Kerala Church scandal a test for the state, the institution and law enforcement

Last Updated: Fri, Sep 14, 2018 16:21 hrs
Kerala

Thiruvananthapuram: The Catholic Church has taken a big hit in recent months. One, in Pennsylvania, where the church helped cover up multiple abuses over decades and another, at home in Kerala where more than two months ago, a nun filed a FIR alleging that Bishop Franco Mulakkal had raped her over a dozen times in the last two years. The police have begun an investigation into the allegations and the bishop.

Since the first accuser came forward, more nuns followed with their own allegations against the bishop. The bishop at the centre of this has denied all the allegations against him. The nun, who first came forward with her story, recently wrote a letter to the Pope’s envoy in India asking for a speedy enquiry and the removal of the bishop from his post. In the letter, she wrote in part, “Catholic Church has concern only for bishops and priests. We would like to know is there any provision in Canon Law for justice for nuns and women?” The bishop also stated that he is cooperating with police, though there are claims to the contrary.

As is the case, unfortunately, when a woman comes forward with allegations against a relatively powerful man, the pushback begins. In this case, the bishop in question has resorted to accusing the nun of being a prop for anti-church elements. The other disturbing part of the bishop’s defence is that Missionaries of Jesus Congregation, the organisation that the nuns have defied by coming forward with their stories, is standing by the bishop.

The congregation has alleged that the nun had questionable relations with a local taxi driver and a physical relationship with a relative's husband. As a group of nuns protested for the fourth consecutive day, they got support from a member of the Kerala Catholic Church Reform Movement, Stephen Mathew who continued his hunger strike.

The role of the state government comes into play here. While the church has signaled that it will cooperate with authorities, it hasn’t stopped them from resorting to making their own allegations against the nuns. The Kerala Catholic Bishop's Council (KCBC) said the protest by the nuns was an attempt to malign the church and the bishops. The Indian Express editorial stated that the government of Kerala must fast track the probe citing support for the investigation from reformists and the charge that the police are going slow with the probe –

“The charge immediately points the finger at the state home ministry, which the police are answerable to, and the implication is that the accused bishop enjoys political protection”.

The role of law enforcement here is critical in breaking a system of abuse and delivering justice to the victims. They’re up against a powerful entity in the Catholic Church. The editorial points out a case in 1990 where two nuns were raped in the course of a robbery and the police tried to come to the conclusion that the suspects were in custody at the time the crime took place.

“…the case involving the bishop of Jalandhar also threatens to garner infamy. The Kerala government should hasten the due process in the matter. Any further delay in the processes of justice could create a rift within the church that would not heal easily”.

Particularly in the state of Kerala, where the Christian population is nearly 20%, the scandalwill test the church, the power it wields and questioning that power is valid and necessary. Journalist and commentator Kay Benedict, in an op-ed for News 18, writes on the nexus and power the church has in the state –

“…the clergy and the political class (barring notable exceptions like 94-year-old former chief minister VS Achuthananadan) are maintaining a studied silence. More than vote bank politics, money power of the Church may have swayed the government’s thinking”.

The church dealing with sexual abuse and rape is not new. It has been going on for decades and isn’t restricted to one country or continent. From the child sexual abuse scandal by Roman Catholic priests in Boston uncovered by the Boston globe journalists, as chronicled in movie Spotlight, to the recent cases in Chile, Pennsylvania, Germany and now here in Kerala, it’s a decade’s long systematic pattern of abuse and cover-up by powerful religious men. It’s these men who have built the system and orchestrated them in such a way that any and all who commit abuses are protected. It only takes a brave few to come forward to break that system.

As far as the Kerala case is concerned, there is some precedent to draw upon. Various Hindu priests have been accused, tried and convicted of rape and sexual abuse in recent years. In a column for Manorama, Josy Joseph, writer and associate professor, St Berchmans' College, Changanassery writes on power and influence of Hindu priests who are more or less seen as cult leaders –

“They function as parallel governments and exert tremendous influence on society. They have all been involved in controversies and had all kinds of accusations (murder, rape, cheating, bribing) leveled against them. But the faith industry has carried on undaunted, if not become stronger than ever”.

More columns by Varun Sukumar

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