The Catholic Church traces its origins to that day, approximately 2,000 years ago, when Jesus appointed a leader among his Apostles with these words cited in the Bible, “Simon, you are Peter (meaning, rock), and upon this rock I shall build my Church.”
You would expect a two-millennia-old organisation to have its act together in the area of legal procedures and communication. Yet, since news broke in end-June of a nun’s rape allegation against the (now arrested) Bishop of Jalandhar, Franco Mulakkal, the Catholic Church in India has appeared to be a floundering, leaderless mess, falling short of basic humanity in its response to a woman’s grave grievance.
From conversations I have had with dozens of Catholics across India throughout September, it is clear that vast sections of the community are furious at the Church’s conduct in this imbroglio. Even Church higher-ups are disillusioned with the top leadership’s inertia.
Missionaries of Jesus or Mouthpieces of a Bishop?
The complainant in this case, let us call her Sister X, belongs to the Missionaries of Jesus, a fledgling congregation of Catholic nuns headquartered in Jalandhar. Sister X and her supporters say her appeals to Church authorities went unheeded, compelling her to approach the police in Kerala where the alleged rapes occurred.
Most congregations of nuns report directly to the Pope. Missionaries of Jesus, however, is what is called a “Diocesan Congregation”, one that reports to the local bishop. In effect then, Sister X’s complaint is against her own boss.
Considering his position of power, Mulakkal should have graciously stepped down to facilitate the police probe. Instead, he stayed on for two-and-a-half months, before temporarily handing over administrative responsibilities in Jalandhar to a junior on 13 September.
Church sources call his decision a “pre-emptive move” because action from the Vatican at long last seemed inevitable since Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Mumbai – who is on the Pope’s Council of nine cardinals advising him on Church reform – was in the Vatican at the time and had publicly stated he would try to alert Pope Francis to the issue.
On 20 September, the Vatican temporarily replaced Mulakkal with another Bishop in Jalandhar, purportedly at his own request.
This decision, however, came after Missionaries of Jesus was widely condemned for maligning Sister X in statements and circulating her photograph to the media, ignoring the law against disclosing a sexual abuse victim’s identity.
It would be naive to believe Missionaries of Jesus acted on their own. It seems logical to conclude instead that they let Mulakkal use them as mouthpieces, while he gave comparatively measured interviews to the press defending himself.
Catholic Reformists vs Church Patriarchy
The lasting image from this episode may forever remain the unprecedented sight of five nuns – Sister X’s allies within Missionaries of Jesus – sitting on dharna in Kochi from September 8-21 demanding justice for her.
Church authorities may yet have ignored them, if they had not been joined by ordinary Catholics and priests from across Kerala, some of whom believe the Church tried to cover up the case while others were outraged by its silence when the congregation defamed Sister X.
For years, India’s Catholic liberals have vented their disgruntlement – in private, at the community’s conferences and occasionally in public – regarding misogyny in the Church, the position taken on homosexuality and abortion by bumbling Church spokespersons on TV, lack of transparency and more.
What the nuns on dharna have done, in a sense, is rip the doors off those conference rooms and jolt a patriarchal, bureaucracy-ridden Church. They have now become a rallying point for Catholic reformists.
“The Church in India Has Failed Its People”
The nuns are backed by the Save Our Sisters campaign comprising Catholic laity and priests across denominations. The open support from priests has been crucial, since it has marginally influenced even Catholic conservatives, as I have gathered from off-the-record conversations.
When murmurs of doubt emanate from conformists and when rebels emerge within the power structure, religious organisations tend to take note. On 11 September, a representative of Delhi’s Catholic Church told NDTV that Mulakkal should resign while the police investigation is on. His fate was sealed with Cardinal Gracias’ statement cited earlier in this column.
Why did India’s Church leaders take so long to pressure Mulakkal to quit? Could they not suspend him? The answer lies in patriarchy, divisions and an outdated organisational structure.
“The Church in India has failed its people in this episode,” a senior priest told me on condition of anonymity while explaining how the ancient monolith works.
