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Nuns fight sexual abuse in India's Catholic Church

Murali Krishnan New Delhi
February 19, 2019

Last year, a group of India's Catholic nuns accused an influential bishop of raping a colleague multiple times. DW spoke with the group's leader about how the church has stonewalled their attempts at getting justice.

(Clockwise from above) Sister Anupama, Sister Josephone, Sister Alphi, Sister Neena Rose and Sister Ancita
(Clockwise from above) Sister Anupama, Sister Josephone, Sister Alphi, Sister Neena Rose and Sister AncitaImage: privat

India: Sex abuse by priests

Last year, Catholic nun Sister Anupama, and four of her companions from the Missionaries of Jesus congregation in Kerala, led protests demanding the arrest of Bishop Franco Mulakkal, 54, a senior member of the Roman Catholic clergy and head of its Jalandhar diocese.

Mulakkal was accused of raping a Catholic nun 13 times between 2014 and 2016. He is currently out on bail as the case is being heard in court.

Last month, Anupama and her companions were supposed to have been transferred from their convent in Kuravilangad, but the transfer order was revoked after a couple of weeks. The transfer order had sparked speculation that they were being punished for complaining.

The case has caused a stir all over India. In Kerala, where Christians constitute 18 percent of the state's 35 million people, the case has special significance as the church plays an important role in pioneering educational and health care institutions.

Read more: Church sex scandals shake India's Kerala state

Sister Anupama, (Pictured above: clockwise from above - Sister Anupama, Sister Josephone, Sister Alphi, Sister Neena Rose and Sister Ancitawho) is the spokesperson for a group of five nuns opposing sexual abuse, spoke to DW about the challenges she and her companions are facing in addressing the crime and bringing the accused to justice.

DW: Has it been difficult to wage battle against Kerala's powerful clergy?

Sister Anupama: Yes, it has been a challenge and we faced some tough moments. After the historic protest with the Save our Sisters (SOS) forum at Kochi's Vanchi square last year to get Bishop Franco Mulakkal arrested, we have been put under the scanner. The transfer letter issued to us was an act of vengeance by the church body and had we had moved out, our lives would have been under threat, with no guarantee of protection by the authorities. All this was aimed at punishing us for speaking out against the bishop.

Ranjana Kumari, Director of India's Centre for Social Research, on protests by nuns over abuse in the Catholic Church.

Is there pressure on you and the other nuns?

Pressure works in discreet ways. Our movements are sometimes restricted; the money given to us is the bare minimum and we are being watched. So obviously, we can't live freely and are constantly watching our backs.

We were heckled and asked to leave the funeral of priest Kuriakose Kattuthara who died in mysterious circumstances last year. The priest had supported us in the case against Bishop Mulakkal.

Do you think there is an attempt to cover up on the church's part?

The church in Kerala is facing a real crisis, but instead of reforming and letting the truth prevail, tactics of isolation, defamation, character assassination and false cases have been foisted on us.

All of us are on the side of truth and what we want is a safe and secure place for nuns. Over the last two years, there have been many cases of priests in the state who have been accused of committing sexual offenses. Our struggle is for our sisters suffering in silence and we will continue our campaign until all of them get justice.

Earlier this month, the Kerala Catholic Bishops' Council issued a set of guidelines declaring a "zero tolerance" policy for sexual abuse. What do you think about that?

These do's and don'ts are not enough. The timing of the release of the guidelines is also questionable. We need a system that works. What we are striving for is a grievance mechanism that is transparent and workable, so everyone feels safe.

Read more: Pope tells predator priests to turn themselves in

More than 100 senior Roman Catholic bishops from around the world will gather Thursday in Rome for a summit that Pope Francis has called for to address clerical sexual abuse. What are your thoughts on the meeting?

I welcome the initiative and hope something concrete emerges from the summit. There have been many instances of sexual abuse across the Catholic world, but the final objective is to eliminate the scourge of abuse and therefore, it is important to educate bishops on the problem of abuse and how to handle it properly. The fact that the Pope is convening it shows that the matter is serious.

Do you have any expectations from this conclave?

The issue must be discussed in depth and without fear. Revelations of exploitation and abuse behind church walls are tumbling out. This must not be focused only on Western countries but everywhere. Firm steps are needed to implement practices that safeguard the vulnerable and to bring justice to victims.

Did the Vatican offer help or support after the crisis broke out in Kerala?

We were hoping to get support from the Pope, but no emissary was sent to investiage the incident. This was a case which received a lot of publicity. Our fight will continue. We are not going anywhere until the case is over and unless our sister is served justice. We are not leaving this place.

The interview was conducted by Murali Krishnan in New Delhi.

Read more: Young Catholics grill Pope Francis on church sex abuse

Murali Krishnan
Murali Krishnan Journalist based in New Delhi, focusing on Indian politics, society and business@mkrish11