Whose order shall the five Catholic nuns in Kerala who have been protesting against rape-accused Bishop Franco Mulakkal follow? Those of their mother superior and the public relations officer of the Jalandhar diocese that administers their congregation, or that of the diocese’s apostolic administrator, appointed by the Pope.

In the first week of January, the superior of the Missionaries of Jesus congregation to which the five nuns belong, asked four of them to leave the convent at Kuravilangad, where they are staying and to report to convents in Punjab, Bihar, Jharkhand and Kerala that they had been assigned to last year. A week later the fifth nun too was asked to report to the congregation’s Jalandhar convent.

The five nuns have been staying at Kuravilangad since March to support the rape complainant, a member of their congregation. They have alleged that the letters asking them to leave the convent were issued to intimidate all of them.

On February 9, however, the nuns received an email from Bishop Agnelo Rufino Gracias, the apostolic administrator of Jalandhar diocese, assuring them that there would be “no move from the Diocese of Jalandhar to oust you from the Kuravilangad convent”. He also said that the mother superior had been directed not to send letters to any of the five nuns without his “explicit permission”. “This is an order from me as apostolic administrator in charge of the congregation,” the e-mail read.

The communication came as a relief to the nuns.

A few hours after Gracias’s email went public, however, the public relations officer of the diocese, Father Peter Kavumpuram, issued a letter titled a “clarification” stating that since the Bishop of Jalandhar did not normally interfere in the affairs of the Missionaries of Jesus congregation, the mother superior’s order “is not cancelled but stands.”

The nuns say they will go by the assurance given to them by the apostolic administrator.

Senior Catholic church priests too say that Gracias’ order overrules any other directives. They point out that the Pope had divested Mulakkal of his pastoral duties after he was arrested on September 21, and handed his duties over to Gracias. “Though Mulakkal is out on bail, the Pope has not given him the rights to perform pastoral duties yet,” said a senior Catholic priest who requested not to be identified. “So apostolic administrator Gracias has the authority to take decisions concerning Jalandhar diocese.”

Another priest said that since the Missionaries of Jesus is a diocesan congregation, it comes under the authority of the local bishop, who in this case is Gracias. “The bishop or apostolic administrator has the right to take decisions on a congregation of diocesan right,” said another priest. The phrase “congregation of diocesan right” is used by the Catholic Church to refer to a religious congregation that reports to the local bishop.

‘We are not going anywhere’

Close to a week after Kavumpuram issued the letter, the five nuns and the rape complainant continue to stay at the Kuravilangad convent. “We are not going anywhere until the case has been adjudicated,” said Sister Anupama, one of the five nuns. “We believe that a public relations officer has no right to override the decision taken by the apostolic administrator.”

Kavumpuram seems to disagree, however. He said disciplinary action will be taken against the nuns if they failed to comply with the order issued by their mother superior. “Action will be taken against them based on the Constitution of the congregation,” he said. “I cannot tell you what kind of action it will be at this point.”

The nun who has accused Mulakkal of rape filed a complaint with the Kerala Police on June 27 after the Catholic Church officials, including the Vatican and Apostolic Nuncio (the Vatican’s representative in India), allegedly failed to act on an internal complaint. Mulakkal has been accused of raping the nun 13 times between 2014 to 2016 during his visits to Kerala. When the police too did not show any interest in starting an investigation, the five nuns launched a sit-in protest in Kochi from September 8 till Mulakkal was arrested on September 21. He has been out on bail since October 21. According to his bail conditions, he must stay out of Kerala except when he appears before the investigating officer once in two weeks.

Undermining of authority

The nuns at the Kuravilangad convent alleged that by issuing a clarification letter, the public relations officer had undermined the authority of the apostolic administrator. “Does he think that he is the boss?” asked Anupama.

Kavumpuram claimed that he issued the statement after consulting Gracias. “I cannot do anything on my own,” he said. “I had issued the letter after getting his directive.”

Anupama scoffed at Kavumpuram’s statement. “It is a blatant lie,” she said. “If it is an order approved by the apostolic administrator he should have signed it instead of Kavumpuram.”

She added: “He [Kavumpuram] is a close aide of Mulakkal. This incident shows that Mulakkal still wields considerable clout in the diocese.”

Save our Sisters, a collective of eight independent church organisations that co-ordinated the sit-in protest by the nuns, also accused Kavumpuram of challenging the Pope’s authority. “The public relations officer does not have any authority to question the powers of the apostolic administrator,” said Father Augustine Vattoli, one of the leaders of the Save our Sisters movement. “The public relations officer’s duty is to convey the bishop’s decisions. He is not authorised to issue statements on his own. The church should seek an explanation.”

Scroll.in’s attempts to speak to Gracias did not succeed.

‘They want to destroy us’

Anupama said the attempts to oust them from the Kuravilangad convent was directed at harassing them. “We are putting up a brave face now because we live together,” she said. “We are supporting each other. It will be easy for them to threaten us if we stay in different locations.”

She said Mulakkal has been targeting them ever since they went public with the rape charges. “He has been trying to eliminate us and destroy evidence,” she said. “We pray to the God to give us the courage to fight.”

The nuns had earlier written to Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan seeking his intervention to ensure that they were not forced to leave Kerala till the trial of the case was over. The complainant had also sought the chief minister’s help. “Their aim is to single me out and to harass and torture me,” she wrote in a letter to Vijayan. “My life will be in danger if such a situation arises.”

Anupama said Mulakkal’s men had attempted to link them with underworld gangsters like Ravi Pujari in an attempt to tarnish their image. Kerala legislator PC George recently claimed that Ravi Pujari had threatened to murder one of his sons because of his support to Mulakkal. “It was a baseless allegation to tarnish our image,” said Anupama. “We don’t know who Pujari is. We are hearing his name for the first time.”

Also read:

Kerala nun says she wants Church to admit she was wronged: ‘I had moments when I asked god, why me?’

Nuns protest: Why we must cheer the revolution under way in Kerala’s Christian community