A Wake-Up Call for Catholic Authorities Worldwide
If Sister X has felt traumatised by the nearly three months it took to arrest Mulakkal, she is likely to have been exhausted by the lumbering leviathan that is the Catholic Church if she had kept her case within the organisation.
The senior priest elaborated on Sister X’s options in the Church mechanism. For a complaint about the Jalandhar Bishop, the first stop is the Archbishop of Delhi who has authority over a region that includes the Jalandhar diocese.
He does not have the power to remove a Bishop, but he can raise the matter with the complainee and with the Conference of Catholic Bishops of India (CCBI), an apex body with jurisdiction over the Catholic sub-group for which Mulakkal is a Bishop, namely, adherents of what is called the Latin rite.
The CCBI can hold an inquiry and forward its findings to the Vatican where the Church’s global head office is situated. The Vatican alone may remove a Bishop.
Like Indian courts, the Church is notoriously tardy. What Sister X faced though is not slowness but inaction. Her family has told the media she had approached Delhi’s Archbishop Anil Couto with her problem to no avail. Couto has not denied this. Besides, Father Stanley Kozhichira, spokesperson of the Delhi Church, told me that on a trip to Kerala this May (that’s before the police complaint was filed), Couto met Sister X. She is unlikely to have kept her troubles from him anyway since he would be personally acquainted with her, having been Jalandhar’s Bishop before Mulakkal.
Why did Couto not take the matter to CCBI? Why didn’t CCBI take cognisance of it on its own? No one has answers.
The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) is an assembly of bishops across all rites groups. CBCI is not authorised to take up a complaint against a Bishop. Asked why it did not at least act as a pressure group to force Mulakkal to resign, the senior priest pointed to the rivalry between various rites in India which is so extreme that such a united move is wishful thinking.
The churn among India’s Catholics over Mulakkal’s case is yet another wake-up call for a Church already grappling with complaints of paedophilia against priests in multiple countries. The good news is that last week Pope Francis – widely considered a liberal – called a February 2019 meeting of representatives of Catholic bishops worldwide to discuss the abuse of minors and adults.
Being a Minority Under Majoritarian Rule
Religious leaders everywhere tend to expect sheep-like acquiescence from their flock. This expectation in the Catholic Church is at odds though with its reputed commitment to the education of the masses including its own people (the reason why the number of Catholic-run schools and colleges in India is “second only to government-run institutions” as journalist Farah Baria noted in 2015 in Mumbai Mirror).
Education tends to give people the confidence to ask inconvenient, well-articulated questions, and in Kerala – India’s most literate state – those questions in the Mulakkal drama have come from enough Catholics to unnerve the Church.
While a trickle of Catholics outside Kerala too have spoken up when approached by news media, many more might have joined in but for the worry that the community’s protests could be appropriated by the ruling right-wing BJP, just as Muslim women’s battle against instant triple talaq has been used by BJP to promulgate an Ordinance that activists say is designed to victimise Muslim men.
Wounds are yet to heal from the murder of Australian Christian missionary Graham Staines and his little sons, pan-India attacks on Christians during Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s PM-ship and in Karnataka under BJP rule, the 2008 Kandhamal riots and the targeting of Christians after BJP formed the Central government in 2014. Besides, anti-Muslim violence since 2014 has got all minorities on edge.
It is remarkable that none of these issues deterred Sister X’s supporters.
Catholic liberals must now raise the decibels over other issues too, taking a cue from Sister Anupama – one of the nuns who sat on dharna – when she told Asianet’s Jimmy James:
“We’re not staging this protest to shame the Church or for any reason other than to ensure that no nun, no woman for that matter, ever finds herself in this position in future.”
Diplomacy is not a mark of affection in such situations, and the Church would be wise to realise that its strongest critics may well be its greatest well-wishers.
Anna MM Vetticad is the author of ‘The Adventures of an Intrepid Film Critic’. She can be reached @annavetticad. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own.