Nun rape case verdict evokes sympathy and support for the victim
21 January 2022
By Matters India Reporter
In NDTV on 18th January 2022, Politburo member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and former Rajya Sabha Member Brinda Karat wrote: "The Acquittal of Kerala Bishop Is Best Example of a Bad Judgement.” She further wrote that the laws concerning definition of and punishment for sexual assault were amended in 2013 to look at issues from the survivor's point of view. She further wrote: "The amended laws recognised the different levels and forms of sexual assault, including forced oral sex, use of fingers, or any instrument without consent as rape. But the judgement (of Kottayam Trial Court) displays an extraordinary obsession with proving that the survivor never mentioned "penile penetration."
She added: "On several occasions, the survivor had spoken about her fear that she would be forced to "sleep with him", to "share his bed", but the judgement, while bringing this on record, does not consider this evidence because the word "rape" is not mentioned. Presumably there are reasons other than sex as to why a Bishop would force a woman to "share his bed."
Therefore, the judge is technically wrong in his judgement that no sexual assault took place. I feel confident that the High Court, if approached, will set aside the Kottayam Court judgement, especially in view of Mulakkal's denial (and proved false) that he was not in the convent on the days of rape incident.
Regarding Nirmala Carvalho's observation in the following mattersindia.com article that the Kottayam Court acquittal could encourage “the servitude and silence of our women religious,” I do not agree with this. Servitude is a state of mind and has nothing to do with Mulakkal or his ilks. Especially being a Superior herself, the nun should have taken a stand not to allow a predator like Mulakkal into her convent, even though she was apparently dependent on Mulakkal for finances, etc. The whole system appears to be warped: financial clearance in exchange for sexual gratification of Mulakkal. In Kolkata a Salesian Parish priest was equally aggressive, including hobnobbing with local mafias and political parties, to gain his end. Almost all the convents in the Salesian Parish closed their doors on him, till he surreptitiously vanished from the parish, without handing over the accounts. Nuns are at liberty not to meet priests and bishops behind closed doors. No priest or bishop can order them to wash and iron their clothes and carry their luggage, as was seen to have been ordered by Mulakkal from the evidence produced at the Kottayam Court. I am sure Nirmala Carvalho will agree that the Vow of Obedience do not include sexual gratification of Church Hierarchy.
All young nuns should learn self-defence. Otherwise, "sleep with him" will continue. So if the nuns want to catch the bull by the horn, they should appeal to the Kerala High Court with the added support of Melwyn Fernandes of the Association of Concerned Catholics. Security of the convents should also be beefed up with maintenance of proper entry and exit register and installation of CCTV, etc. A kick at the soft spot of predators at the very onset of danger signal, is one of the best cost-effective methods.
It's only a matter of time before the High Court catches up with Mulakkal. At the same time, the system of Obedience etc to Superiors needs a thorough re-look. The days of blind and unquestioning obedience in religious orders are passé. However, the 2000-page Police Report is too long. This allowed the Kottayam judge to discard the evidence in toto under the excuse that the whole evidence is a mix-up between grain and the chaff and it is very difficult to sniff out the truth. But isn't finding the truth precisely the job of a judge? The judge's verdict is like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Isaac Gomes, Associate Editor, Church Citizens' Voice.
Additional District and Sessions Court Judge G. Gopakumar on January 14 acquitted Bishop Franco Mulakkal of Jalandhar in the historic nun rape case, saying the prosecution had failed to prove the charges against him.
The nun, a former superior general of the Missionaries of Jesus, a Jalandhar diocesan congregation, had in June 2018 accused Bishop Mulakkal of raping her 13 times between 2014 and 2016.
“When it is not feasible to separate truth from falsehood, when grain and chaff are inextricably mixed up, the only available course is to discard the evidence in toto,” said Judge Gopakumar in his verdict.
“In the said circumstances, this court is unable to place reliance on the solitary testimony of a rape victim and to hold the accused guilty of the offences charged against him. I accordingly acquit the accused of the offences,” the judge added.
After the verdict was pronounced, Bishop Mulakkal came out of the court saying, “Praise God.” His supporters hail the verdict as a victory for the Church since those behind the case were its enemies. The prelate reportedly offered Mass in a charismatic retreat center and visited people who had supported him in the media.
