It seems utterly incongruous, at time when a central minister has had to give up his job because of allegations of sexual harassment, that anyone accused of rape in India should be given a “hero’s welcome” for securing bail. Even more so when that welcome was carried out by leaders and members of the Roman Catholic Church, an organisation that has an abysmal track record of handling sexual abuse allegations internally. Yet that is exactly what happened in Jalandhar on Tuesday, when Bishop Franco Mulakkal returned to the city after having been granted bail by the Kerala High Court.
Mulakkal was arrested for allegedly raping a nun on several occasions between 2014 and 2016. The Missionaries of Jesus, the congregation to which the nun belongs, has responded with outright hostility to the complainant, attempting to malign her repeatedly and even claiming that she was in a relationship with a taxi driver. An internal inquiry gave Mulakkal a clean chit. The bishop has also received support from political leaders, with independent Kerala MLA PC George being the most prominent of the lot: he held a press conference in September with the main aim of calling the nun a prostitute.
Most problematic has been the behaviour of the authorities. By early September, despite the complaint against Mulakkal having been lodged in July, Kerala Police had interrogated the nun on 12 occasions but only taken a statement from the bishop once. This delay, and the failure to take the rape-accused bishop into judicial custody, prompted some nuns to take the unusal step of holding a public protest. Eventually, with saturation media coverage, the authorities were forced to arrest the bishop.
Several prominent people within the Catholic community have called for fast-track courts and strict action against Mulakkal. But the scenes from Jalandhar on Tuesday suggest that there are many in the Church who do not take rape accusations seriously. Posters were put up in the city to welcome him, and hundreds of supporters turned up for Mulakkal’s return. Some even showered him with rose petals. Mulakkal was greeted at Bishop’s House by the current bishop and others, making it clear that the Church condones this public display of support.
It is one thing for the bishop and his supporters to insist that he is innocent. This sort of public posturing, however, comes across as aggressive, sending a clear message not just to the complainant nun but also to other Catholics who may have stories of abuse to tell. It says that the Church will continue to side with the clergy, even when accused of crimes. It also lends credence to arguments from the complainant that Mulakkal, whose bail is conditional on him staying out of Kerala except for court appearances, will use his tremendous clout to influence the case.
Kerala authorities, and the courts in particular, will have to seriously look at incidents like the welcome Mulakkal was accorded in Jalandhar, when it considers whether bail was indeed the right decision for a rape-accused. Meanwhile, it is incumbent upon those within the Catholic Church to ask questions of their leaders: Tuesday’s event, featuring the current bishop of Jalandhar, could not have taken place without the approval of Church leaders. Is this the message that the religious organisation would like to send about those accused of rape?