The Roman Catholic Church in Kerala, which was already mired in a slew of charges of rape and sexual abuse involving its priests, received a further jolt a few months back when a nun fired a fresh salvo of yet another rape charge against a senior clergyman. The nun went public with the startling accusation that she had been repeatedly raped on several occasions over a period of two years by Franco Mulakkal, who is the Bishop of Jalandhar Diocese, during the latter’s visits to a convent in Kerala. At first, she wrote to the Vatican and sought the bishop’s removal from the post. As no proper response was forthcoming, she filed a complaint with the police.
Meanwhile, the Church instituted an internal probe into the nun’s complaint and issued a clean chit in favour of the bishop. Although the police, on their part, registered a case, the preliminary probe against the accused dragged on for nearly three months, which led to the pulling up of the State and the police by the Kerala High Court. It became particularly awkward for the police when the nun further accused that the bishop used his authority and clout to defame her and tried to buy off her silence with a bribe of Rs 5 crore.
The police stepped in and called the accused bishop for interrogation but not before a group of nuns and a motley collection of women group activists, artists, writers and celebrities took to the streets in a protest march, and the State erupted into a hysterical demand for justice for the aggrieved woman. Meanwhile, the bishop refuted the charge outright, calling it baseless and concocted. Franco Mulakkal alleged that the nun filed the case against him as a vendetta because he had ordered an internal probe against her after a woman complained that the nun was having an affair with her husband.
However, the bishop could not sustain his allegation against the nun, and his fake claim of a vendetta got exposed owing to contradictions in his own statements, which he had made during three days of interrogation, coupled with digital and circumstantial evidence, as well as statements of witnesses. This led to his arrest and finally on September 21, the High Court sent him to judicial custody.
Allegations and Counter-Allegations
The vociferous support received by the nun from a section of the society was sought to be rebuffed with counter-allegations against the woman in distress by a group of political supporters of the accused who did not flinch from indulging in character assassination. Poonjar MLA, PC George even went to the extent of calling the nun a prostitute. Without a shred of evidence to back their theory, the supporters of the bishop blamed anti-Christian forces for plotting to bring disrepute to the Church by making the bishop a fall guy. Meanwhile, three more nuns joined the tirade against the bishop, accusing him of sexual misconduct towards them. However, the Church stuck to its stand that the bishop was innocent.
Following a report that the nuns supporting the rape-survivor were planning a second phase of agitation, a Kerala-based independent body that goes by the name of the Catholic Federation of India, consisting of followers of the Catholic Church, condemned the move by the nuns, calling them a cat’s paw in the hands of those individuals who are against the Church, anti-social elements and some terrorist groups. Claiming that the nuns were illegally occupying a convent, the federation demanded their ouster and announced its decision to launch an agitation to press its demand.
The troubled waters became even murkier when the Vatican recently came out in the open with the revelation of a humongous conspiracy by Satan to undermine the Roman Catholic Church. Pope Francis has spoken about the devil being alive and working overtime to sow scandals and division in the Church. Although he made the statement in the global context and his message made no specific reference to the scandals in India, especially the rape charge made by the nun in Kerala, it could not have come at a more appropriate time for the accused bishop and his supporters who were badly in need of a face saver.
Meanwhile, the Kerala High Court granted bail to the bishop on October 15, and he was released the next day from a sub-jail near Kottayam. A large number of supporters, including independent MLA PC George, greeted him as he came out of the sub-jail at Pala. The clergyman first went to his residence in Thrissur and later left for Punjab. When he reached Jalandhar on October 18, Franco received a hero’s welcome from his supporters, nuns and the current administrative bishop. They showered rose petals on him and welcomed him with a huge garland.
Here it needs to be emphasized that when the rape is committed by someone very well known to the victim in whom the latter had reposed faith and trust, the crime of rape assumes more sinister dimensions. In this specific instance, the survivor was allegedly let down and attacked on several occasions by Franco Mulakkal, whom she had known well and closely. Besides, the perpetrator was apparently nursing the false belief that his target, being much lower than him in the hierarchy of the establishment, was in no position to raise her voice against him. This is nothing but betrayal of faith and misuse of power!
When the targeted person fails to receive justice from the establishment, it erodes her faith in the institution, no matter how lofty or August. Perceived delays on the part of the investigating agencies lead to lack of confidence in the system. When hounded by the mainstream media and lobbies that indulge in name calling, the woman in distress may become more depressed for having become the centre of unwanted attention and a soft target for unscrupulous sources of scurrilous writing. Implicit and explicit threats, hurled at her in the course of defending the accused, are capable of causing psychological injuries that leave behind emotional scars.
Justice for Restoration of Faith
In view of the above, the strong likelihood of the fallout of the sordid crime polarizing the society on communal or religious lines should be resolutely resisted by all the right thinking men, irrespective of their religious or political moorings and divisions. Men and women should rally around the just cause of ensuring justice for the aggrieved. The wheels of justice must be seen to grind, with the interests of the individuals involved in the case and the cause of the issue at hand, namely, freedom for the vulnerable links in the hierarchy of institutions from the fear of oppression and persecution, being the only considerations. A rape is a rape, no matter who perpetrates it on whom and there is no condoning of the perpetrator of the crime.
This message should be sent across the society to instil the fear of the law among the potential criminals as well as to safeguard the hope for justice among the weak and the vulnerable. Above all, the sanctity of a place of worship and trust and faith in those who serve God and humanity must be restored. In future, the Church’s cooperation with the investigating agencies and the Court in seeing the case through will be immensely helpful for shoring up the goodwill of the devout churchgoers and the others alike as well as to ensure fair play for the victims and the aggrieved.