By Suhasini Raj and Kai Schultz
The Indian authorities on Tuesday charged a bishop with repeatedly raping a nun in the southern state of Kerala, the first case of its kind in the country and a development that comes just weeks after Pope Francis acknowledged a continuing problem with sexual abuse of nuns in the Catholic Church.
Vijay Sakhare, the inspector general of police who oversaw a monthslong investigation, said Bishop Franco Mulakkal had been charged with raping a nun nine times over a two-year period starting in 2014. The bishop, who faces a maximum punishment of life imprisonment, has denied the accusations.
The filing of charges on Tuesday “enters the annals of history as a rarest of rare incident, when a bishop is going to face trial in a court based on the complaint of a nun who is a subordinate to him,” read a statement from Save Our Sisters, a group of members of India’s Roman Catholic Church.
The charge sheet includes statements from 83 witnesses, including a cardinal, three bishops, 11 priests and 25 nuns, the group said in its statement.
Nuns have tried for years to call attention to sexual exploitation in the Catholic Church. They have recently stepped forward to accuse clerics of abuse in India and Italy, as well as in African and Latin American countries.
But they have also struggled to move the conversation forward among church leaders. In November, the International Union of Superiors General, the organization representing the world’s Catholic women’s religious orders, said a “culture of silence and secrecy” was partly to blame.
A new front was opened in February, when Francis publicly addressed sexual abuse of nuns by clerics for the first time. Asked about the issue during a news conference aboard the papal plane, Francis said that the Vatican was taking reports of sexual abuse and “sexual slavery” seriously. Some priests had already been suspended for their behavior, he said.
“Should more be done? Yes,” he said. “Do we have the will? Yes. But it is a path that we have already begun.”
In Kerala, the nun’s accusations against Bishop Mulakkal, 55, were largely sidelined by the church until several other nuns rallied to her side and cast aside what they described as intense pressure to stay silent.
In official police complaints, the nun’s family accused Bishop Mulakkal of raping her multiple times over a two-year period starting from May 5, 2014. The assaults occurred at the nun’s convent, the St. Francis Mission Home, in a forested part of Kerala, which is home to many of India’s 20 million Catholics.
The nun first approached the church authorities about the abuse in January 2017. She contacted nearly a dozen church officials. Some told the nun that the church would take action; others dissuaded her from going to the police, her family said.
“No sooner I reached the room than he pulled me toward him,” the nun wrote in a letter to Archbishop Giambattista Diquattro, the pope’s representative in India, on Jan. 28, 2018. “I was numbed and terrified by his act. I took all efforts to get out, but in vain. He raped me brutally.”
But the church did not take action until last fall, when five nuns protested at Kerala’s High Court after hearing about the assaults while staying at the St. Francis Mission Home. They sat in front of a large poster depicting Virgin Mary holding a nun’s lifeless body. One placard read, “Justice for nuns.”
Last September, about two weeks after the protests started, the Kerala police arrested Bishop Mulakkal and the Vatican asked him not to conduct Mass.
Still, Bishop Mulakkal’s detention did not last long. When he was released on bail in October, his supporters cheered and showered him with flower petals. He returned to his diocese, where a banner offered him a “hearty welcome.”
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In recent weeks, pressure to charge the bishop had intensified. Last month, the five nuns who protested approached the police in the district of Kottayam, where the convent is, and asked them to speed the investigation.
Hari Sankar, the police chief in Kottayam, said the charges were filed Tuesday afternoon in a district court. Apart from rape, Bishop Mulakkal has been charged under laws against intimidation, illegal confinement and unnatural intercourse. He faces at least 10 years in prison.
More charges against clerics may come in Kerala. Earlier this year, the police said they were looking into reports that leaders of India’s Catholic Church had abused other nuns, and that four priests in Kerala had blackmailed women during confession to force them into sex.
Sister Anupama Kelamangalathuveli, one of the five nuns to push for the charges, said the group was “extremely happy and grateful,” but realistic about challenging days to come. It was their unity, despite the odds, that had gotten them this far, she said.
“We will not disband,” she said. “We will stay together and fight together to the finish.”
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