Solidarity Sisters

How six nuns from Kerala defied a culture of obedience to confront Franco Mulakkal

15 February 2019
Josephine Villoonnickal, Alphy Pallasseril and Anupama Kelamangalathu (left to right) are among the five nuns who confronted Franco Mulakkal about allegations of repeated sexual abuse raised by another nun of the Missionaries of Jesus.
Manish Swarup / AP
Josephine Villoonnickal, Alphy Pallasseril and Anupama Kelamangalathu (left to right) are among the five nuns who confronted Franco Mulakkal about allegations of repeated sexual abuse raised by another nun of the Missionaries of Jesus.
Manish Swarup / AP

“Sister, if you can’t be strong against the injustice then why are you so strong in punishing the sisters who speak and stand for the truth and justice,” Alphy Pallasseril, a nun with the Missionaries of Jesus congregation, wrote to her superior-general, on 6 April 2018. The superior-general is the highest authority in women’s religious orders under the Roman Catholic Church. In the Missionaries of Jesus, the congregation under the diocese of Jalandhar, the position is occupied by Regina Kadamthottu. Alphy and Kadamthottu exchanged three more letters, before the conversation took an unpredictable turn. On 20 June, Kadamthottu wrote, “I have received a copy of the complaint by the Diocese given to the administration in Kerala, implicating you in the conspiracy to kill our own patron and Bishop of Jalandhar Diocese, Bishop Franco.”

That day, four other nuns of the congregation—Anupama Kelamangalathuveliyil, Neena Rose, Josephine Villoonnickal and Ancitta Urumbil—received the same letter. For over a year now, the five nuns have been pursuing an uphill struggle against Franco Mulakkal, the bishop of the Jalandhar diocese, in support of another nun from the Missionaries of Jesus, who accused Mulakkal of sexual exploitation. Alphy accused Kadamthottu of turning a deaf ear to the concerns raised by the nuns: “Sister your silence is not ‘Holy’ always and imprudent silence is harmful to many souls,” she wrote. Documents accessed by The Caravan—which include a trove of letters sent by the survivor, the five nuns, and Kadamthottu—reveal that Mulakkal and those close to him in the Jalandhar diocese enforced a culture of silence and obedience even among the members of the Missionaries of Jesus.

On 23 January, I travelled to the town of Kuravilangad in Kerala’s Kottayam district, to visit the St Francis mission home—a convent under the Missionaries of Jesus, where the six nuns are staying. Since June last year, Kuravilangad has come to be identified with the nun’s allegations of sexual exploitation. That month, the 43-year-old survivor filed a police complaint accusing Mulakkal of sexually exploiting her on 13 different occasions, over a period of two years, beginning May 2014.

The survivor’s decision to approach the police was the culmination of months of unsuccessful attempts to raise the issue within the religious order. This included letters to George Alencherry, the major archbishop of the Syro-Malabar Church; to Luis Ladaria Ferrer, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, popularly known as the Holy Office; and to the current head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis. On 14 May 2018, she wrote to the Pope: “I would like to bring to your notice about my plight as a religious nun because of the sexual abuse and continues harassment meted out by Bp. Franco Mulackal.” The survivor wrote that Mulakkal first raped her on 5 May 2014, when he visited the Kuravilangad convent. “I was afraid and frightened; because of the terrible fear I could not react or reveal this ordeal to anyone.” But the former bishop “continued the same for several times,” the survivor wrote, till she “gained strength and said ‘NO’ to bishop on September 2016.”

Aathira Konikkara is a reporting fellow at The Caravan.

Keywords: Diocese of Jalandhar Nuns protest Franciscan Missionaries of Jesus Franco Mulakkal Kerala sexual abuse Missionaries of Jesus rape Catholic Church
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