Kottayam, KERALA—“Four plus six,” is how the watchman puts it when asked how many nuns are inside the St Francis Mission Home, the local congregation of the Missionaries of Jesus, housed on a five-acre campus a few miles away from Kuravilangad in Kottayam.
The differentiation is deliberate—the six nuns, whom he considers rebels, were responsible for bringing a top clergyman before the Indian judicial system for the first time over allegations of sexual assault and rape. This group includes the 46-year-old nun who accused then Jalandhar Bishop Franco Mulakkal of forcibly entering her room in this building and raping her multiple times over two years, setting off a protest that divided India’s Catholic community and forced the powerful global institution to take note.
An AP investigation done at the time had found that sexual abuse of nuns by priests and bishops was commonplace, and carried out under a cloak of secrecy from all quarters.
Almost a year later, as the case against Mulakkal drags on, the six nuns say they feel isolated from the world and their community. The other nuns in the house give them the silent treatment and they are kept in the dark about the congregation’s activities.
The uneasiness is obvious from the gate itself—the watchman warns this reporter not to use a camera or mobile phone, and only reluctantly allows entry—and once inside the building, which sits between an old age home and a working women’s hostel, the atmosphere is palpably uneasy.
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The rape survivor looked exhausted and, when asked about her work and future, motioned to Sister Anupama, who had stood solidly behind her as senior church members questioned her character and tried to expel her from the congregation.
“We six people faced everything together and still remain united in the face of extreme adversities and uncertainties. In a way, we shared the sufferings. They are facing trouble only because of me. So they are more competent to talk,’’ she said.
Sister Anupama was surrounded by fellow nuns Alphy, Ancitta, Neena Rose and Josephine, who together shot to international limelight last year when they held a sit-in protest in Kochi, demanding Mulakkal’s arrest.
The influential bishop was arrested in September last year, and released on bail around three weeks later. It took seven months after that for the Kerala police to file a chargesheet against him.
According to the officials who investigated the case, Mulakkal was charged under various sections of the Indian Penal Code, including for rape, criminal intimidation, unnatural sex and wrongful confinement.
The trial hasn’t begun yet because, said Sister Anupama, the bishop’s lawyer was citing “one technical reason after another”.
“The date for commencement of the trial has been changed for three consecutive times in the last one month because of (this),’’ she said.
The nuns claim the charge sheet had been ready since last December, but that the police had delayed filing it due to extreme political pressure. Finally, the investigators filed it in the court only after the nuns complained to top police officials in the state. They also told the authorities that they were living in extreme fear.
“It was our huge struggle that resulted in the charge sheet of the bishop. We are still hopeful that we will get justice. But the delay in initiating trial has started affecting our morale. We are highly insecure and left with no motivation to go forward in life,” said Anupama, as tears welled up in her eyes.
Earlier this week, Sister Anupama alleged that there were efforts to tamper the cyber-forensic evidence in the case as well.
Advocate Sujesh Menon of Kochi-based Raman Pillai Associates, who appears on behalf of the bishop, denied the allegation that his party was wilfully delaying trial in the case. “We sought copies of the statements of 43 witnesses cited by the prosecution. It is the right of the defendant to get copies of all of them. So we sought time till they get served to the bishop. In this case, there are a total of 83 witnesses. We also told the court that 31 of the documents were either not served or were not legible,” he said. Menon added that his party is not averse to an independent and impartial trial.
K Subhash, investigating officer in the case, said there was no wilful delay on the part of police. “As it was a highly sensitive case, we had to look into all aspects. An elaborate chargesheet with more than 1500 pages was filed and it needed a lot of time and efforts. We were never under pressure and filed the chargesheet purely based on facts and evidence,’’ he said.
‘Nothing to do’
The nuns say they have been under immense pressure over the last few months, with the church attempting to separate them from the complainant nun and even serving warning notices in an alleged attempt to dilute the case. The institution was forced to drop its earlier plan of transferring them to different locations outside Kerala, including Jharkhand, Punjab and Delhi, after the five nuns declared they would not leave the survivor alone in Kuravilangad.
“The four other nuns in the house are acting at the behest of the rape-accused bishop and other vested interests. They stopped talking to us one year ago. They are treating us as enemies and even avoid accidental meetings with us in the same building. Nobody is informing us about anything related to the congregation, the church or the administrative actions. They are keeping us in the dark,’’ alleged Anupama.
Each of the six nuns, said sister Ancita, gets Rs 500 every month to meet their personal expenses. They also get free food from the canteen and free medical facilities from a church-affiliated hospital nearby. They are not entitled to any other privilege.
Their duties at the working women’s hostel and old age home have been taken away. Even at the local church and the chapel attached to the house, the six nuns are not allowed to engage in any kind of gospel propagation or charity work.
“We have nothing to do here. In a way, it’s the worst kind of punishment. We all are facing a bleak future with nothing to do. We have no duty and our path is unclear. Nobody is asking anything of us. We the six have turned into an island,’’ said Josephine.
“The charge sheet was filed only because of the strong solidarity the people of Kerala extended to the agitating nuns. Now, the church is standing with the oppressor and punishing the nuns who stood for justice,” said Father Augustine Vattoli, a Kochi-based priest, one of the few to openly support the nuns’ fight.
Vicar general of Jalandhar diocese refused to comment when contacted.
According to the charge sheet, which extends more than 100 pages, Mulakkal raped the nun on 14 occasions over a two-year period from 2014 to 2016.
The accused was served a copy of the chargesheet on 10 May. There are a total of 83 witnesses in the case, and Mulakkal can be sentenced to life imprisonment or imprisonment of not less than 10 years if proven guilty.
The case has taken many twists and turns after the allegations were first made public. Father Kuriakose Kattuthara, a key witness and priest with the Jalandhar diocese who gave a statement to the police against Mulakkal, was found dead at a church in Hoshiarpur’s Dasuya in October. His family had alleged foul play in the death, and when the protesting nuns went to attend his funeral, they were heckled and forced to leave in tears.
Interestingly, the current head of the Missionaries of Jesus is Superior General Regina Kadamthottu, a former head of the Kuravilangad convent. Though she had made a futile attempt earlier to transfer the agitating nuns, the latest transfer order prepared by her does not mention any of them. “Our names are not part of any of the records of the congregation now. Slowly, they are excommunicating us and that too in a clever way, without inviting public attention,’’ said Sister Anupama.
The case hasn’t left public memory in Kerala yet.
Last month, the church had demanded the withdrawal of an award announced by the Kerala Lalit Kala Akademi Award to an artist for a cartoon featuring Mulakkal. On intense pressure from the Catholic Bishops Conference of India, the state government made some noise about making amends, but the Akademi tried to stand its ground. With the state government yet to make its stand public, the impasse continues. The cartoon by KK Subhash depicted Mulakkal as a brightly coloured rooster holding a ceremonial bishop’s staff, from which a woman’s undergarment is dangling. The rooster is standing on a police cap held up by two politicians, even as a bunch of distressed nuns flee from the scene.
The Bishops’ Council then alleged that the cartoonist had insulted Christianity in the guise of condemning Mulakkal.
When the bishop was arrested last year, it became a huge risk for the police to approach him because of the high political influence he had in Punjab. Private security guards at the bishop’s house assaulted journalists who had gathered to cover the arrest, and police officials who went to Jalandhar had to wait until the bishop found it convenient to meet them. When he got bail, he was given a hero’s welcome by the members of the Jalandhar diocese.