However, the verdict sent shock and disbelief among women across the country.
Astrid Lobo Gajiwala, a Mumbai-based woman theologian, says that the judgment is “a huge deterrent to rape survivors coming forward to seek justice, especially in the Church.”
“It tremendous courage for a Catholic nun to go public about being raped by a bishop, in a Church that claims its hierarchy is divinely instituted,” explains Gajiwala, who claims to be aware of “the prolonged physical, psychological and financial toll that this case has taken on the survivor and her supporters. It is unimaginable that she would go through this if it were not true.”
In December 2021 the Supreme Court held that a rape accused can be convicted solely on the basis of the testimony of the survivor, if she is found to be credible and trustworthy.
“So in effect this verdict has cast aspersions on the character of the survivor,” Gajiwala says and asks,” Why will women come forward to accuse their rapist if this will be their fate?”
Kochurani Abraham, a feminist theologian and founding member of Sisters in Solidarity in Kerala, finds the verdict “extremely deplorable. As someone who has accompanied the survivor very closely over the last three and a half years, I was hoping that the justice that was denied to her within the Church, she would find in the secular courts of law. Though the truth is defeated here, we who stand by her will continue our struggle for justice till the very end.”
Anita Cheria, writer and campaigner for social justice and inclusion was disappointed at the verdict “not just because it is negative, because court responses through the trial were deceiving.”
The Bengaluru-based activist pointed out that the Sessions court as well as the Kerala High Court and the Supreme Court of India had earlier rejected Bishop Mulakkal’s appeal to dismiss the case without the trial.
“When it came to conviction, he was let free without any doubt, on all counts,” she told Matters India.
According to her, the evidence and witness statements “strongly” supported the accusations made by the survivor. “So what is the logic of this acquittal? What evidence did the judge need?” she asks.
She regrets that the message from the court is, “Don’t waste our time and your time.”
The lay woman regrets that the court and the Church “have behaved true to their character — support the establishment at all costs. The accused is certainly dearer to this church hierarchy, than the survivor.”
She further says the court and the Church not only let down a survivor who dared to complain but “have done all in their power to kill her spirit.”
Nirmala Carvalho, a Mumbai-based journalist who writes for international church media, says the verdict has shocked her, especially since it was “given after an in camera trial” where the media was banned.
“From the very first day that the FIR was registered in June 2018, everyone was waiting to see how this case would unfold, revealing the dynamics of power and control and conversations of spiritual/religious abuse in the Church,” Carvalho told Matters India.
She says it time to “call out the misogyny in the church and end this culture of silence on the scourge of sexual abuse and the cruel indifference of a few of the Church leaders.”
Carvalho too thinks the acquittal could encourage “the servitude and silence of our women religious.”
Melwyn Fernandes of the Association of Concerned Catholics says his laity group has decided to prepare its team of lawyers going to challenge the acquittal in higher Courts.
Presentation Sister Dorothy Fernandes, a social activist based in Patna, says her “immediate response” was that the defense advocate turned the case to his favor by examining the non-essentials.
Admiring the survivor for garnering courage to take on the “mighty institution of the Church, Sister Fernandes asserts that it is accepted when a woman says she was raped. “She had to go through the ordeal of describing the entire episode bringing humiliation to herself. Why isn’t it that the onus should be on the man to prove that he did not rape? This in itself is unfair,” she told Matters India.
She also questions the “disturbing” and “deafening silence of the other half of our humanity.”
She alleges that the Church in Kerala would not want the nuns to win, “as it is hostile towards women and look at them to be subjugated to patriarchy. A sad day for the Church.”
She wants the Church to take away from bishops the control over diocesan congregations. “No more male chauvinism. Enough is enough,” she asserted.
Meanwhile the survivor and her supporters stay in their convent in Kuravilangad near Kottayam. They said they would appeal against the verdict in higher courts.
“We will continue our stay in the convent and take forward our fight till our sister gets justice. Police and prosecution showed justice to us but we did not get the expected justice from the judiciary,” Sister Anupama Kelamangalathuveli, the spokesperson for the survivor and her supporters told reporters.
She also said the verdict gave them the message that ordinary people like them should never break their silence against any injustice and fight a case whatever happened to them in the life.