The recent acquittal of Catholic Bishop Franco Mulakkal in the infamous nun rape case has drawn more flak than praise as it brings no hope to nuns who are sexually abused.
It has left many disappointed, and the outrage is strong particularly from women’s groups as the verdict questioned the victim’s conduct; in this case, of the nun.
In recent years, the Church in Kerala has been rocked by sex scandals and murders of nuns.
Bishop Mulakkal, 57, was accused of raping a nun multiple times during his visit to a convent in Kottayam between 2014 and 2016 when he was Bishop of the Jalandhar diocese of the Roman Catholic Church. The nun is a member of the Missionaries of Jesus, a diocesan congregation under the Jalandhar Diocese.
The trial court in Kerala, on January 14, acquitted Bishop Mulakkal of the charges of raping the nun in a convent in the southern state.
In his verdict, Judge G Gopakumar of the Kottayam Court held that the nun cannot be categorised as a “sterling witness” due to the inconsistencies in her statement.
It needs pointing out that it is very rare that victims speak up against sexual assaults by men holding powerful positions and when they dare to and are denied justice, it is not only hugely disappointing to the victims but also discourages others from filing complaints. Thus, many prefer to suffer similar assaults silently.
Terming the verdict as “very, very unfortunate” and “unnatural”, senior IPS officer S Harishankar, who had led the special investigation team in the rape case, said he was “100%” expecting a conviction in the case and the verdict was a source of “astonishment” for the entire legal system of the country.
“The argument that the woman should have reacted at the time of molestation is unacceptable,” he told mediapersons after the verdict.
An appeal is expected to be filed in the higher court challenging the verdict, said Sr. Anupama, the nun who spearheaded the protest against the accused Bishop.
To recapitulate some facts, the nun filed a police complaint in 2018, two years after she was raped by the Bishop. In another high-profile case, Priya Ramani vs M J Akbar, the former who was sexually harassed by Akbar in 1993, made the accusation against him only in 2018, after almost 25 years. The Delhi Court even stated: “A woman has a right to put (forth) her grievances even after decades.”
There have been criticisms of the Kerala court’s judgement on grounds that the verdict was built on the nun’s inconsistencies in her statements, her inability to articulate the sexual crime, her failure to disclose penile penetration during medical examination, etc.
As Brinda Karat, former Rajya Sabha member and activist, has rightly commented: “This is equally a fight against insensitive and patriarchal judicial blinkers that dehumanise a survivor of rape and expect her to abide by a preconceived code of conduct as a “sterling witness.”
The case also brings up the question of the victim protection policy under Canon Law. Pope Francis, since taking charge in 2013, has laid down strict provisions to address sexual abuse in the Church. The Pope, who is the head of the Catholic Church, stated publicly in 2019 that the sexual abuse of nuns was widespread in the institution.
The Pope added that the victims, numbering thousands, endured the outrage silently for “fear of reprisal” from their powerful tormentors and exhorted Catholics to stand by the nuns languishing in sexual slavery.
In October 2018, when a cover-up scandal engulfed Chile’s Catholic Church, an investigation identified more than 160 abusers. Apart from priests, Pope Francis defrocked or dismissed from priesthood two Chilean Bishops for their sexual abuse of minors.
Similarly, another archbishop in the US was defrocked after being found guilty of sexual misconduct. Pope Francis described the action as “definitive”, meaning the Cardinal will not be allowed to appeal.
It is only when such stringent action is taken against the perpetrators of crime that a strong message is sent out that wrongdoers cannot escape harsh punishment.
The former Karnataka High Court judge Justice Michael Saldanha termed the Kerala verdict as a miscarriage of justice and said that it is intolerable. Justice Saldanha, who had the opportunity to look at the case, told a television channel: “I think the High Court must intervene in the matter and re-examine the case. This is globally shocking.”
Even the National Commission for Women has urged the nun to appeal to the High Court, saying that it will fight alongside for justice.
With an official appeal soon to be filed against the judgement, many are hoping that it will lead to a restoration of justice and dignity to not only the nun in this case but also to so many survivors of rape.