A group of five nuns protesting in Kerala’s Kochi to press for the arrest of a bishop accused of raping a nun said on Tuesday they have lost faith in the Vatican and are looking to the judicial system for redress. They, however, also accused the police of trying to sabotage the investigation.

The nuns from the Missionaries of Jesus congregation launched their sit-in protest on September 8 after Catholic Church officials allegedly failed to act against Bishop Franco Mulakkal.

“Vatican has not acknowledged the rape survivor’s complaint against Mulakkal so far,” said Anupama, one of the protesting nuns who is a friend of the survivor. “She wrote to the Apostolic Nuncio in January. She complained to Pope Francis in May and to State Secretary Cardinal Pietro Parolin in June. She submitted her complaint to the Apostolic Nuncio once again on September 8. Their failure to even acknowledge the complaint has eroded our faith in the Vatican. We are now pinning our hopes on the judiciary for justice.” The Apostolic Nuncio is the Vatican’s representative in India.

The five nuns have been demonstrating at the busy High Court junction in Kochi city, wearing their habits and holding placards. “Oust Bishop Franco,” reads one placard. “Why Bishop Franco is being protected?” reads another.

The protestors are demanding justice for a 46-year-old nun who complained to the Kerala police on June 27 that Mulakkal had raped her 13 times between 2014 and 2016. She is a member of the Missionaries of Jesus congregation based in Jalandhar, Punjab, which runs two convents in Kerala, one in Kuravilangad, Kottayam, and the other in Pariyaram, Kannur. Both the survivor and the protesting nuns are from the Kuravilangad convent. Mulakkal is with the congregation’s Jalandhar diocese but the visitors’ diary at the convent shows he was there on the days the alleged rapes took place.

The nuns said they decided to protest after the Kerala police failed to make much headway in its investigation into the survivor’s complaint. They even accused the state police chief Loknath Behra of trying to sabotage the inquiry. Behra rubbished the allegation and said the inquiry will be completed soon.

The police’s delay in completing the investigation has prompted the Kerala High Court to intervene. Hearing a couple of petitions on the matter on Monday, a bench of Chief Justice Hrishikesh Roy and Justice AK Jayasankaran Nambiar asked the government to inform it about the progress of the investigation. The bench also orally observed that nobody should hold any misconception that they are above the law.

Many people are visiting the protest venue to express solidarity with the nuns. Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen

‘Not against the church’

The protest is being organised under the aegis of Save our Sisters Action Council, a collective of eight independent church organisations – the Kerala Catholic Reform Movement, Kerala Catholic Federation, Kerala Latin Catholic Association, All Kerala Church Act Action Council, Church Act Action Council, Dalit Christian Federation of India, Knanaya Catholic Naveekarana Samithi and All India Catholic Association.

A member of the Save our Sisters Action Council, Stephen Mathew, joined in the protest on Tuesday, going on an indefinite hunger strike.

Anupama said their protest is not against the Church but against “sinners”. “We are up against those who remain at the top of the Church hierarchy despite committing many sins,” she said. “We will fight till we get justice and we wish to continue as the nuns of the Missionaries of Jesus congregation.”

She wondered how Mulakkal has evaded arrest for the last 75 days. “It is a mystery,” she added. “It may be because of his financial and political clout. We believe that he has strong connection with political leadership.”

Anupama argued that the bishop’s arrest “is necessary” and, when it does happen, should mark the beginning a cleaning process of the Catholic Church in India. “Let the word know that he is a sinner.”

The nuns said they had no option but to launch a protest, the first in the history of the Catholic Church in India, after the elders denied them justice. The rape survivor, they said, had knocked on all doors before filing her police complaint. “We approached police only after Mulakkal began to harass us,” Anupama claimed. “He used his clout to file false complaints against our relatives. We lost faith in the police’s investigation and decided to air our grievances in public. We wouldn’t have done this had the church ensured justice to us.”

They are overwhelmed by the people’s support to their protest, Anupama said. “We never expected such a huge support from the public,” she added. “This gives us the strength to continue our protest.”

Stephen Mathew joined the protest on Tuesday, launching a hunger strike. Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen

‘Rape survivor is shattered’

Anupama said PC George’s attack on the rape survivor has “shattered her”. “She is not eating these days,” she said. “The verbal attack by the legislator has shattered her. He might have made the statement to weaken her mentally. He might have done this for Mulakkal. He should be arrested for attacking a rape survivor.”

The independent legislator on Sunday called the survivor a prostitute and questioned why she had not complained after the first rape. “Twelve times she enjoyed and 13th time it became rape,” he said.

The National Commission for Women has sought an explanation from George and directed him to appear before it on September 20. He is also facing censure on the Kerala social media with a campaign called “Vayamoodeda PC”, or Shut your mouth, PC.

Anupama said all the nuns at their convent are providing emotional support to the survivor. “We are praying to give her power to overcome this trauma,” she added.