Ahmedabad, Feb 3: The acquittal of former Jalandhar Catholic Bishop Franco Mulakkal accused of raping a nun 13 times over three years in a convent in Kerala has shocked and surprised not just the nun but her supporters and women activists across India.


A Kerala court acquitted Bishop Franco on January 14, citing lack of evidence in a case where a Catholic bishop was accused in India for the first time for a sexual crime putting the spotlight on violence against women in religious institutions.


The unexpected verdict sparked a wave of condemnation, with supporters of the victim saying they will move the high court. Several women activists and women lawyers also said they did not expect the court to reach such a verdict. Thousands reached out to the nun through emails, etc to show their solidarity with the victim in her fight.


The judgment


Kottayam additional district and sessions judge G Gopakumar said the prosecution failed to produce adequate evidence against the accused during the three-year-long trial.


“It is difficult to separate chaff and grain. Prosecution also failed to back its contentions with evidences,” the judge said in the 287-page verdict. Bishop Franco, 57, was accused of raping the woman 13 times between 2014 and 2016 during his visits to a convent in Kuruvilanghad in Kottayam, when he was the bishop of the Jalandhar diocese of the Roman Catholic Church. The survivor nun, 44, is a member of the Missionaries of Jesus, a congregation under the Jalandhar Diocese. She was the sister superior in the convent when the alleged rapes occurred.


Bishop's response


Soon after the verdict was announced, a visibly relieved Franco hugged his followers and lawyers.”Praise the Lord,” he said. “Lord is supreme, truth prevailed,” he told reporters. His supporters, who were present outside the court, also distributed sweets amid loud chants of “praise the lord”. Soon after, he conducted a holy mass at a church in Kottayam.


In a brief statement in Malayalam, the Jalandhar diocese thanked those who believed in Mulakkal’s innocence. B Raman Pillai, who led Mulakkal’s legal team, said the prosecution case was very weak and the investigation poor.


Victim's supporters lament the verdict


A group of nuns of the Kuravilangad Convent in Kerala, who helped the victim, said they couldn’t believe the verdict. “We will fight it out till the end. We are ready to die to uphold our cause. Till the end, everything was fine and we have no idea what happened later. We will stay at the convent as we are not scared of our death,” said a teary-eyed Sister Anupama, who was the public face of the years-long battle.


She alleged that the trial court refused to hear hapless wails of a victim who can’t even speak loud.


“The verdict is unbelievable. It is wrong to say there are not enough evidences and we conducted the investigation most scientifically. We are really disappointed and we will go in for an appeal immediately,” said former police superintendent of Kottayam, S Harishankar, who supervised the investigation.


“The outcome is really shocking and we never expected this,” said public prosecutor Jithesh Babu. But defence lawyers said most of the charges were trumped up without any evidence and they fell flat in the end.


Extending support to the nun, National Commission for Women chairperson Rekha Sharma tweeted: “Shocked at the judgment of Kerala additional district and session court. The victim nun must go to high court. NCW is with her in this fight for justice”.


The facts


The rape case against the Bishop was registered by police in Kottayam district on June 29, 2018. In her complaint to the police, the nun had alleged that she was subjected to sexual abuse by Franco between 2014 and 2016.


However, Bishop Franco was not arrested immediately. It was only after five fellow nuns of the survivor staged a two-week sit-in protest in Kochi in September 2018 that the Bishop was arrested on September 22, 2018 but he was released on bail on October 15, 2018, less than a month after his arrest.


The Special Investigation Team which probed the case arrested the Bishop and charged  him under relevant sections of the Indian Penal Code, including 376 (2) (indulging in sex by exhorting authority), 342 (wrongful confinement) and 506 (criminal intimidation) and unnatural sex (section 377). During the course of the trial, Mulakkal approached the high court and Supreme Court with discharge petitions, but both were turned down. Later, he was removed from the post of bishop by Vatican.


The trial in the case started in November 2019, concluded on January 10.


Catholic Religious Organsiation urges Church to reach out to the victim

Meanwhile, The head of India's Catholic Religious Organisation has urged Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Mumbai to reach out to the accuser nun and her supporters in the recently concluded rape case and expressed solidarity of women religious in India with the nun.

