NEW DELHI — A nun has accused a bishop of repeated rape, galvanizing week-long street protests by other nuns and supporters in the southern Indian state of Kerala.
The nun, who is in her 40s, accused Bishop Franco Mulakkal, 53, of raping her 13 times between 2014 and 2016. He has denied wrongdoing, and the Missionaries of Jesus, a Catholic organization he heads, has hit back, accusing the protesting nuns of whipping up a “conspiracy.”
The nuns' protests coincide with Pope Francis’s public acknowledgment this week of failings in addressing sex abuse scandals, as he tries to scrub the image of the Catholic Church -- notably in the United States, where sexual misconduct cases have rocked the institution in recent years.
While the Vatican tries to make amends for past crimes in the West, trust in India’s clergy is teetering as sex abuse scandals here stack up. Just last month, at least five priests were arrested in two different rape cases.
On Tuesday, the nun who ignited the street protests released a seven-page letter to the Vatican demanding action against the bishop, who allegedly raped her in his room at a convent in the town of Kuravilangad.
“I feel this kind of silence on the part of the Church authorities and protection of those who commit the crime may create a situation where the Church loses its credibility before society,” she wrote, according to Hindustan Times.
Nuns accuse senior clergy members of a coverup, saying the victim’s efforts to complain to her superiors fell on deaf ears.
They have now been protesting publicly for a week -- joined by activists, writers, politicians and a man on an indefinite hunger strike.
One columnist called it India’s “Spotlight moment,” after the Boston Globe team that revealed church coverups of numerous child sex abuse cases -- reporting that earned a 2003 Pulitzer Prize and became the subject of a 2015 film that won two Academy Awards.
Nuns say they started their public campaign against the bishop because authorities have failed to take action against him.
The alleged victim first filed a 114-page police complaint on June 28. She also accused the bishop of sending her inappropriate text messages and obscene photos.
Police say their investigation in the case has been delayed because of recent floods in Kerala. They have summoned the bishop to appear for questioning on Sept. 19.
Persistent violence against women in India was highlighted in 2012 after the brutal gang rape and murder of a student who had gone to see a movie with her friend.
Women’s rights activists say that many rapes here go unreported because victims fear shaming and being accused of lying when they speak up.
On Friday, in an attempt to prove the bishop’s innocence, members of the Indian clergy revealed the nun’s name and photograph to Indian media -- breaking a law that prevents rape victims from being publicly identified.
In the past week, senior clergy have accused the alleged victim of lying and having illicit affairs.
The bishop, who denies wrongdoing, has said he will accept the death penalty if the rape accusation is proven.
India is home to 27 million Christians, who make up 2.3 percent of the population, according to the most recent census in 2011.