Police have charged Bishop Franco Mulakkal of Jalandhar with raping a Catholic nun multiple times, nine months after she complained in southern India’s Kerala state. The police team probing the allegations filed charges on April 9 before a magistrate in Kottayam district, where the nun’s convent is based.
A 2,000-page charge sheet listed charges of wrongful confinement, rape of a woman incapable of giving consent, causing grievous bodily harm during rape, unnatural offense and criminal intimidation.
If found guilty, the bishop faces imprisonment of not less than 10 years or up to life in jail. The charge sheet also lists 83 witnesses, 40 of them Catholic leaders including Cardinal George Alencherry, the major archbishop and head of the Syro-Malabar Church.
Three bishops — Joseph Kallarangatt of Pala, Kurian Valiakandathil of Bhagalpur and Sebastian Vadakkel of Ujjain — and 25 Catholic nuns and 11 Catholic priests are also named as witnesses.
The nuns, who have been campaigning for justice for the alleged victim, have termed the development a turning point in a case that has attracted international attention.
“We have only crossed one major step in the fight to ensure justice for our sister,” said Sister Anupama Kelamangalathuveli, one of the nun’s supporters.
The alleged victim is a former superior general of Missionaries of Jesus, a diocesan congregation that functions under Bishop Mulakkal’s patronage.
She complained to police on June 27 last year that Bishop Mulakkal had sexually abused her 13 times from 2014 to 2016 when he visited her convent in Kuravilangad village in Kottayam district.
Sister Anupama and four other nuns have been supporting their former superior. They also joined a public protest organized by the Save Our Sisters (SOS) forum, formed by a group of social activists.
Following the public protest, police arrested Bishop Mulakkal on Sept. 21 and placed him in judicial custody. He was later released on bail by Kerala High Court. He has always maintained his innocence.
The Vatican removed him from his administrative responsibilities and appointed an administrator. The prelate, however, continues to stay in the bishop’s house in Jalandhar in the northern state of Punjab.
“We know the bishop is powerful and influential and can do anything to subvert the case,” Sister Anupama told uanews.com.
“We bank on the justice of God that sustained us throughout this fight for justice,” she said, adding that the powerful Catholic hierarchy “will do everything to influence the witnesses.”
The way in which the hierarchy responds to the case will decide the future of the Catholic Church in India, according to Shaiju Antony, joint convener of SOS.
“The people in India, irrespective of religion, believe Catholic priests and nuns. If a priest or nun is a witness in a case, they believe they will tell the truth and the victim will get justice. But in this case the situation is entirely different,” he told ucanews.com.
Antony said police have video-recorded statements of witnesses in case they retract them under pressure from the church leadership.
Father Augustine Vattoli, who was forced to quit the post of SOS convener after his superiors castigated him for his involvement in the case, sees the latest development as “very positive.”
“This will pave way for the renewal of the Catholic Church in the country as it gives a message that, however mighty one might be, the law will take its own course,” he said.