For more than a week, five nuns have been protesting to say #MeToo.
On the road across from the high court of Kerala, a state that was once known for having a matrilineal society, the nuns stepped out of their cloistered lives, marching with placards warning that their lives were in danger. They were demanding action against Bishop Franco Mulakkal, who they say raped one of the nuns 13 times between 2014 and 2016. After failing to get the church to respond to her complaint, the nun registered a police complaint in June. While the man charged with rape has so far been interrogated just once, the woman has been questioned five times. The police made no arrest. This is despite 81 witnesses being questioned by the police, including two critical testimonies that blow a hole in the bishop’s alibi.
The church, the Kerala government and police, the political class — and even the media — have all failed the women. The case, which some Christian reformists say may lift the shroud off a much deeper rot within, has exposed the brazen insensitivity and lack of compassion from those who say they speak for God. It has also exposed the nexus of power between the church and Kerala’s politicians.
In particular, the response of the Missionaries of Jesus, the congregation to which the victim belongs, has been an abominable disgrace. Not only did its internal inquiry hand out a certificate of innocence to the bishop accused of rape and assault, it has victim-shamed the nun by accusing her of having a “relationship beyond acceptable standards with a local taxi driver.”
The congregation has blamed “rationalists” for influencing the nuns and, worse, has openly violated Indian law (which demands guarding the identity of sexual abuse survivors because of societal stigma) by releasing a photograph of the complainant at a media conference.
While the guilt or innocence of the accused bishop will be established by court, it is unacceptable that the Catholic sect should confer upon itself the right to divine adjudication of right and wrong. The confidence with which the religious order has been able to run a parallel inquiry of its own reflects the impunity it believes it enjoys. In a state where Christians make up 18 percent of the population, the clergy seems far too powerful to be taken on directly, by either the ruling communists or the opposition Congress party. Christian activists fighting for reforms in the Church have been at the forefront of calling out the hypocrisy of both parties that otherwise claim to occupy the left-liberal space in national politics.
“This is nothing but vote bank politics,” Indulekha Joseph, a lawyer who has helped the nuns mobilize support, told me in an interview. “Politicians believe that the Christian vote rests in the hands of a few bishops. They think the Catholics will vote according to what these priests want. The ruling party has been insensitive. And the opposition party, which otherwise has something to say on each and every issue, was mostly silent.”
The church is also able to flex its muscles because of the enormous wealth its bishops control. Presently, codified canon law allows all church property to be managed by leaders of the various denominations. In effect, church authorities are not accountable for the management of the wealth even to their believers. A legislation drafted by a former chief justice of the Supreme Court to have democratically elected bodies for the management of church properties has been gathering cobwebs for almost a decade; neither party is willing to touch it.
The consequence of this covert and cozy arrangement between lawmakers and the powerful priests is the silencing of Christian women — especially nuns. The nun who has taken on Bishop Mulakkal wrote a searing letter to the Vatican alleging that her assaulter was a predator who was using money and power to bury the investigation. In the letter she says she is not the only survivor; 20 nuns were compelled to leave the congregation because of the sexual abuse by the bishop.
“There are many nuns within the church who are suffering. They are afraid to come out. The church mechanism is a very large and powerful one,” the lawyer Joseph said. “The other problem is once a nun speaks, she is thrown out of the convent and may find herself on the street, because often her family is not willing to accommodate her. A campaign of character assassination starts. The nun will be portrayed as a prostitute.”
This is exactly what happened with the Kerala nun who dared to protest. A lawmaker, P.C. George, called her a prostitute for whom “twelve times it was pleasure; 13th time it became a rape.” Later he regretted his use of the word but stuck to the larger narrative of slander. He will have to pay no price for his potty mouth.
For a moment, let’s set aside the sexist politics of using the word “prostitute” as a form of abuse. Why would a lawmaker worry about the coarse awfulness of his statements when men who claim to be messengers of piety think nothing of sullying a nun who belongs to their own congregation?
Earlier this year, the rape of an 8-year-old child in Kathua in Jammu and Kashmir united India in our outrage. Our anger was propelled by the fact that local politicians in the state, including two state ministers, were defending the men who had been booked for the crime. Today, when the clergy defends a rape-accused and isolates the woman who dared to take him on, we owe her the same rage. Yes, sexual violence and abuse is not confined to one state or one faith. But secularism is no excuse for predators and abusers to hide behind. Kerala is known as God’s own country in India; some fundamental morality is called for there.