Sister Ancita, in her deep brown habit and veil, appears on the elevated porch. Inside, in the living room of the Mission Home of the Missionaries of Jesus, a congregation that has its headquarters in Jalandhar and whose patron Bishop has been accused of raping a senior nun, Ancita speaks softly, pausing every time the stillness in the room is disturbed — an occasional clatter of dishes from the kitchen, muffled conversations outside. She carefully parts a curtain and goes inside to ask the senior sister, the rape victim, if she wants to meet the media team outside. “She won’t talk to anyone, she is not in the right frame of mind,” she says, coming back to the living room.
Just then, the twin doors leading to a room slams shut.
“There are two other nuns from the rival camp who stay here,” she says, looking pointedly at the shut door. “They don’t like people visiting us. Our sister — we call her amma (mother) — isn’t safe here. We can never be sure of what they might do. Our amma has taken on one of the most powerful people in the Church. Which is why one of us makes it a point to stay with her,” she says.
In the church attached to the Home, the two sisters from the “rival camp” react angrily at the presence of a media photographer. The constables posted outside are tense. “See, we let you in only because you have come all the way. Now if we get a complaint, we will have to take action against you,” one of the policemen says. “That’s it,” he says, making sure the gates are shut behind the media crew.
Sister Ancita looks on from the elevated porch, a faint smile on her lips.
This Mission Home, nestled amidst dense foliage in a village in South Kerala, stands at the heart of an unprecedented controversy that has rocked the Catholic Church in Kerala. The senior nun, a 44-year-old who has spent 19 years in the congregation, had in an FIR filed on June 28 accused Bishop Franco Mulakkal of raping her and subjecting her to unnatural sex 13 times between 2014 and 2016.
Besides Punjab, the Missionaries of Jesus runs three convents in Bihar and three in Kerala, including the Mission Home that serves as a base for nuns visiting Kerala from their convents in the other states. It’s here, in the guesthouse attached to the home, that Mulakkal allegedly sexually abused the nun. The congregation in Jalandhar has hit back, claiming the senior nun came up with the rape allegation in response to an inquiry ordered by the Bishop into a complaint that she was in a relationship with a married man.
Amidst the swirl of allegations and counter-allegations, the silence around the Church lies shattered, its lopsided power structure between the priests and nuns now open to public scrutiny and the strict discipline that it demanded of its clergy frazzled. If this is Kerala’s #MeToo moment, Vanchi Square, in the heart of Kochi, is where it’s playing out.
Here, in a rectangular stretch abutting the footpath, framed by walls shaped like the hull of a boat, a protest by five nuns seeking the arrest of Bishop Mulakkal has been building up. The protest has been organised by Save Our Sisters Action Council, a collective of eight independent church organisations. Every day since September 8, the nuns have been travelling close to 60 km from the Mission Home to the site, where they sit holding placards seeking “justice” while the microphone gets passed around to people who speak in their support — activists, former judges, lawyers, writers and common citizens who feel the need to express their solidarity. Former Kerala High Court Justice Kemal Pasha, actor Rima Kallingal and her director-producer husband Aashiq Abu, singer Shahabaz Aman, academic Sunil Elayidam and poet Kalpetta Narayanan were among those who spoke.
Political parties have so far stayed away, fuelling allegations that the accused is being shielded for the sake of “vote bank politics”. The Church wields considerable clout over the state’s 18.4 per cent Christian population. The sustained pressure has had an impact — the Kerala Police has summoned Mulakkal for questioning on September 19.
The protests have coincided with dramatic events across the Catholic world this week, including a study that 1,670 clergy members abused more than 3,600 children over the past seven decades in Germany, allegations against Pope Francis for a cover-up of sexual abuse, and an open letter by thousands of lay Catholic women seeking “answers” from the Pope.
Metres from the protest site, in a sea-facing apartment, four of the protesting nuns — Josephine, Anupama, Ancita and Sister A (she will remain unnamed because she is the sister of the victim nun) — meet on Day 5 of their agitation to chalk out strategies and give a few exclusive media interviews. Today, it’s Sister Neenarose’s turn to stay back with the victim at the Mission Home.
Sitting around the dining table, a senior nun who is accompanying the young nuns says, “There are three vows that a nun takes — poverty, that she will lead an austere life; chastity, that she will lead a life of celibacy; and obedience, that she will submit to the will of her superiors who stand in the place of God. It’s this third vow that’s increasingly becoming problematic. My superior may say something but my inner voice may disagree with that. How can I not listen to my conscience, the call of God?” She then hastens to add, “No names, please. I am from a different congregation and have already got into trouble for speaking my mind.”
