The Christian community in India must demand that Bishop Franco Mulakkal of the Jalandhar diocese, who was arrested in Kerala on September 21 on charges of raping a nun, be tried in a fast-track court. A speedy trial is in the best interests of the complainant, the accused, the Church and the Christian community at large. It should also be welcomed by the governments of Kerala and Punjab, who have been accused of delaying the investigations to help the accused – a senior member of the clergy.
If a court finds Mulakkal guilty, the Church will be well rid of a criminal. If he is declared innocent, he will emerge strong and tempered by the fires he has had to walk through. His public ignominy and humiliation before the media will be brought to an end. Whether declared guilty or innocent, how he will reconcile himself with this period of his life is something he will have to dwell upon once the extended period of the trial, and the inevitable legal challenges in the High Court and Supreme Court conclude.
The complainant nun is the most vulnerable party and has the maximum at stake. Justice in a fast-track court will bring urgent closure to her long extrajudicial trial in a section of the media, and by her congregation and others. If her alleged assailant is convicted, she will be vindicated. If he is not convicted, she faces a more severe test than at present.
It takes great courage for any woman to report sexual harassment or assault given the social stigma around such abuse and the tendency to blame the woman for it. As a member of a religious congregation – which was subordinate to the alleged perpetrator – it must have been even more difficult for her to speak out. This is why the Church and the Missionaries of Jesus congregation she belongs to have all betrayed her by not listening when she first spoke, not directing her to the police and assisting her to file a case. There never should have been an attempt to hush up the accusation, to resort to calumny.
There never can be reconciliation in rape, or compromise, or any other way of seeking the truth other than in a court of law. Any attempt to force a settlement outside court would make the Church, its leadership and the nun’s congregation an accessory to the crime. They would be culpable, morally if not legally. This includes members of the Church hierarchy of the region, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India – an assembly of Bishops in India – as well as for people like me who speak for the Church community, but not for its leadership.
A decision by the judge may vindicate the nun, but how will her congregation then make amends? Also, if the ruling is in favour of the bishop, how is the complainant to be rehabilitated in the congregation, the Church and the community?
In my opinion, the congregation the nun belongs to is in an awkward position. They betrayed a member sister by refusing to heed her internal complaints, and by later casting aspersions on her character. Its leadership even broke the law against identifying a rape victim, when it released a photograph of the complainant to the media. After its members started a protest in Kochi on September 8, demanding justice for the complainant, the congregation even issued a statement condemning them.
The Missionaries of Jesus is a congregation that was established to solely serve the Jalandhar diocese. Learning from this experience, the Church must put in place more strict rules for all such single-diocese congregations. Whatever the court verdict, the Missionaries of Jesus congregation should ideally be disbanded. This will remain the decision of the Bishop of Jalandhar, whoever that will be. The members of this congregation could be absorbed in other similar congregations, or regrouped into a new congregation with a new leadership and new constitution.