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By Sarita Santoshini 10-11-2018

For about two weeks in September, five nuns protested outside the courthouse in Kochi, a city in the southern state of Kerala in India. Faith leaders in India have protested many issues over the centuries, but this is the first time in recorded history that Catholic nuns have taken to the streets to demand justice and seek action against abuse by a superior.

The reason for their protest was a police complaint from a Missionaries of Jesus nun against Franco Mulakkal, a bishop with the Jalandhar diocese who oversaw the congregation, accusing him of sexually assaulting her 13 times from 2014 to 2016. The police complaint came after the survivor made several attempts to reach church authorities over the last year with no avail.

"Will the Church authority — who stand to protect Bishop Franco and safeguard the dignity of the Church by hiding his wickedness — be able to give back what I have lost?" she wrote in a 7-page letter addressed to the Apostolic Nuncio of India, Giambattista Diquattro — an envoy to the pope — on Sept. 8, the first day of the protest. In the letter, she mentioned the names of all the authorities she had earlier sought help from, including the nuncio and the pope himself, none of whom responded.

“At the same time I wonder why the church is closing its eyes towards the truth when I have mustered courage to stop him,” the letter further read.

Sister Anupama, who led the protests in Kochi, said that the survivor approached the superior general in early 2017 with concerns about harassment — she was facing disciplinary action because of her resistance to “lie down with” the bishop. Her concerns were ignored. In June 2017, before reaching out to Church officials in northern India and the Vatican, she first revealed to a parish priest and bishop in Kerala that Mulakkal abused her. The complaint then reached the Cardinal Mar George Alencherry, the head of the Syro-Malabar church, but no action was taken.

“We came out in protest not only for our sister but for all the sisters and all the women [of our country],” Sister Anupama said. “We came out only because we did not get justice from the church or the government.”

On the night of Sept. 21, the 13th day of the protest and nearly three months after the complaint was first filed, Mulakkal was arrested by Kerala police after three days of questioning. A day prior, the Vatican had temporarily relieved him of all pastoral responsibilities. The survivor pointed out that 20 nuns have left the congregation since he became the bishop, suspecting that he could have made advances against them as well. Mulakkal was denied bail by the Kerala High Court last week, which also noted that a submission had been made regarding coordinated efforts to derail the investigation by offering rewards to witnesses.

Mulakkal is one of more than 85 bishops across the world who have been accused of sexual abuse and misconduct since the 1990s. The nuns’ protests, which received great support from the civil society and some faith-based groups, are being seen as part of India’s #churchtoo movement, which seeks to change the response to abuse by Christian leaders.

Prior to and outside the protest, the Church has vehemently denied the accusation, slandering the survivor in the process. Kerala, where 18.4 percent of the population is Christian, the church holds immense power politically and economically. In a press release, the Kerala Catholic Bishop’s Council said there were “vested interests” in implicating the Church and that the protest were not in keeping with Christian values. The nun’s own congregation accused her of conspiring against the bishop and even publicly released a photograph of her, in violation of India’s anti-rape law.

According to Sister Anupama and the letter written by the survivor, Mulakkal has filed a number of police complaints against the survivor since she began speaking up last year. Last November, he complained that the survivor and sister Anupama were threatening to commit suicide, and this June, he filed a complaint against the nuns and their family members of threatening to murder him. The police had found no evidence to back these claims. Sister Anupama also recalled fearing for her life after a late night meeting with Mulakkal last year when he forced her to write an apology letter.

“I was scared of him because I know he will do such a thing — I knew he would even kill me if I denied,” she recalled.

According to Felix J Pulludan, the chief advisor of the Joint Christian Council (JCC), which organized the protest, misuse of wealth and power was the base of criminal activities of the priests, even in this particular case.

“There is no law to protect their rights inside the church. They are being treated as slaves of the priests and this attitude is against all human rights,” he said. JCC is a federation of progressive Christian organisations in Kerala which stand for democracy within the church and have been demanding the implementation of a board to administer the wealth of the Christian churches under the law of the country.

According to Father Augustine Vattoli, convener of the Save our Sisters (SOS) action committee, which spearheaded a campaign to support the protest, other Church officials, and especially the other nuns, had misinterpreted the movement, seeing it as a breakdown of the structure and discipline of the Church instead.

“They have failed to understand the magnitude of the protest,” he said. “They did not understand it is for their freedom, for their well-being, for their safety, and for their future that these five nuns came into the streets and they struggled.”

For 51-year-old Sister Lucy, supporting the sisters was extremely important. She started by writing Facebook posts in support as the nuns took to the streets but was keen to join them and voice her thoughts. She took a short leave and travelled from another district on the last two days of the protest.

“I am just thinking … we are more than [thousands of] sisters in India. One of the sisters is the victim but why are all the sisters keeping silent,” she said. “So I got the power from the Holy Spirit, from God, to join the protest. Just to show them that we sisters are with you.”

On her return, Sister Lucy was barred from taking part in Church duties, like distributing Holy Communion and holding Catechism classes, for her participation in the protest and TV debates on the issue. This was, however, met with protests by almost 200 members of the Church who demanded that the order be withdrawn.

“My congregation doesn’t like all this," she said. "They think my action is against the bishop and the priests and the church. But really it isn’t like that. I will stand for truth till the last moment.”

Sister Anupama said she was overwhelmed by the society and media’s support during the protests but is aware that now there wasn’t much more that they could do. After a tough year, she said she is counting on the court to deliver justice.

“We’ve stood firm in our decision to support the truth. Let the truth come out,” she said. “Our sister, she suffered a lot both physically and mentally. No sister or woman should suffer like this in the future. That is our only aim.”

Sarita Santoshini is an independent journalist based in India, reporting on human rights, development, and gender issues. She has reported on gender rights from northern Uganda as an International Reporting Project (IRP) fellow in 2017, and was also the 2016 Bitch Media writing fellow in reproductive rights and justice. 

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