News Focus

India: Bishops on trial

Out of nowhere, Catholics face a leadership crisis on two fronts

The Catholic Church in India has just faced one of the most challenging summers in its history. In particular it is the Syro-Malabar Church, which traces its origin in India back to St Thomas the Apostle, which is the focus of the crisis. About a quarter of India’s 20 million Catholics belong to the Eastern rite church. The temporary removal of two of its bishops by the Holy See has left these Catholics asking major questions over their leadership.

The case of Bishop Franco Mulakkal of Jalandhar, Punjab, has gripped India since March. He is accused of raping a nun repeatedly over a two-year period during official visits to the convent of the Missionaries of Jesus, in the Keralan town of Kuravilangad, between 2012 and 2014.

The nun, who was mother superior at the convent, said she wrote to the Church authorities, including the papal nuncio in Delhi, about the alleged rape but received no response. The Sister, who cannot be named for legal reasons, said she saw little option but to pursue a criminal case against the bishop, who denies the allegations.

A fortnight of protests by several nuns outside Kerala’s high court in Kochi followed, during which members of the laity, women’s groups, anti-religious groups and anti-Christian factions joined forces, petitioning the court that the Sister’s case be pursued by the federal law enforcement agency, the Central Bureau of Investigation, rather than by local police ­– who, they claimed, could be complicit in a cover-up. However, the court ruled against them and said Keralan police were best suited to investigate.

Meanwhile, the Sister’s congregation, the Missionaries of Jesus, was accused of conducting a smear campaign against her. Statements and photographs were leaked to the press that appeared to break the law against disclosing a sexual abuse victim’s identity.

The congregation denied it was the source of the leaks but did make statements about the photos, saying they were “proof that she had not been sexually assaulted” as the nun could be seen sitting with the bishop. It added: “Any woman who was raped by a man would never attend functions or travel with that man. This is a truth that cannot be denied.”

On September 20 the Vatican relieved Bishop Mulakkal of his diocesan duties and appointed an administrator to take charge temporarily. The next day, India witnessed the first ever instance of a bishop being arrested on charges of rape and sexual assault. In the wake of his detention, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI), which represents both Latin and Eastern-rite bishops, avoided comment, but said last month that their “silence should in no way be construed as siding with either of the two parties”.

Last week Kerala’s high court denied the bishop bail, saying it would hamper the investigation. Three bishops have visited Mulakkal in his cell, and Keralan political leaders have also voiced support for him.

Religious scholars in India say the case has tarred Church leaders while simultaneously painting a defiant and sympathetic image of rank and file Catholics, who came to support “Sister X” and her fellow nuns during the protests.

Plenty of Indian Catholics have questioned why the claims against Bishop Mulakkal had taken so long to come before the authorities. PC George, a state lawmaker, went so far as to call the nun a prostitute during a press conference. He has since expressed regret for his choice of words.

The Mulakkal case has been damaging enough to the Catholic communities of India on its own, but a financial scandal that preceded it ­­– also in Kerala – has compounded the crisis within the Church.

In late June, Cardinal George Alencherry was temporarily relieved from his post as the head of the Ernakulam archdiocese by the Vatican. Cardinal Alencherry was accused of approving an illegal land deal in Kerala. Bishop Jacob Manathodath, of Palakkad diocese, was appointed apostolic administrator of the archdiocese.

The central allegation was that land belonging to the Keralan Church had been sold at a great loss and that Cardinal Alencherry had personally gained from the sale – a frequent accusation, incidentally, against India’s state politicians. The cardinal denies the allegations.

A Church panel recommended Alencherry be removed, as per civil and Church law. The report by the panel was then sent to the Holy See through the apostolic nuncio in Delhi. Cardinal Alencherry is to remain as head of the Syro-Malabar Church but will not have any role in the governance of the Archdiocese of Ernakulam.

While India remains transfixed by the cases against Bishop Mulakkal and Cardinal Alencherry, the Kerala Catholic Bishops’ Council reminded its followers that some were using the scandals “to implicate the Church as a whole”.

The council’s spokesman, Fr Varghese Vallikkatt, said Catholics and the public should beware “a hidden agenda with vested interests and some with grievances within the Church” over its summer of discontent.