AP tells how nuns in India go after predator bishop as sex abuse crisis reaches Asia

With all the sex abuse scandals among Catholic hierarchy that have been in the news since June, there’s been a quiet wondering as to how bad the situation really is outside the West. Have Catholics in Asia and Africa been spared these horrors?

Now there is a story out this week from the Associated Press about nuns in India, it appears the problem has been bad over there as well — but with a twist. In this story, the victims are nuns.

My first trip to India in 1994 landed me in Kerala, where much of the AP story was based and where the first Catholic diocese was established in 1329. About one-fifth of the population in this southern state is Catholic and churches are visible everywhere.

The major city in Kerala is Cochi and the story opens in a small town just southeast of there.

KURAVILANGAD, India (AP) — The stories spill out in the sitting rooms of Catholic convents, where portraits of Jesus keep watch and fans spin quietly overhead. They spill out in church meeting halls bathed in fluorescent lights, and over cups of cheap instant coffee in convent kitchens. Always, the stories come haltingly, quietly. Sometimes, the nuns speak at little more than a whisper.

Across India, the nuns talk of priests who pushed into their bedrooms and of priests who pressured them to turn close friendships into sex. They talk about being groped and kissed, of hands pressed against them by men they were raised to believe were representatives of Jesus Christ.

“He was drunk,” said one nun, beginning her story. “You don’t know how to say no,” said another.

At its most grim, the nuns speak of repeated rapes, and of a Catholic hierarchy that did little to protect them.

Depressingly, the story begins to sound like ones we’ve already heard.

The Vatican has long been aware of nuns sexually abused by priests and bishops in Asia, Europe, South America and Africa, but it has done very little to stop it. …

Now, the AP has investigated the situation in a single country — India — and uncovered a decades-long history of nuns enduring sexual abuse from within the church. Nuns described in detail the sexual pressure they endured from priests, and nearly two dozen other people — nuns, former nuns and priests, and others — said they had direct knowledge of such incidents.

The crux of this story is one nun’s accusation against Bishop Franco Mulakkal, who oversees an order of nuns known as the Missionaries of Jesus. He is accused of raping one of them repeatedly over a two-year period in a convent in Kerala.

But this summer, one nun forced the issue into the open.

When repeated complaints to church officials brought no response, the 44-year-old nun filed a police complaint against the bishop who oversees her order, accusing him of raping her 13 times over two years. A group of nuns launched a public protest to demand the bishop’s arrest.

The protest divided India’s Catholic community. The accuser and the nuns who support her are now pariahs, isolated from the other sisters, many of whom defend the bishop.

“Some people are accusing us of working against the church,” said one supporter, Sister Josephine Villoonnickal. “They say, ‘You are worshipping Satan.’ But we need to stand up for the truth.”

All this happened in a room at the end of a hall in this convent. If this happened 13 times, certainly other nuns must have noticed the bishop pulling this one woman into a room.

Did she ever cry out? Protest? Did she ever get pregnant? There are so many unanswered questions.

I had to go to an NPR story that tries to get an answer these questions:

The nuns describe how Mulakkal, 54, used to come to the convent for dinner. He is originally from Kerala but was stationed in Punjab, in the country's north, and used to return home often. He'd frequently spend the night at their convent.

The nuns say they only learned much later that he allegedly raped their sister during those visits.

"She was always upset and she was crying always," Anupama says. "Whenever we asked, she used to tell us that she had a headache."

They say she was too frightened to come forward until earlier this year.

The public, said NPR, appears to be on the side of the bishop and the video atop this post shows a mob throwing a huge garland of flowers around the bishop’s neck after he was released from jail.

In September, authorities did arrest Mulakkal. He spent more than three weeks in jail before his release on bail in October. The Catholic clergy threw him a party. Hundreds of well-wishers threw flowers. An Indian politician called his accuser a prostitute.

Christians are very much a minority in India and I’m guessing the nun didn’t want to ruin what little good name the Catholic Church has in those parts. Also, Catholics weren’t the only Christian denomination in hot water.

Elsewhere in Kerala, four priests from the Malankara Orthodox Church have been arrested for allegedly raping and blackmailing a mother of two who had attended their church for years.

The husband of the alleged victim, Alex Thomas, tells NPR his wife was molested by one of the priests as a teen. When she confessed that to three other priests, they used her account to blackmail and rape her, her husband says

Back to AP:

The letter says the first rape happened on May 5, 2014. The last time was Sept. 23, 2016. The dates are recorded in the convent’s visitor logs.

Mulakkal angrily denies the accusations, telling reporters the charges were “baseless and concocted” and accusing the sister of trying to blackmail him into giving her a better job.

“I am going through painful agony,” said Mulakkal, who was jailed for three weeks and released on bail in October. “I tell everyone to pray to God: Let the truth prevail.”

The affair has very much made the local news in recent months here and here. Crux covered it here, quoting from the brother of the accuser-nun. The Hindu has also been following the story incrementally.

This story in the National Catholic Register reveals the nun is a former superior general for her order. Which makes one wonder why the bishop would mess with a woman who is obviously a leader. The Register said, in part:

After the nun filed her police complaint against Bishop Mulakkal at the end of June, the national media disclosed regular police leaks of the investigation’s reported findings against the bishop, as well as his denials.

As the police investigation extended, five senior nuns, including the alleged victim’s younger sister from the same convent in Kuravilangad where the nun said she had been raped, started a sit-in Sept. 8 near the Kerala High Court.

Soon, more than a dozen other nuns and priests, along with hundreds of others, including Indian film stars, joined the unprecedented protest demanding the arrest of Bishop Mulakkal.

It gets crazier. A key witness –- a priest -– in the case was found dead in October. No wonder all India is stuck on this story. And other nuns within the Missionaries of Jesus order are contesting the account of the sisters in Kerala.

So yes, this is a huge deal. The Register points out how a leading Hindu points out in the piece that this bishop scandal is not helping the already beleaguered cause for Christianity in India.

“These developments have been shocking. I think the bishop should have stepped down or been suspended much earlier. Then it would not have made so much media impact or public protests,” Apoorvanand, a senior Hindu professor at Delhi University who uses a single name, told the Register following the bishop’s arrest, which was making banner headlines even in New Delhi.

Apoorvanand, who is a frequent face in major debates on national television networks, pointed out, “I am a strong critic of the Hindu nationalists who attack and vilify the Christians and other minorities. Sadly, the Bishop Franco episode is giving ammunition to [Christianity’s] critics. Now, we have to be on the defensive.”

All this must be giving Pope Francis massive headaches these days. This stuff is popping up everywhere and when your own nuns are turning against you, there’s nowhere else left to go.

The National Catholic Reporter, via the Global Sisters Report says that officials in Rome knew of these allegations but did nothing. Sound familiar? Of all the articles, this one has the most quotes from nuns at the convent where the rapes are said to have happened.

Sister Josephine said that in June 2017 the sister accusing Mulakkal of rape had complained to the apostolic nuncio to India, Archbishop Giambattista Diquattro, but got no response. She also said her sister wrote to the Vatican three times.

"We have confirmation that the letters had reached the Holy See," Sister Josephine said. "What disturbs us the most is the total silence of the Vatican and its representative in India. This shows that the church leaders are with the oppressor, not the oppressed."

Will this conflict be resolved in the secular courts? Will the Vatican intervene in some way? Are there more victims who will come out of the closet as they have in the States?

The stakes are high for reporters on this story and for the Catholic Church in that country. If sex abuse in India focuses on clergy and nuns, that’s one thing. But if the abuse is found to have touched Catholic children, that will take everything to a whole new level.

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