In a striking departure from business as usual here, a Catholic nun from the South Indian state of Kerala has defied her congregation to publicly accuse a prominent bishop of repeatedly raping her for two years. According to the nun, Bishop Franco Mulakkal of the Jalandhar diocese of Punjab began assaulting her in 2014 during visits to the convent where she was the superior. Repeated complaints and requests for transfers sent to her religious community’s authorities were ignored, as were several letters to other church officials, including the archbishop of Delhi, the papal nuncio for India and Nepal, and finally Pope Francis, to whom she sent a seven-page letter detailing the entire ordeal.
Mulakkal, who is well-connected within both the Indian government and the church, had the nun transferred and filed several police complaints against her, accusing her of conspiring to have him killed and falsely accusing him of indecent acts. Prominent secular leaders came to his defense, including one who was quoted as saying it was well known that the nun was a prostitute and that she herself should be arrested for making false accusations.
Although the nun filed formal charges on June 29, the police took no action either to investigate or arrest the bishop. Exasperated, on September 11, she and a group of nuns, priests, and lay supporters began a sit-in at the High Court in Kerala, demanding his arrest. Partly because of the novelty of seeing nuns and priests protesting in their habits and clerical garb, the demonstration caught the attention of the media and created a sensation across the country.
Reacting sharply to the adverse publicity, Kerala’s Catholic bishops’ council criticized the public protest, saying that the nun’s actions had “crossed all limits.” Her religious community, the Missionaries of Jesus, issued a stinging statement in which they revealed the nun’s name and shared photos of her, in violation of a law that prohibits any public identification of survivors of sexual assault. In their statement, they declared their unequivocal support for the bishop, accusing the nun of immoral behavior and claiming that an impartial internal investigation into the matter had found her guilty and the bishop innocent. They neglected to say that the bishop himself was in charge of the investigation.
That same day, charges were filed against the nun’s community for revealing her personal details, and a week after that the bishop was finally summoned for questioning by the police. After extensive grilling, he was arrested and jailed without bail. The police have indicated that the charges against him are significant.
In the past few days, the Vatican has temporarily relieved Mulakkal of his responsibilities. More stories have emerged about the extent of his assaults, not only against the original nun but also against at least seventeen others, all of whom are said to have left the order since his transfer to the Punjab diocese. Details of his misuse of power, sexual harassment, and rape are shocking in themselves, but even more appalling is the fact that not only did the Missionaries of Jesus refuse to take action on behalf of one of their own, but they played the lead role in vilifying her, accusing her of conspiring against the church she had devoted her entire adult life to serving.