Also at the table is Aloysia Joseph “Teacher”, who is associated with the Kerala Christian Reformation Movement. “Our immediate demand is justice for the nun. But it doesn’t stop there. There are larger issues. There is no financial accountability in the Church. We have been fighting for a Church Act to deal with mismanagement of land and properties under the church. As long as these chennayakal (wolves) have money with no accountability, they won’t stop abusing their powers. Aren’t they ashamed to walk around in these expensive robes, kireedam (crowns) and sticks (pastoral staff)? And look at how they treat nuns — they are expected to wait on them while they eat, bring them water, wash their clothes. These nuns get a mere Rs 500 a month. Is this why parents send their children to be nuns?”
In another room, Sister Anupama, 30, among the youngest of the protesting nuns and who is now leading the agitation, talks about her association with the senior nun. “I was with amma for two years at the Mission Home. Even before that, it was under her that all of us did our first professions. So when we got to know of our amma’s problems, the five of us came down to be with her at the Mission Home,” she says.
Often, the only option for a nun who can’t adjust to the order is to quit. Anupama, however, says they have no such plan. “We will fight within the Church and the congregation. Our superiors cut off all support lines to us the moment we questioned them. Even local priests have stopped coming to convent to offer Mass. But we will fight,’’ she says.
Sister Ancita, who is resting after the two-hour journey from the Mission Home to the protest site, asks, “Are you Christian? Ah… If you were, you would have known where the Bishop stands in our order of things. He is God. But look at how he has behaved. Our amma confided in us when she couldn’t take any more of his abuse and told us, “Kartavinde aduthe kidakkan paranju (Told me to sleep near God).” Ancita came to the Mission Home from a convent in Bihar in April and has refused to go back since.
“All lies,” insists a senior official of the Missionaries of Jesus in Jalandhar. “All this began after the sister’s (the victim) cousin came to Jalandhar in a hysterical state in November 2016 and alleged that this sister, who had stood by her and got her married to the Hindu boy she was in love with, had gone on to have affair with her husband. We didn’t believe her at first but when this cousin produced evidence — photographs, phone conversations, etc. — we had to do something. In January 2017, we thought we would transfer her out of the Mission Home, but she sought more time. But we removed her from her key position in Kerala. She reacted very negatively and didn’t support the sister who took over from her. In January this year, when a commission went there to question the sister, her family members and some outsiders, including a taxi driver she was close to, abused and threatened them. Then, her brother threatened the Bishop who finally filed a case of threat and intimidation. That’s when this sister filed a case against the Bishop and Superior General Sister Regina,” says the official over phone from Jalandhar.
Justice (retired) Pesha, who was among those who spoke at the protest site, says it’s “unfortunate” that the congregation has been “talking about the senior nun’s conduct”, even releasing photographs of her with the Bishop after the alleged rape took place. “All this doesn’t matter. What option did she have, anyway? She is a senior nun and her presence is required at these functions. The principle we follow is this: even a sex worker has a right over her body and there can be no trespass on her body against her will,” he says.
The congregation, however, has stuck to its stand. “All these nuns who are supporting her are illegally occupying the Mission Home and intimidating the two nuns there. Those two nuns, along with Sister Neenarose (one of the protesting nuns), are the real members of the Home. The others are there, defying our transfer orders. All these people supporting the protests need to know the real story,” says the congregation official.
K M Varghese, 68, is among the ‘supporters’. Today, on a Wednesday, he is back home in Cherthala in Alappuzha district after spending a few hours at the protest site, where he had taken his position behind Sister Anupama, his little “Saly”, the youngest of his four children — three daughters and a son. His heart had swollen with pride as reporters flocked to her for a sound bite and an international TV crew did a phone-in with her.
“She is the main one… leading the protest, though she is only 30,” he says. “That’s because she knows the sister is innocent.”
Sitting in the family’s small provision store attached to their single-storey home, Varghese’s wife Lillikutty says she is worried for their daughter. Talking of how Saly had as a child insisted on becoming a nun, she says, “And look where all that got us. I can’t sleep at night when I think of that child. What if they do something to her? These days, all I watch on TV is news of the protest and Japamala on Shalon TV (a Catholic TV channel)… no serials and movies.”
Even for Kerala, a state where hartals and protests are an everyday feature, this was an unusual campaign — after all, the hands clasping rosary beads were now holding up placards of protest, those ordained to kneel down before the altar of sacrifice were now standing up against their patron bishop.
With images of the protesting nuns being splashed across newspapers and social media and the debate occupying prime-time television space, experts say this could be a watershed moment, not just for the Catholic Church but for women’s movements. Says social and political observer R P Azad, “The Church is a symbol of power with a defined power structure. It’s very unusual for women to challenge that power structure and take on priests and bishops. In many ways, this agitation is unique and a cut above recent protests led by women in Kerala.’’
Talking of the “larger significance” of the protests, he says, “They embraced religious life to seek emancipation. Now, they are coming out of the same religion, pleading for emancipation from civil society,” he says. Father Benny Maramparambil, who led the church probe against Cardinal George Alencherry in the recent land scam case, says the agitation will have “far-reaching ramifications”.
