On 21 October 2018, Catholics in the locality of Dasuya, in Punjab’s Hoshiarpur district, gathered at St Mary’s Church to begin their Sunday with the morning mass. James Ullatil, the priest of the parish, was out of town to attend to a programme. Kuriakose Kattuthara, a 62-year-old priest who had served the Jalandhar diocese since 1983, led the morning prayers in his stead. After delivering his sermon, Kattuthara ate at the church’s langar—common among churches in the Jalandhar diocese—and then retired to his room, at around noon, instructing a helper to leave him undisturbed if he did not answer the door after two knocks. At 10 am the next morning, he was discovered lying on the floor, unconscious. He was taken to a nearby hospital, where he was declared brought dead.
Under ordinary circumstances, Kattuthara’s death may have been considered a natural progression of events, given that the priest suffered from high blood pressure and hypertension. But the circumstances leading up to his death were far from ordinary. One month earlier, Franco Mulakkal, a 54-year-old bishop in the Jalandhar diocese, had become the first clergyman in India to be arrested on charges of rape. Mulakkal was arrested 85 days after a nun from the Missionaries of Jesus—a congregation within the Jalandhar diocese—filed a police complaint accusing him of sexually assaulting her 13 times at a convent in Kuravilangad village, in Kerala’s Kottayam district, over a period of two years beginning May 2014.
Shortly before his arrest, the Catholic Church had relieved Mulakkal of pastoral responsibilities, upon his request, in the wake of growing protest against him. During the investigation into the nun’s complaint, Kattuthara, who was then the spiritual director of the Missionaries of Jesus, had submitted a statement against Mulakkal to the police. He had also been vocal in his support for the complainant to the press. In a July 2018 interview to the Malayalam news channel Mathrubhumi, Kathuthara said, “Some of the nuns, who are said to have left or were compelled to leave, have come to me crying and said, ‘Father, as long as this bishop remains the bishop of our diocese, I cannot live in peace here. I am sorry. I will leave the congregation soon.’ If it was one or two people, it could have been dismissed as slander. But there were many who came to me.”
Mulakkal was released on bail after spending 25 days in prison, in Kerala. He returned to Jalandhar to a grand welcome, where followers assembled in large numbers and showered him with rose petals. Four days later, Kattuthara was found dead. The priest’s younger brother, Jose Kurian, requested Pinarayi Vijayan, the chief minister of Kerala, to initiate an investigation into the death. A cousin of the priest who lives in Punjab, whom the priest often visited, questioned why nobody checked on Kattuthara sooner. “Father, who went to sleep at 12, did not wake up for lunch,” the cousin said, speaking to me on the condition of anonymity. “When the helper knocked on his door with his coffee, he did not answer. He did not wake up for dinner either ... Especially when the other priest was not present, couldn’t the sisters have checked why this Father had not stepped out of the room? There is something fishy here.”
“In the days before the death, he called and told us that he was being mentally tortured,” the cousin told me. “The nuns there would implore him to change the statements he made before the police.” He said Kattuthara refrained from having any phone conversations in his room, for fear of being overheard by others in the convent, and that he had also expressed a fear of what might happen after Mulakkal was granted bail. The cousin recalled that Kattuthara had often repeated during his last days, “I am being relentlessly harassed here.”