MUMBAI – Pope Francis has accepted the resignation of a Catholic bishop in India who was accused of rape by a nun in 2018, and who was acquitted by a local court in 2022. An appeal of that acquittal is still underway.

While the criminal case against Bishop Franco Mulakkal remains on appeal, a statement from the Vatican embassy in India indicated that his removal was not a disciplinary measure but rather intended to promote healing in the diocese.

Mulakkal, according to the statement, remains a bishop in good standing and faces no canonical restrictions on his ministry.

Now just 59, and thus 16 years below the mandatory retirement age of 75, Mulakkal served as the bishop of the Jalandhar diocese in the far north of India near the border with Pakistan from 2013 to 2018.

A video message circulated by Mulakkal among friends and associates said Pope Francis had accepted his letter of resignation written after consultations with his superiors and prayers. In the video, Mulakkal appeared without his trademark black beard.

“Let me inform you this with joy and gratitude,” Mulakkal said in the video, offering thanks to those who have loved him, prayed for him, shared in his pains, and stood with him during his difficult times.

“On this occasion, I offer all the sufferings that I have experienced directly and indirectly and the troubles that it has caused at the feet of the Crucified Lord. God bless you,” he said.

Mulakkal is a native of Kerala state in southern India, and in 2018 he became the first Catholic bishop in India to be arrested on rape charges after a nun claimed she had been raped by the prelate thirteen times between 2014 and 2016 during his visits to a mission home in Kerala. Five other nuns eventually backed the accuser’s charges.

Mulakkal claimed the nun, who has not been publicly identified, invented the rape charge in retaliation for him taking action against her after a woman complained the nun was having an illicit relationship with her husband. After a trial that ran from November 2019 to January 2022 and featured 39 witnesses, a local court in Kerala cleared Mulakkal of the charges, finding that the accuser’s testimony contained “exaggerations and embellishments.”

The verdict produced protests on social media, including from feminists and women’s rights campaigners who felt the judge in the case had effectively placed the accuser on trial. Prosecutors, along with the accuser and the nuns who support her, have filed an appeal of the acquittal.

The statement from the Vatican embassy, based in the national capital of New Delhi, indicated that the Holy See will defer to the Indian justice system.

The Vatican, it said, “respects the verdict of the Additional District and Sessions Court [in] Kottayam, Kerala, acquitting Bishop Mulakkal from the allegations concerning him, as well as the appeal against the acquittal which has been admitted by the Kerala High Court.”

The statement also stressed that Mulakkal’s resignation should not be read as a judgment about his guilt or innocence, but rather as a pastoral measure.

The Vatican requested Mulakkal’s resignation, it said, not as a disciplinary measure but for the health of the Jalandhar diocese, which needs a new bishop since the highly public controversy surrounding Mulakkal has created a “divisive situation.”