Nun’s Rape Case Against Bishop Shakes a Catholic Bastion in India
By Maria Abi-Habib and Suhasini Raj
Feb. 9, 2019
KOCHI, India — When Bishop Franco Mulakkal agreed to personally celebrate the First Communion for Darly’s son, a rare honor in their Catholic Church in India, the family was overcome with pride.
During the ceremony, Darly looked over at her sister, a nun who worked with the bishop, to see her eyes spilling over with tears — tears of joy, she figured. But only later would she learn of her sister’s allegation that the night before, the bishop had summoned the nun to his quarters and raped her. The family says that was the first assault in a two-year ordeal in which the prelate raped her 13 times.
The bishop, who has maintained his innocence, will be charged and face trial by a special prosecutor on accusations of rape and intimidation, the police investigating the case said. But the church acknowledged the nun’s accusations only after five of her fellow nuns mutinied and publicly rallied to her side to draw attention to her yearlong quest for justice, despite what they described as heavy pressure to remain silent.
“We used to see the fathers of the church as equivalent to God, but not anymore,” said Darly, her voice shaking with emotion. “How can I tell my son about this, that the person teaching us the difference between right and wrong gave him his First Communion after committing such a terrible sin?”
The case in India, in the southern state of Kerala, is part of a larger problem in the church that Pope Francis addressed on Tuesday for the first time after decades of silence from the Vatican. He acknowledged that sexual abuse of nuns by clerics is a continuing problem in the church.
At a time when church attendance is low in the West, and empty parishes and monasteries are being shuttered across Europe and America, the Vatican increasingly relies on places like India to keep the faith growing.
“India’s clergy and nuns are hugely important to the Catholic Church in the West. The enthusiasm of Christians in Asia stands in stark contrast to the lower-temperature religion in the West,” said Diarmaid MacCulloch, a professor of church history at the University of Oxford.
But the scandal in Kerala is dividing India’s Catholics, who number about 20 million despite being a relatively small minority of a vast population.
Bishop Franco Mulakkal, center, after being questioned by the police in Kochi, India, last year.
Prakash Elamakkara/Associated Press
Bishop Franco Mulakkal, center, after being questioned by the police in Kochi, India, last year.CreditPrakash Elamakkara/Associated Press
And there may be more to come: More nuns have stepped forward to report sexual abuse at the hands of priests, the police in Kerala State say. And in Kerala’s Pathanamthitta district, four priests have been accused of blackmailing women during confession, using the information to coerce them into sex, according to Sudhakaran Pillai, the head of the local crime branch.
“If this case goes ahead, it will be a new beginning and priests and bishops will be forced to be held accountable,” said the Rev. Augustine Vattoly, a priest in Kerala who was an early supporter of the nun’s accusations and said he was ordered by his superiors to back away or face repercussions.
“The church is losing its moral authority,” Father Vattoly said. “We are losing the faith of the people. The church will become a place without people if this continues. Just like in Europe, the young will no longer come here.”
Details of the nun’s accusations came from interviews with law enforcement officials and from her family and the five other nuns who saw the saga unfold inside the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, which is based in India but answers to the Vatican.
Copies of the official complaints the nun addressed to church authorities by email and post were also provided to The New York Times. (The nun is not being named and her sister is being identified only by her first name because under Indian law, the media, including international news organizations, cannot identify rape victims.)
The nun’s family accuses Bishop Mulakkal, 54, of raping her repeatedly over a two-year period, dating from May 5, 2014.
The bishop could not be reached for comment, but church officials and the Kerala police say that he maintains he is innocent.
The nun, who belongs to the Missionaries of Jesus religious order, first informed church authorities of the assaults in January 2017, approaching nearly a dozen church officials, including bishops, a cardinal and representatives of the Vatican. Some cautioned her to wait, assuring her that the church would take action. Other officials forbade her to go to the police, her family said.
But the only action came last September, after the church’s silence led five other nuns to mutiny and come to Kerala’s High Court to stage a days-long protest.
“The church is losing its moral authority,” said the Rev. Augustine Vattoly, a priest in Kerala. “We are losing the faith of the people.”
Samyukta Lakshmi for The New York Times
“The church is losing its moral authority,” said the Rev. Augustine Vattoly, a priest in Kerala. “We are losing the faith of the people.”CreditSamyukta Lakshmi for The New York Times
They sat in front of a large poster featuring the Pieta statue, the famous sculpture housed in St. Peter’s Basilica depicting Mary holding the limp body of Jesus in her lap after his crucifixion. Instead of Jesus, the poster featured a nun’s lifeless body. A placard read “Justice for nuns.”
About two weeks after the protests started, the Vatican stripped Bishop Mulakkal of his administrative duties. The next day, on Sept. 21, Kerala’s police arrested him.
“Retrospectively, the church should have taken action quicker if we had known a crime had really happened. If she thought the church was not acting properly, she should have gone to the police sooner,” said the Rev. Paul Karendan, a spokesman for the archdiocese that oversees the headquarters of the Syro-Malabar Church.
Father Karendan said that the church was slow to act at first, as they thought the nun was resisting transfer orders given by Bishop Mulakkal.
