A few hours before the Kerala Police finally arrested Jalandhar Bishop Franco Mulakkal on charges of rape on Friday evening in Kerala, Catholic nun Anupama made an emotional speech near the High Court junction in Kochi, where she and four other nuns had started a sit-in protest on September 8 to demand Mulakkal’s arrest.

“It is time the Church leadership ended this criminal silence on the sexual abuse complaint against Franco Mulakkal,” said Anupama. “Else more nuns will desert the Church.” She broke down at least three times during her five-minute speech. “We would like to tell the Church leadership that our fight is not against Mulakkal, but against his misdeeds,” she said. “He mentally tortured us when we questioned his sexual misadventures. We took to agitation on behalf of all the nuns and women who are being tortured. We want to ensure that no nun will ever face our fate in the future.”

Anupama and her counterparts from the Missionaries of Jesus congregation, to which the complainant also belongs, launched their sit-in protest after Catholic Church officials allegedly failed to act against Mulakkal despite several representations by the complainant. The protest was held under the aegis of Save our Sisters Action Council, a collective of eight independent church organisations, and social activists across the state.

As the Bishop of the Jalandhar diocese in Punjab, Mulakkal served as the spiritual head of the Missionaries of Jesus congregation, which is based in the North Indian city but runs two convents in Kerala – in Kuravilangad, Kottayam and in Pariyaram, Kannur. The alleged abuse took place in one of the convents. Both the complainant and the protesting nuns belong to the Kuravilangad convent.

Rape allegations

The rape allegations first emerged on June 27, when a 46-year-old nun filed a police complaint alleging that Mulakkal had raped her 13 times between 2014 and 2016.

The high-profile case received widespread public attention, but the police investigation progressed slowly amid allegations that the bishop was attempting to bribe the complainant and her supporters to withdraw the case.

Mulakkal was first interrogated in Jalandhar in August and was summoned to Kerala for further questioning on September 19. His arrest was only registered at about 9 pm on September 21 after he was interrogated for more than 20 hours over three continuous days in a facility in Tripunithura, in Kochi. He became the first Indian Catholic bishop to be arrested on charges of rape.

“The investigative officials have found that the allegations raised by the nun were reasonably true,” Kottayam Superintendent of Police S Hari Shankar told reporters in Tripunithura on Friday. “So we have decided to arrest Mulakkal. We will produce him for a medical test, including a potency test, soon.”

Rumours about Mulakkal’s arrest had been doing the rounds ever since he appeared for questioning on September 19. It is learnt that the police decided to arrest him after receiving the go ahead from the government and legal experts.

Church’s silence

The Church has maintained a disturbing silence ever since the complainant first intimated it of her allegations against Mulakkal. Even when the agitation started in Kochi, Church authorities did not address the nun’s complaint. Instead, her congregation launched a vilification campaign against her.

The complainant had written to the Apostolic Nuncio, the Vatican’s representative in India, against Mulakkal in January. She wrote to Pope Francis in May, and to State Secretary Cardinal Pietro Parolin in June. When she did not receive any response, she submitted one more complaint to the Apostolic Nuncio on September 8. Another complaint to the head of the Syro-Malabar Church, Cardinal George Alencherry also did not receive a response.

With the protest – the first in the history of the Catholic Church in India – gaining widespread attention, Mulakkal wrote to Pope Francis on September 16 seeking permission to temporarily step down from his responsibilities. The Vatican divested Mulakkal of his administrative powers on September 20. This meant that Mulakkal was stripped of his administrative powers as Bishop of Jalandhar diocese, but he remains its titular head. The Vatican appointed Bishop Emeritus of the Archdiocese of Bombay Agnelo Rufino Gracias as the diocese’s apostolic administrator.

Even as the police investigation was progressing, the Missionaries of Jesus congregation struck out against the complainant. The congregation claimed that an internal probe had revealed that the allegation against Mulakkal was baseless and that the complainant had entered into a “conspiracy with atheists”. It also released a photograph of the complainant, disclosing her identity, which is a violation of the law. The police registered a case against the congregation on a complaint from the complainant’s brother in connection with this on September 15.

Indian Currents, a weekly English magazine run under the patronage of the Capuchins of Krist Jyoti Province, published an article on July 9 discrediting the survivor.

The article said: “A Catholic nun has alleged that he [the bishop] had sex – natural and unnatural – with her 13 times between 2014 and 2016. Thirteen is believed to be an unlucky number. Recently, we stayed in a cottage at a resort in the Havelock Island in Andaman and Nicobar. We noticed that after cottage number 12, there was 12A, followed by 14. There was no cottage numbered 13.”

Sister Anupama with her father beside her. (Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen).

The way ahead

Following Mulakkal’s arrest, the Save our Sisters Action Council decided to end the protest at Kochi. It said that it would decide its future course of action on Saturday.

Father Augustine Vattoli, one of the leaders of the Save our Sisters Action Council, said that the protest had entered a crucial phase with the arrest of Mulakkal. “The arrest is just a beginning,” he said. “We have to continue the legal fight to ensure punishment for the rape accused. We have miles to travel. We will chalk out the next stage of our agitation soon.”

Anupama told Scroll.in on Friday. “We want Mulakkal to be punished for rape. We will continue if the police fail to ensure that.”

‘Church has damaged its image’

Meanwhile, Church observers say that the Catholic Church – which has claimed it is adopting a zero-tolerance approach with regard to sexual abuse cases by members of the clergy worldwide – has damaged its image by mishandling the allegations against Mulakkal.

Jose Kavi, editor of Matters India, a website that prominently covers Church-related matters, said that the Church had failed to ensure justice to the complainant. “They should have asked Mulakkal to step down when the allegations [first] came up,” said Kavi. “There was evidence that he [Mulakkal] had used money and power to change evidence.”

He added: “I pray the Church takes action against Mulakkal at least after his arrest. I hope better sense will prevail.”