Father Kuriakose Kuttuthara did not die in vain. Many are wondering how his death in Jalandhar on October 22 – whether it was murder or of natural causes – will impact the Catholic Church in India. This at a time when the Church’s reputation has already been besmirched by allegations that a bishop serially raped a nun, charges of paedophilia against two clergymen, and suspicion that similar crimes may have occurred in other Church-run institutions. Kuttuthara had supported the nun’s rape charge and deposed before the police against the rape accused bishop of Jalandhar, Franco Mulakkal.

Some time ago, with the heavy movement of Indian priests, especially from Kerala and the Konkan coast, to Australia and the western hemisphere, several Western diplomats had discretely sounded me out on the moral health of the Church. This was their polite way of asking about the sexual mores of male clergy and if government, the community and, above all, the Church hierarchy were alive to the issue at all. There have been a few Indians among the clergy arrested on paedophilia charges, especially in the United States. They were tried, sentenced and deported after their prison terms were over. Back home, they vanished from public gaze and were quietly placed in small parishes with no public duties. I do not know if they have been monitored to see they have stayed on the straight and narrow.

The diplomats were worried, but I could truthfully tell them that paedophilia was not a major concern in the Indian Church, or even in the religious establishments of other faiths. Some Indian clergymen could, however, be faulted for their preference for alcohol and women. Alcoholism is a challenge in many dioceses. I could also tell the Western diplomats that Christian women had engined a change in the Church’s attitude and there was now a gender code in place in the Catholic Church. It was not perfect, neither was it implemented rigorously, but it existed.

I was not fully right, as I now see in hindsight. The codes are ineffective because rules have not been formed to implement them, early warning systems have not been put in place, personnel are not trained to put them in practice and, above all, there has been no pressure on the hierarchy to change their attitudes. This is not just about the men but also the women, the mothers superior and novice mistresses, who train aspiring nuns.

I recall several cases where novices and fully trained nuns complained about priest aspirants, and sometimes priests, misbehaving with them. A very senior nun, a lawyer, told me, “These young men think they have become Lords the moment they are ordained as priests.” This was in a diocese in the Chhotanagpur region.

Once a nun found a camera in her bathroom. The man who had placed it there was identified – but not punished. The mother superior, bishop and archbishop collectively thought it would bring a bad name to the Church. The man is safe.

Bishop Franco Mulakkal was arrested on September 21, almost three months after the rape complaint against him was registered. (Photo credit: Reuters)

What the Church must do

It is good to remember this when discussing the Jalandhar case where the police – who had Mulakkal in their custody for several weeks after the nun accused him of raping her 13 times between 2014 and 2016 in Kerala – have not yet completed their investigation and filed a chargesheet so that a proper trial can begin. The bishop is out on bail, externed from Kerala by the terms of his bail, and living in Jalandhar.

Mulakkal now faces a second allegation, of being responsible for the death of Kuttuthara, who had challenged him openly over the past several years and was a vocal defender of the nun making the rape charge. Kuttuthara’s family says he was either murdered or was put under so much pressure that he suffered a cardiac arrest.

Once a confidante of previous bishops, Kuttuthara had been stripped of his parish and posted as an assistant in an insignificant religious house. The civil surgeons have performed an autopsy and sent his viscera for additional forensic tests. But rumours and public perception do not wait for forensic confirmation. The word is out, and it is against Mulakkal.

More serious, in the long term, are the charges against the two Shillong-based clergymen – one a member of the Christian Brothers and the other a priest of the Salesians of Don Bosco order, both reputed congregations that run prominent schools across the country. Earlier this month, a woman from Meghalaya, in a detailed Facebook post, accused the two men of sexually abusing her when she was a student. She said she faced the abuse for most of her childhood, from the age of five till she turned 12, from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s. “I have attempted suicide 3 times as a teenager and young adult, twice I landed in hospital in a serious condition,” she wrote, naming the two clergymen.

The Christian community must now cry #MeToo. Let us demand that churches of all denomination set up a gender justice tribunal and listen to the victims so that the guilty can be identified and dealt with, and the victims can be counselled, their forgiveness sought, and rehabilitated in the Church with honour, if that is what they want. The law of the land is sufficient for the guilty.