In Kerala, it is not uncommon for families to have one or two daughters take vows as nuns. Statues of Mary and Jesus line streets here and even Mass on a weekday is well attended.
India’s Christians, only about 2 percent of the population, tend to stand together in the face of any crisis.
India’s governing bloc, the Bharatiya Janata Party, or B.J.P., led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is rooted in Hindu nationalism. In that environment, the scandal in Kerala has pitted Christians who believe the case is a stark call for reform within the church against those who want to maintain unity out of fear.
Mary Mavely, a 36-year-old Catholic in the capital, Delhi, said she was willing to give the nuns the benefit of the doubt as opposed to her mother, who immediately stood by the bishop.
“For my mother, she thinks that in the current political climate if we put the church in a bad light it is an opportunity for B.J.P. to blow things out of proportion. For me, I want it treated as a criminal offense and we should let the court decide,” Ms. Mavely said.
Catholic nuns and Muslim supporters demanding the arrest of Bishop Mulakkal outside the High Court in Kochi last year.
Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Catholic nuns and Muslim supporters demanding the arrest of Bishop Mulakkal outside the High Court in Kochi last year.CreditAgence France-Presse — Getty Images
Bishop Mulakkal received a loving welcome when he was released on bail in October, cheered and showered with flower petals when he returned to his diocese. His church posted a large banner featuring his photo and proclaiming a “hearty welcome.”
A senior police officer investigating the case said he believed that authorities had sufficient evidence to prove that Bishop Mulakkal both raped the nun and then intimidated her family and the families of the nuns who began the protest to silence them. The officer spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the case, as the final police report will be filed later this month before the trial can begin.
“We are broken. The church we have given our lives to won’t even give an ear to us,” said Anupama Kelamangalathuveli, a nun who served at the convent at the same time as the nun who said she had been raped.
“This fight isn’t just for us,” she added. “The church needs to listen to women and not just the priests and bishops.”
In November 2017, Cardinal George Alencherry discouraged the nun from taking her case to the media or police, according to her family and the other nuns. Representatives of Cardinal Alencherry did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Desperate, the nun, a member of the Missionaries of Jesus religious order, decided to take her case directly to the Vatican by writing the pope’s representative in India, Archbishop Giambattista Diquattro.
“No sooner I reached the room than he pulled me toward him. I was numbed and terrified by his act. I took all efforts to get out, but in vain. He raped me brutally,” reads a letter the nun wrote to Archbishop Diquattro on January 28, 2018.
The letter went on to accuse Bishop Mulakkal of intimidating her and others into silence, and to explain how she had complained to various church authorities who failed to act.
Multiple emails and phone calls to Archbishop Diquattro requesting comment went unanswered.
Through more than a year of efforts to receive help within the church, she confided in five other nuns who had at one point lived with her at her convent, the St. Francis Mission Home, tucked away amid thick jungle in rural Kerala. Then they reached a breaking point.
The Mar Thoma Church in Kerala is where Indian Catholics believe that Jesus’ apostle Thomas, landed by boat to bring Christianity to India. The faith is deeply embedded in Kerala.
Samyukta Lakshmi for The New York Times
The Mar Thoma Church in Kerala is where Indian Catholics believe that Jesus’ apostle Thomas, landed by boat to bring Christianity to India. The faith is deeply embedded in Kerala.CreditSamyukta Lakshmi for The New York Times
In April last year, the five, some who had been moved to other convents, defied church rules to slip away from their residences across India, taking buses and trains to travel hundreds of miles to join their sister and support her.
The nuns said they decided to go public only after Bishop Mulakkal filed several police cases against them and their families in June, accusing them of plotting his murder. The police said his accusations had been dismissed.
The nun wrote a second letter to Archbishop Diquattro on June 25, days after Bishop Mulakkal filed his accusations with police.
“I was waiting for the Catholic Church to give me justice,” she wrote, but as her situation had grown worse, “I am forced to approach for the legal procedures,” read a copy of the email, written in halting English.
Three days after sending the letter, she went to the police on June 28 and filed a complaint accusing Bishop Mulakkal of rape.
As the weeks went by, the church ordered the nuns to leave St. Francis and return to their respective convents.
Worried they would be evicted, and with the police slow to respond, the nuns decided in early September to take the nearly two-hour drive to Kochi, a major city in Kerala, and protest outside the High Court. When they returned the next day with their placards, they were surprised to see dozens of churchgoers, activists and even priests, holding their own signs demanding Bishop Mulakkal be held accountable.
The nuns are now filing multiple civil cases against church officials in India, claiming they tried to intimidate them to drop the case or ignored the rape accusations. The nuns are still at St. Francis, ignoring repeated orders issued by church authorities last month to disband. On Saturday, with the nuns planning another public protest, the church revoked those orders — giving the nuns a small victory.
“We took a vow to be in a congregation — to make the congregation our family,” said Sister Josephine Villoonickal, one of the nuns, who had been ordered to return to her convent in northern Jharkhand, about 1,500 miles away. “They are now trying to destroy this family.”