MUMBAI, India – A regional Catholic body in India has warned against using the arrest of a bishop accused of rape “to destabilize the Catholic Church and malign the bishops.”
The Kerala Catholic Bishops’ Council issued the statement on Monday, three days after the arrest of Bishop Franco Mulakkal, who heads the Diocese of Jalandhar, in the northwestern Punjab state.
Mulakkal has been accused of raping a nun on 13 different occasions between 2014-2016. The nun went to the police in the southern state of Kerala on June 29, and civil authorities have since then been investigating the charges.
The bishop has vehemently denied the charges, and says the nun is retaliating against him for investigating a complaint that she had an affair with a married man.
The nun is a member of the Missionaries of Jesus, which is headquartered in Jalandhar, but the rapes are alleged to have taken place in the order’s convent in Kuravilangad in Kerala.
Kerala is the state with the highest percentage of Christians in India and provides many of the clergy and religious throughout the country. The Kuravilangad convent had special housing for Kerala-born clergy visiting home, where Mulakkal stayed when visiting the state.
The Kerala Catholic Bishops’ Council said the details of the case were being used by “media persons with hidden agenda and with vested interests and some with grievances within the Church” to implicate “the Church as a whole.”
The statement, signed by the organization’s spokesman Father Varghese Vallikkatt, said the general public “should recognize the hidden agenda behind such moves.”
“It is not clear whether it is jealousy or anger against the Church that leads these people to attack the Church violently, for the Church has been very much active in the public sphere by way of educational, medical and social services, not to mention the Church’s unrelenting involvement in the latest flood relief and in the continued rehabilitation programs, catering to all without looking into caste and creed,” the statement continued. “It is unjust to take the Church as a laughingstock on the basis of an unproved accusation against one of its bishops, while so many of its bishops, priests and nuns are living saintly lives.”
The statement said it was “obvious” that there was a “concerted effort to bring in lawlessness within the Church by destroying the discipline therein, obedience to authority and its unity.”
On Monday, a Magistrate Court placed Mulakkal in judicial custody until Oct. 6, although the Kerala High Court will consider his request for bail on Thursday.
The day before his arrest, Pope Francis accepted Mulakkal’s request to be relieved of his duties during the investigation, naming Bombay Auxiliary Agnelo Rufino Gracias, who will temporarily serve as apostolic administrator of Jalandhar.
The bishops of Kerala said they support an “impartial” police inquiry and court trial, while condemning any “trial in the media.”
“It is hoped that the truth will come to light in the court and that the accused will get sufficient opportunity to prove his innocence, and that if the accusation is proved right the culprit will get the due punishment which the law envisages,” the bishops’ statement said.
The statement also said the Kerala bishops “had requested the Church authorities to act at the earliest possible upon the complaint registered by the nun.”
“Yet as the complaint of the nun was under the consideration of the police and the court, it was not right from the part of the Church authorities to hastily act upon the same matter,” it continued.
The bishops also took note of a series of protests against Mulakkal which took place in Kerala, and often involved priests and religious in the state, and said they were harmful to the Church.
“Whatever the reasons were, the fact that some priests and nuns agitating in the streets giving occasion to the enemies of the Church to attack the Church and the Church authorities and to disdain even the sacraments, has caused much pain to all who love the Church,” the statement said. “We hope that the members of the Church and the public will recognize that their action was not in keeping with Christian values, rightful interests of the Catholic Church and even of the statutes of their Religious Congregation.”
The bishops said that they “pray that full justice take place in this matter,” but added that it shouldn’t “be forgotten that any conscious attempts at tarnishing the person, honor and the dignity of the complainant and the accused are not in keeping with justice and fairness.”
The case is just one of several scandals affecting Christians in Kerala state. Tax authorities in India have interviewed Cardinal George Alencherry, the head of the Syro-Malabar Church, in connection with a series of suspicious land deals that caused the Vatican to send a special administrator into his archdiocese.
Last year, the cardinal was accused along with two senior priests and a real estate agent of selling several plots of land illegally, leading to a loss of over $10 million.
Critics said the deal violated both canon and civil law, since the land was sold for well below market value – Indian law forbids the irregular transfer of funds between charitable or religious trusts.
Meanwhile several priests of the Kerala-based Malankara Orthodox Church have been accused of raping a teacher working at a church-affiliated school.
They are accused of blackmailing the woman for sexual favors. One of them had allegedly filmed a sexual encounter with the woman in the 1990s and threatened her with exposure if she didn’t submit.