KERALA, India — The Catholic Church in India has faced turmoil over the arrest of Bishop Franco Mulakkal of Jalandhar by police in the southern state of Kerala, on an allegation of repeatedly raping a nun a dozen times over a period of two years.
“It is a sad moment for all of us,” acknowledged Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Mumbai, president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI), in a statement expressing “distress” over the Sept. 21 arrest of Bishop Mulakkal.
“We pray for all involved: Bishop Franco, the nun concerned, the Diocese of Jalandhar, the congregation of the Missionaries of Jesus,” said Cardinal Gracias in his press statement that was issued minutes after the arrest of the 54-year-old bishop made “breaking news” headlines across the country.
The arrest followed three days of questioning of the accused bishop by Kerala police over the serial-rape allegations filed by the unnamed nun, who is a former superior general of the Missionaries of Jesus, a congregation founded under the authority of the Diocese of Jalandhar, which is located in the state of Punjab in northern India.
The nun’s rape complaint was filed in Kerala, as she alleged the rapes took place during 2014 to 2016 in the diocesan center at Kuravilangad in Kerala, a church complex that contains guest rooms as well as a convent and a home for the elderly.
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.
“A series of events which took place of late have become a matter of great pain for the Catholic Church,” conceded the Kerala Catholic Bishops’ Council (KCBC) in a press statement on Sept. 24, the date the arrested bishop was detained in 14-day judicial custody.
“It is not right to comment on the truth and falsity of [the allegation]. At the same time, the further inquiry and the trial of the case should take place impartially and without pressure from any corner,” the KCBC stated.
“It is hoped that the truth will come to light in the court and that the accused will get sufficient opportunity to prove his innocence, and that if the accusation is proved right, the culprit will get the due punishment,” the statement added.
However, the statement evoked strong negative reaction for its criticism of those who have protested in support of the nun’s claims.
“The faithful should discern those people who, under the cover of this case, try to destabilize the Catholic Church and malign the bishops,” said the KCBC statement. “They are people who oppose the Church or are jealous about the Church, media persons with [a] hidden agenda and with vested interests and some with grievances within the Church.”
“Whatever the reasons were, the fact that some priests and nuns [were] agitating in the streets, giving occasion to the enemies of the Church to attack the Church and the Church authorities ... has caused much pain to all who love the Church,” the statement said.
“I do not want to respond to this unwarranted statement,” Father Paul Thelakkat, one of the senior priests who took part in the fortnight-long public protest, told the Register Sept. 26. “Was it really required?” asked Father Thelakkat, the editor of the English Catholic publication Sathyadeepam (Light of Truth).
Capuchin Father Suresh Mathew, the editor of the New Delhi-based India Currents, also took part in the protest after flying into Kochi. In his “Open Letter” to the bishops of India, Father Mathew said the bishops should not ignore “the rarest of rare” public protest and should see the situation as “a moral and ethical one.”
However, Bishop Mulakkal has maintained his innocence.
“The allegations against me are baseless, and I am going to present myself for the police inquiry,” Bishop Mulakkal said in a Sept. 14 telephone interview with the Register.
The next day, Bishop Mulakkal sent his request to be relieved of duties to the apostolic nuncio and then to the Vatican.
In addition to Christians, Hindus have also been shocked by the two and a half months of daily headlines about the rape charge against Bishop Mulakkal.
“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.”
Register correspondent Anto Akkara writes from Bangalore, India.