He prayed like a holy man as she shed tears: Bishop Franco Mulakkal and a nun’s fight for justice

26 September 2018
In a first, a protest by five nuns and a sexual assault survivor has led to the arrest of a sitting priest of the Catholic Church, Franco Mulakkal.
Indu Antony

On the night of 21 September, Franco Mulakkal, a bishop with a Jalandhar diocese of the Catholic Church, was arrested by Kerala Police after three days of questioning in a rape case filed by a nun from a congregation he oversaw. The arrest came 85 days after the nun, from the Missionaries of Jesus in Kuravilangad village of Kottayam district in Kerala, lodged a police complaint accusing him of sexually assaulting her 13 times over a period of two years beginning May 2014. With his bail application denied, Mulakkal has now been remanded to judicial custody till 6 October.

Mulakkal’s arrest comes in the backdrop of an unprecedented public protest by five nuns—Anupama, Josephine, Ancett, Alphy and Nina Rose—affiliated to the congregation, for the survivor. It marks the first time in India that nuns of the community have gone public with a protest against their superiors. This is significant in a religious order that stipulates a culture of obedience among nuns and subordination to the powers in the church, who invariably are male priests. Amid the public outcry, on 20 September, the Vatican temporarily relieved Mulakkal of his religious duties shortly after he sent a letter requesting permission to step down for the time being.

During the course of the protest, three petitions were filed in the Kerala High Court seeking action in the case. Following Mulakkal’s arrest, all three petitions have been dismissed with the court stressing on providing protection to witnesses and the survivor.

On 12 September, the fifth day of the protest, Elsy Ambros, a teacher who lives in Ernakulam, had stopped at the protest venue on her way to work. “We cannot address Franco as Father after what he did,” she told me. Ambros, like many others, was there to extend her support to the protest which was being held 400 metres from the Kerala High Court. The protest in Kochi saw politicians, writers, activists and the general public speak up in favour of the primary demand—Mulakkal’s arrest—even as the nuns sat there day after day holding placards with slogans that painted a rather grim picture of what led to their decision to confront the church and state. “Our life is in danger,” one read. Another asked the question, “Is Franco above the law?”

The survivor, who says that she was sexually abused by the bishop on several occasions between 2014 and 2016, had complained to various authorities in the church’s hierarchy, in person and through letters, since June 2017. After attempts that spanned a year saw no response, she filed a complaint against the bishop with the Kuravilangad Police on 28 June this year. The protest itself was ostensibly a product of the church’s history of silence over sexual abuse and police inaction for over two months since the complaint.

Aathira Konikkara is a reporting fellow at The Caravan.

Keywords: Kerala rape Sexual Assault Bishop Franco Mulakkal Nuns protest Missionaries of Jesus Kottayam Catholic Church James Erthayil
COMMENT