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Sunday, January 23, 2022

Outrage as bishop acquitted in nun rape, court blames ‘rivalry’

🔴 Franco Mulakkal later broke down in the corridor outside, hugged his lawyers, and told reporters before leaving the premises: “Daivathinu sthuthi' (Praise the Lord).”

Written by Vishnu Varma , Apurva Vishwanath | Kochi, New Delhi |
Updated: January 15, 2022 3:12:20 am
Bishop Franco Mulakkal of the Catholic Church was acquitted by a Kerala court on Friday. (ieMalayalam)

HOLDING THAT “in-fight and rivalry and group fights of the nuns, and the desire for power, position and control over the congregation” were evident in the case, a trial court in Kerala Friday acquitted Franco Mulakkal, the former Jalandhar Bishop of the Catholic Church, of all charges in the alleged rape of a nun.

The high-profile case had led to an unprecedented public protest in Kerala more than three years ago by other nuns in support of the complainant.

“This is a case in which the grain and chaff are inextricably mixed up. It is impossible to separate the grain from the chaff. There are exaggerations and embellishments in the version of the victim. She has also made every attempt to hide certain facts. It is also evident that the victim was swayed under the influence of others who had other vested interest in the matter,” Kottayam Additional Sessions Judge G Gopakumar wrote in a 289-page order.

“The in-fight and rivalry and group fights of the nuns, and the desire for power, position and control over the congregation is evident from the demand placed by PW1 (Primary Witness) and her supporting nuns who were ready to settle the matter if their demands for a separate region under the diocese of Bihar is accepted by the church,” the order stated, while referring to the complainant.

Referring to a previous judgment delivered by the Supreme Court, Judge Gopakumar stated in the order that “when it is not feasible to separate truth from falsehood, when grain and chaff are inextricably mixed up, the only available course is to discard the evidence in toto”.

The order said that “this court is unable to place reliance on the solitary testimony of PW1 and to hold the accused guilty of the offences charged against him”.

Mulakkal was present in the courtroom when the verdict was pronounced. He later broke down in the corridor outside, hugged his lawyers, and told reporters before leaving the premises: “Daivathinu sthuthi’ (Praise the Lord).”

However, one of the nuns who had spearheaded the protest against Mulakkal, Sister Anupama, expressed disbelief at the verdict.

Speaking to reporters with tears in her eyes, she said: “We cannot believe this verdict. We will continue this fight until the day our fellow sister gets justice, even if it means we have to die. All the testimonies were in our favour so we don’t know what happened in court. We will definitely appeal in the higher court.”

S Harisankar, the former Kottayam district police chief under whose leadership the investigation was conducted, described the verdict as “extremely unfortunate”.

“We had fully expected a conviction. This verdict will be a surprise for the entire Indian legal system,” said Harisankar, who is currently posted in the state police headquarters. He said “it was after suffering huge psychological pressure that the survivor disclosed the assault to her fellow nuns” and that the verdict would “send a wrong message to society”.

In a statement, the Jalandhar diocese of the Church thanked all those “who believed in the innocence of the bishop and assisted him with legal aid”.

The allegations against Mulakkal (57) came to light in June 2018 when a senior nun, belonging to the order of Missionaries of Jesus, submitted a complaint to the Kottayam police chief, accusing the bishop of raping her and subjecting her to unnatural sex 13 times between 2014 and 2016 at a convent in the district.

Subsequently, an FIR was filed against Mulakkal on charges of rape at the police station in Kuravilangad, where the convent is located. Mulakkal denied the charges and described the complaint as a “retaliatory act” for disciplinary action taken earlier against the complainant in an unrelated incident.

In September that year, a public square in front of the Kerala High Court premises in Kochi saw unprecedented scenes as five Catholic nuns, who were close to the complainant, sat on an indefinite hunger strike demanding the arrest of the bishop.

On September 21, 2018, the police arrested Mulakkal and booked him on rape charges, in the first such action against a Catholic bishop in the country. Mulakkal was released on bail nearly a month later, and divested of his responsibilities as bishop in the Jalandhar diocese.

In April 2019, a Special Investigation Team of the Kerala Police filed a 2,000-page chargesheet against Mulakkal. The trial commenced in November 2019, with the prosecution listing 83 witnesses of whom 39 were examined during the trial. A number of senior figures from the Church, including Major Archbishop of Syro-Malabar Church Cardinal George Alencherry, and 11 priests and 25 nuns were among the witnesses.

Mulakkal faced a slew of charges, including wrongful confinement, unnatural sex, rape of a woman incapable of giving consent and criminal intimidation. And although he approached the Kerala High Court and the Supreme Court claiming innocence, both directed him to stand trial.

On Friday, after the trial court cleared him of all charges, Mulakkal went to a retreat centre in Kottayam and offered holy mass.

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