MUMBAI, India – After a court in central India on Tuesday acquitted two men accused of raping a 48-year-old Catholic nun in 2015, the president of the country’s Latin rite Catholic bishops called the verdict a “grave injustice” and vowed that the Church will challenge it.
“This acquittal once again brings into focus the violence against women. It is a great setback for all of us working for the rights and dignity of women, and especially for our victims of violence,” said Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Mumbai.
“This kind of acquittal will have grave social consequences, and may also create a [negative] law-and-order situation,” Gracis told Crux. “It shows the lackadaisical attitude of the police. The Catholic Church in India will move the higher court for justice for our consecrated [woman].”
In addition to his leadership role in India, Gracias is also a member of Pope Francis’s “C9” council of cardinal advisers.
The rape victim in the case has not been named, though she’s been identified as having been 48 at the time of the assault in June 2015 and a member of the Salesian Missionaries of Mary Immaculate congregation.
The nun was allegedly gang-raped at a nursing center run by missionaries in central India, in the state of Chhattisgarh. Reports suggest she was sleeping when two masked men barged into the center and tied her hands and feet before gang-raping her.
Her fellow sisters found her tied to the bed the next day, and rushed her to a nearby hospital.
Initially local police were reluctant to take up the case, and opened a formal investigation only after widespread protests and an intervention by the country’s National Human Rights Commission.
A probe by the human rights body found that police had destroyed evidence and suggested that they may have been deliberately protecting the culprits. Eventually two men aged 19 and 25 were charged for the assault, but a local court ruled Tuesday that evidence produced by police at trial was not sufficient to justify conviction of either man.
Goldy George, who leads an organization in Chhattisgarh that had campaigned for the police to pursue justice for the raped nun, called the result “shocking” and said it underestimates the depth of popular feeling stirred up in 2015 when reports of the incident first emerged.
“We had come out on the streets after the incident. Schools were shut down,” he said. “Nearly 40,000 people marched. It was perhaps the lone case in Chhattisgarh, or even in central India, where for nearly four months the streets were jammed almost every other day.”
Minority groups in India, prominently including the country’s roughly 30 million Christians, have long complained that police and security forces in certain parts of the country often turn a blind eye when those minorities become victims of a crime, failing to investigate or doing so in a casual manner seemingly designed not to produce results.
“The acquittal of the accused is a grave injustice for our religious, but also for all women who have suffered similar trauma,” Gracias said. “Disturbingly low conviction rates inflict harm and danger on both the victims as well as society.”
“I’m especially grieved that this happened to a consecrated woman religious, who has dedicated her life to God,” he said. “Our religious sister was violated in a medical dispensary, the very place where she selflessly served to heal the wounds of others.”
Gracias linked the nun rape case to what he described as a broader problem of violence against women in Indian society.
“It’s agonizing that various social forces breed misogyny and shape ideas about male dominance and the devaluation of women, which can normalize abusive behavior,” he said. “The objectification of women is a growing social evil.”
“Society minimizes and trivializes all forms of violence against women, even before their birth, for instance with selective female abortion,” he said.
“It’s urgent and essential that religious and political leaders should all engage and collaborate … to put an end to this discrimination and devaluation of girls and women, as well as raising awareness of deep-seated social prejudices. Laws, policies and accountability mechanisms are essential for combatting violence against women.”
Sister Meena Barwa, a member of Handmaids of Mary religious order, is herself a rape survivor, having been assaulted during an anti-Christian pogrom in eastern India in 2008. Barwa told Crux she found Tuesday’s verdict deeply disappointing.
“We seek justice in court, and [for rape victims] the process of trial is horrendous and traumatic, and finally, this is the verdict meted out,” she said, calling it a “double injustice that risks further marginalizing women.”