"We would like the Church authorities to at least now, try and reach out to the survivor and her companions and offer support to them in whatever way possible, including financial, spiritual and psychological," said a letter that Apostolic Carmel Sister Mary Nirmalini wrote to the cardinal, who is the president of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India.

Nirmalini, the president of the Conference of Religious India, sent the January 20 letter nearly a week after a court in Kerala acquitted Bishop Franco Mulakkal of Jalandhar in the historic nun rape case.

Nirmalini also said religious women in India express their solidarity with "the victim survivor and her companions who have walked with the victim with lot of courage, dignity and determination in their fight for justice."

The letter, endorsed by all officials of the Conference of Religious India women section, commends the "prophetic role" of the accuser's supporters, who raised their voice against "an unjust and appalling system, within the Church."

The letter regrets that nobody had paid attention to the accuser when she approached several church authorities before being forced to go public and to the court to seek justice.

"Her companion sisters had the grit to fight the power and might of Bishop Franco. The sisters, with no financial backing or support from the Church, went through their dignity being stripped as women through many ways in which power was being wielded against them," said the letter, which many view as the first response of the Conference of Religious India since the case went to the court.

The survivor nun had on her side five nuns, who started the Save our Sisters movement, to support her and seek the arrest of the bishop. These nuns revealed that she had complained to the church many times and approached the police only after no action was taken, and that it was not easy for her to handle the pressure.

“Instead of extending support to her, the church took the initiative to do her character assassination. Not only in this case, in all cases against priests in the church, they have consistently stood with the accused. They questioned the survivor’s morality and started spreading fake stories in order to protect the bishop. Many in the church consistently stood with the accused,” said Sister Jesme, a former nun, activist and writer.

Even so-called progressive priests and nuns in the community spread rumours that the survivor and the accused were in a relationship, and what happened was consensual, Sister Jesme said.

Also, in a press meet in Thiruvananthapuram in September 2018, former legislator from Poonjar constituency, PC George, called the survivor a prostitute. “No one has doubts that the nun is a prostitute. Twelve times she enjoyed it and the 13th time she called it rape? Why didn’t she complain the first time?” he said. Following this, he was reprimanded in the Kerala Assembly.

In October 2019, the survivor filed a complaint with the Kerala Women’s Commission against the online harassment she faced from Bishop Franco’s supporters. She also alleged that the bishop himself uses online platforms to defame her, adding that he and his supporters circulated a video identifying her.

The congregation to which the survivor belonged extended full support to the bishop. They even conducted an internal inquiry, where they claimed that the survivor was part of a conspiracy to defame the bishop as some of her demands were not met by him.

“The trauma and pain she went through due to these attempts to question her morality is not small. Reading the FIR will give one an idea of what she went through,” Jesme added.

Commenting on the judgement, eminent lawyer and women's rights activist Flavia Agnes wrote in the Indian Express- "During the last 40 years, sustained campaigns by women’s organisations have resulted in significant changes in the rape law. The latest of these was the amendments brought about in 2013, following the brutal gangrape and murder of the 23-year-old paramedic in Delhi in 2012.

Through these amendments, the definition of rape under Section 375 of IPC, was expanded from the rigid peno-vaginal penetration to insertion of fingers, tongue or objects into the woman’s vagina, anus, mouth, as well as forcing the victim to touch or fondle the penis of the accused and other sexual acts. The term “rape” itself was redefined broadly as sexual assault of various types. So how can the victim/survivor be faulted for failing to use the archaic term “rape”, while describing the humiliating sexual acts she was allegedly forced to perform, by the accused?"

"Further, since it was proved that he was a person in authority as the patron of her congregation, the Missionaries of Jesus, these acts would amount to aggravated sexual abuse as there is an unequal power relationship between them. This is clearly brought out in the judgment itself, that though she was the Mother Superior of her congregation, the accused could ask her to carry his luggage and iron his garments, Agnes continues.

Several other women's organisations have questioned the judgment and especially putting the victim on trial in the judgment.