in June 2018.

In July, an audio conversation was somehow leaked, wherein Father James Erthayil attached to the Kanjirappally diocese (also in Kerala) of Carmelites of Mary Immaculate attempted to bribe another nun who had been supporting the survivor. According to another news report, Mulakkal had allegedly offered a substantial hush-up bribe to the victim’s family.

Five nuns from the Missionaries of Jesus – Anupama, Alphy, Anaitha, Josephine, and Neena Rose – who attempted to settle the issue within the congregation, were sent from one bishop to another. They even wrote to the Vatican Nuncio in India, but received no response. Even as the rape survivor was being abused verbally and psychologically by Mulakkal, Sister Josephine said that they were being offered land and money to withdraw the case. The sisters suffered a backlash: the Catholic Federation of India demanded the ouster of nuns from the convent in Kuravilangad where they had been staying.

When all these efforts yielded no results, they began to sit outside the Kochi High Court, in protest. This shook up the church and the administration, and eventually the local media. Finally, Mulakkal was interrogated and later arrested; he was then let out on conditional bail. But he received a hero’s welcome in Jalandhar.

Meanwhile, Kuriakose had been receiving threats. Following his mysterious death, the sister of the rape survivor told the media that Kuriakose was one of the first people her sister and other nuns had confided in. Sister Anupama, one of the five protesting nuns, said that his death instilled in them a fear that justice may not be delivered after all.

The reactions to the case have varied from outright support for the nuns to an abject dismissal of their pleas. Sister Rejina, Mother General of the MJ congregation, claimed that the ongoing investigation was torturing the nuns in the convent under the congregation. The congregation observed a day of fast for Mulakkal, as they believe he is innocent. A local minister of influence attacked the rape survivor at a press conference, calling her a “prostitute.”

Various Kerala Church authorities had sent directions to all major congregation superiors to issue internal circulars to prevent any more nuns from joining in the protests with the five nuns of Missionaries of Jesus. But in Mumbai, it was reported that many Catholics had stopped donating to Sunday Mass collections, as they had already been worried how their contributions were being handled.

“The church is a patriarchal hierarchical institution where women don’t have any decision-making power. In response to the rape of the nun, the church is not behaving like Jesus would’ve behaved,” said Virginia Saldanha, of the Indian Women’s Theological Forum.