In 2017, Sister Jesme was standing on the terrace of her two-bedroom home in Kerala’s Guruvayur when she received a phone call from another nun in Canada.
“My friend told me that there was a nun in Kottayam district who is thinking of leaving the congregation as she is not feeling safe,” said Jesme. “She asked me if I would be able to host the young girl. I said yes but then I never heard from her again.”
A year later in 2018, a nun from the Missionaries of Jesus Congregation in Kottayam accused Bishop Franco Mulakkal, the head of the congregation’s order, of raping her 13 times between 2014 and 2016. The nun alleged that the Catholic Church had ignored her repeated complaints.
“I sat back in horror when my friend called and told me this is the nun she was talking about a year ago,” said Jesme.
After the case sparked huge protests in Kerala, the Vatican temporarily relieved the bishop of his duties. In September 2018, a police investigation was initiated after five nuns outside the high court. Since then, the nuns have been heavily for speaking up.
Nevertheless, Mulakkal was charged and arrested, and the trial began in 2019.
During the course of the trial, were made against the former bishop after one of the witnesses accused Mulakkal of hugging her, forcibly kissing her forehead, and often using perverse language to describe the body parts of the nuns during video calls.
Additionally, a key witness in the case, Father Kattuthara, who was the first to testify against Mulakkal, was later in his room.
After close to 100 days of hearing, in a single-line verdict, the Kottayam district court said Franco Mulakkal was not guilty. Mulakkal walked out of the courtroom today with a smiling face.
Father Augustine Vattoly, one of the only priests in Kerala who came out in support of the main victim and five other nuns, told Newslaundry he was “shocked” by the verdict.
“Not one witness had turned hostile,” he said. “This was a watertight case. Why did the verdict turn out this way?”
It should be noted that the Catholic Church sent Vattoly a warning him of “strict action”, soon after he participated in protests against Mulakkal in 2018.
On the reaction of the nuns, Sandhya Raju George, one of the advocates representing the nun at the district court, told Newslaundry, “When we told them the verdict, all six of them remained stoic...The judge merely read out ‘acquitted’. Right now, we’re waiting for the judgement. We’re completely stunned.”
A life of seclusion
The nuns were not in court today. George explained that over the last two years, ever since the trial began, the nuns have been reluctant to come to court as they do not wish to be seen.
“These women have been closeted in their convent and don’t want to step out anywhere,” she said. “They’re scared.”
Sister Jesme, 66, is not just shocked but deeply disturbed. She herself left her congregation in Kerala in 2008. In her autobiography, Amen: The Autobiography of a Nun, she details a story of sexual abuse, curroption and gender discrimination within the church.
Jesme, who has been supporting the movement against Mulakkal from the start, explained that ever since the case began, the nun who accused the bishop and the five other nuns who support her have lived in a different corner of the convent.
“They’ve been given a place of accommodation a little away from everyone else and they live a fairly secluded life now,” she said. “They spend their time in prayers and cultivating the land around them.”
This physical separation from the rest has resulted in the nuns struggling with things like electrical issues, forcing them to then write to the convent for help or to speak to the police designated to protect them.
“What happens to the police protection now?” Jesme said. “Will it be taken away? What will happen to their safety?”
Why didn’t the nuns ever leave the convent for a safer place?
“You have to understand that when a woman decides to become a nun and enter a convent, her desire to live and die there. That becomes her home,” explained Jesme. “They don't want to leave the convent because that means they have to give up being a nun. Why should they do that?”
A day before the verdict came out, Sister Lucy Kalappurakkal : “Tomorrow's sexual harassment case verdict would be a victory over devil.”
Today, she told Newslaundry: “I’m shocked. We don't know how we failed to convince the courts.”
She added, “This is a major blow to women in this country. Rape and sexual battery are a direct attack against women's right to live with dignity and respect. And those rights were blatantly violated here.”
As with Father Vattoly, the church went after Sister Lucy as well. In June 2021, she was from her convent on “disciplinary grounds” for joining the protest in support of the rape survivor. Nevertheless, even after being served an eviction notice, Lucy, who had lived in the convent for 39 years, refused to leave.
“I know it will be a long-drawn legal battle,” she . “I will take the fight till the apex court seeking to uphold my dignity as a nun and continue my stay at the convent of the congregation I have been a part of for nearly 40 years. I have complete faith in our judiciary.”
There has been little support for the nuns from priests. Vattoly explained, “According to the norms of the church, there is no history of supporting nuns publicly. The church is a patriarchal institution which may not always give proper value to women. So it is difficult for priests to come out.”
Jesme, who has been living a life outside of nunhood, said that this verdict is one of the most “frustrating judgements” she has ever witnessed.
“How shall we pacify these nuns now?” she said. “How do we console them? What will we tell other nuns who are being abused and afraid to come out?”
Advocate George, said that despite deep disappointment, the nuns are determined to make a fresh appeal at the high court very soon.
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