MUMBAI, India – An Indian bishop accused of repeatedly sexually assaulting a nun has officially been charged with rape and other offenses.
The charge sheet against Bishop Franco Mulakkal of Jalandhar was filed on Tuesday, and included illegal confinement, criminal intimidation, unnatural sex, rape and misuse of power.
Mulakkal was arrested on Sept. 21, 2018, in Kerala after a months-long investigation into the accusations of a nun claiming he raped her 13 times between 2014 and 2016. The nun is a member of the Punjab-based Missionaries of Jesus congregation, but said the attacks happened in Kuravilangad, the location of one of the order’s convents in Kerala. Mulakkal is originally from Kerala; Jalandhar is in Punjab.
The bishop vehemently denies the charges, and claims the nun is retaliating because he initiated an investigation against her for an affair she allegedly had with a married man. He was released on bail on Oct. 15, 2018, despite the objections of the police and the family of the nun making the accusations.
(On Sept. 20, 2018, Pope Francis temporarily relieved Mulakkal of his pastoral duties for the Diocese of Jalandhar, and appointed the retired auxiliary of Mumbai, Bishop Agnelo Rufino Gracias, apostolic administrator of the diocese.)
Mulakkal will be the first bishop to be put on trial in India, and the case has put the spotlight on the Church in a country where Christians make up less then 3 percent of the population.
One group of nuns has been protesting the bishop in Kerala, supported by an organization called Save Our Sisters.
“It’s only through a huge struggle that we have even come to this point of seeing this charge sheet get filed. We believe that we will get justice,” one of the religious sisters told journalists on Tuesday.
“This is not a victory. Save Our Sisters has always believed that every accused needs to be treated as an accused and not shielded by religion,” said Father Augustine Vattoli, according to NDTV. “This charge sheet comes due to the backing of the people of Kerala, who stood with the nuns and the demand for justice.”
Investigators interviewed 83 witnesses, while 11 priests, 24 nuns and three bishops were quoted in the 1,400-page charge sheet.
This convent is the same one the nun is currently residing in, under police protection.
In an exclusive interview with Scroll.in – an online news portal – the accuser said she went to the police because, “No nun should ever have to go through this.”
The interview was conducted Nov. 13 and published Dec. 10. The website also interviewed several of the nuns who have been supporting her and are also living at the convent.
The 44-year-old nun had a simple answer to the question of why it took her so long to report her allegations.
“Because I was scrambling for support and initially found almost none,” she said.
She said she didn’t want to go to the police, but the Church did not help her.
“Even now, I maintain there should be an internal mechanism within the Church where we can complain,” she said. “That will ensure the Church does not face public humiliation.”
The Missionaries of Jesus have strongly supported Mulakkal, calling him “an innocent soul” and the allegations against him “baseless.”
Kerala has 6.1 million Christians – over 18 percent of the population of the southern state – and 60 percent of them are Catholic, divided into Latin, Syro-Malabar, and Syro-Malankara rite jurisdictions.
Kerala’s Catholic Church is highly influential throughout India, since many priests and religious in other parts of the country come from the state.
In February, the Kerala Catholic Bishops’ Council issued safe environment guidelines, sending them to every Catholic institution in the state.
The guidelines also said the bishops were committed to zero tolerance in cases of sexual assault or harassment of minors or vulnerable adults; to addressing the issue of prevention; to ecclesiastically punishing offenders; to reporting the abuse of minors to the civil authorities in conformity with the law; to respond to victims with care and compassion; and to implement the necessary infrastructure to deal with cases of sexual abuse.
However, Church authorities say the timing of the release of the guidelines has nothing to do with the Mulakkal case.
“We had already started the work on this before it happened. The guidelines have been sent to respective bishops and dioceses. All the priests are well aware of it,” Father Jolly Vadakken told India Matters.