“The Church is a male-dominated world, where canon laws serve to protect the interest of priests and bishops and where nuns were destined to remain silent… Their voices remain repressed within the walls of the convent. But this agitation will shatter that tradition. There would be calls for freedom from convents and more nuns will oppose attempts to suppress their voice,” he says.
Pasha believes it could even lead to a crisis of faith. “A certain degree of atmiyata (spirituality) is good for society, helps to check corruption, crime, etc. But now, if people begin to think this is all fake, that these people are seeped in vulgarity… we will be witnessing a huge crisis.”
While admitting the scandal was a setback for the image of the Church, Syro-Malabar Church spokesman Fr Mathew Chandrankunnel hopes it will “lead to a cleansing process”. “Though there has been a gradual decline in the number of Catholic youths opting for priesthood or nunhood because of a decline in the population of the community, I don’t think this will deter people from the religious life,’’ says Chandrankunnel.
As the protest picks pace, spreading to districts such as Thiruvananthapuram and Kozhikode, the ripples have shattered the stillness and silence surrounding deep-set prejudices within the Church. It has forced congregations such as the Congregation of Mother of Carmel, one of the most influential in Kerala, to issue internal circulars, asking nuns not to take part in the protests.
The CMC circular, dated September 10 and signed by Sister Suby, the Superior General of the congregation, asks nuns not to participate in the protest against the Bishop. “CMC sisters have to be very careful not to talk for or against this issue or spread any messages via WhatsApp or participate in any protests,” reads the circular.
Even before any of these circulars could go out, a 45-year-old nun from a convent in South Kerala had decided she would be at the protest site. “I have always fought for rights-based issues and my congregation has stood by me,” she says, sitting in her office and refusing to be identified. “But I have never been able to make peace with the fact that the rules are different for priests and nuns. I have never been comfortable with waiting on priests and serving them. Many of us nuns are now professionals — teachers, social workers, professors — and we can’t be expected to do that. I believe this sense of superiority comes from their position on the pulpit — they are at a higher level and they believe that’s how it’s meant to be. I have been asking these questions and so have some others, even if not openly,” she says.
That day, the sister called her Superior to ask for her permission to attend the protests. “We have to do that. And she said no. For a moment, I was divided. If I went, it would be a violation of my ecclesiastical vow, but I knew I had to go for this one,” she says.
So she went, but didn’t enter Vanchi Square; instead stood by the concrete hull “as a vazhipokar (passerby)”. “That way, I didn’t break my vow, yet got to express my solidarity. In this case, it’s not about who is right and who is wrong. It’s about a woman who has alleged sexual assault and a man accused of carrying out the act. So far, neither the government nor the Church has been able to touch him. That, to me, is injustice,” she says.
The church & scandals
Rape case against four priests of Orthodox Syrian Church for sexually exploiting a woman
Fr Binu George of Orthodox Church booked for raping a woman, who had approached him to settle a dispute with her in-laws in 2014
Catholic priest Thanninikkumthadathil Thomas of Pala diocese arrested for raping a foreigner
Catholic priest Robin Vadakkumchery of Mananthavady diocese arrested for raping a minor girl
Catholic priest Edwin Figarez of Kottappuram diocese given two life terms for repeatedly raping a minor
Fr Raju Kokken of Thrissur Catholic diocese arrested for sexually abusing a minor
As it happened
June 23, 2018: Kottayam police register a criminal case against the brother of the nun (victim) based on a complaint filed by Bishop of Jalandhar Peter Kavumpuram’s spokesperson.
June 28: Police register a case against the Bishop based on the nun’s complaint that Bishop Franco Mulakkal raped her and subjecting her to unnatural sex 13 times between May 5, 2014, and September 23, 2016
August 13: Bishop is questioned in Jalandhar
Sept 12: Police issue summons to Bishop asking him to appear before them on September 19
Sept 13: High Court says probe on right track
Churches in Kerala
The Christian denominations in Kerala are Catholic (61% of Christian population), Jacobite Syrian and Orthodox Syrian (15.9%), Mar Thoma (6.6%), Church of South India (4.5%), Dalit Christians (2.6%) and Pentecostal churches/ groups (3.5%).
Within Catholics, there are the Syro-Malabar, Latin Catholic and Syro-Malankara Churches. Bishop Franco Mulakkal hails from the Syro-Malabar Church, which is one of the 22 Eastern (Oriental) Churches in the world under Rome. However, his Jalandhar diocese, which comes under the archdiocese of Delhi, belongs to the Latin Church (also known as Western Roman Catholic Church). He reports directly to the Vatican. Before moving to Jalandhar, Mulakkal was auxiliary bishop in Delhi.
(Source: Study on Religious Denominations of Kerala, Centre for Development Studies, 2016)