21 - 02 - 2019

Scandal that shook the Church

Two centuries ago, western Christian missionaries sensed great prospects of evangelism in Punjab. Presbyterians, the Protestant reformists from Britain, set out in vessels crossing the Atlantic Ocean to eventually reach the state. One of them, John C Lowrie, went on to meet Maharaja Ranjit Singh at Lahore in 1835. Soon the province got its first English-medium school in Ludhiana. 

 Today, 60 km northwest of that industrial hub, in Jalandhar stands the headquarters of a half-century-old Catholic diocese. Here, a middle-aged clergyman has been summoned to his native state Kerala. Bishop Franco Mulakkal needs to reach the state where the police  will question the 54-year-old in a case of alleged rape of a colleague, a nun, 10 years younger.

On Saturday, Mulakkal temporarily stepped down. He will be interrogated by the police on September 19 in Ettumanoor, 3,000 km south of Jalandhar where he has been a priest with power over the laity. It will be his second round of interrogation in the case. This time the venue is closer to the location where the nun has filed the case. Her convent at Kuravilangad is 10 km north of Ettumanoor. Both places in south-central Kerala fall within Kottayam, a district with 45 per cent Christian population.

What is the case?

On June 27, the police received a complaint by a nun that Bishop Mulakkal had raped her 13 times between 2014 and 2016. The waves of concern and worry it sent across people are of various measures and for different reasons. A chunk of priests and nuns was perturbed over the matter going public. The Kerala Catholic Bishops’ Council came up with reminders that the church had forums to settle grievances in case of such an “unusual happening”. The 152-year-old Congregation of Mother of Carmel (CMC), Kerala’s first such community of women in the influential Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, issued a circular barring nuns from participating in the anti-Bishop stir.

Mulakkal, who hails from Mattam near Thrissur, has appeared relaxed. His initial reaction was predictable: victim of a conspiracy. “Aisa mera soch hai,” he shrugged his shoulders, speaking in Hindi with a flourish earned since his post-graduation days from Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar. By September 13, the Bishop added meat to his defence. He claimed that the nun had illicit relations with her relative, whose aggrieved wife once approached him in Jalandhar for a solution. In May last year, the nun would even have left the congregation to marry that man if Mother General hadn’t convinced her to withdraw her application, he claimed.

Letter to the Pope

Three weeks thence, exasperated over the case not moving forward, the nun wrote to the Pope in the Vatican, the citadel of Roman Catholic Church. Amid a prolonged fast by five fellow nuns in Kochi and increasing public support, the September 8 letter to the Indian envoy of the Holy See appealed for justice. It said, “The kind of silence on part of the Church” may lead to its loss of “credibility before society”. Religion-wise, Christians form 18.4 per cent of the state’s 3.3 crore population, while the corresponding figure for Punjab is 1.1 per cent.

It was at Jalandhar, on August 14, a Kerala police squad first grilled the Bishop well into the small hours of Independence Day. The probers did initially notice discrepancy in the statements. That’s said to be one of the reasons behind the delay in the arrest of the Bishop, who has been pleading innocence.

The many reactions

Some of Kerala’s socio-literary figures are now back on the subject, this time from the angle of exploitation. Left-leaning thinker Sunil P Elayidom and poets Balachandran Chullikad and Kalpetta Narayanan find it appalling that the government is apparently dithering on the arrest of the Bishop. Like Professor Elayidom,  actress Rima Kallingal and her director-husband Ashiq Abu and ghazal singer Shahabaz Aman addressed a gathering that was protesting in front of the Kerala High Court that is hearing the case. According to the police, ‘inconsistencies’ in the nun’s statement have been cleared, and the Bishop was most likely to face an arrest on Wednesday. There’s some let-up in patriarchy that is a defining feature of the Kerala society, like it is with India as a whole. 

Politics at play

The BJP, which is going strong in its search for a stronger vote-base in Kerala, expressed  solidarity with the nuns. The Congress, traditionally party of the state’s Christians, stands guarded. An odd leader of the party may look anti-Mulakkal, but ensures it is done in ‘personal capacity’. After all, not many ‘secular’ outfits can afford to antagonise the Christians, though believers from various denominations, too, are seen siding with the nun. But, generally, it’s a gender issue as well, as proven, yet again, by P C George. The independent MLA, typically acerbic, called the nun a ‘prostitute’ at a press meet in Kottayam.

Kerala’s Smitha Meenakshy, who lives in Delhi, is hurt. Her comments, sympathising with the nun’s travails, were met with harsh reactions on social media. The private messages she received said the story was about forces within the Church trying to dislodge the Bishop from his ordained authority.