Posted by Cynthia Stephen
The Christian churches in India – there are dozens of denominations, with many of them not even being on talking terms with each other – are facing an unprecedented situation. For the first time in many years, women from within the church – nuns and married women members – are breaking their silence on the discrimination, exploitation, and abuse they have been going through a lot of pain and suffering.
A dam seems to have burst with several women levelling allegations, writing books, and now filing complaints to the police and issuing statements to the media. While some of these complaints are about poor and exploitative working conditions, others are serious charges of abuse of administrative and ecclesiastical power by the clergy.
A case in point is that of a senior nun from the Missionaries of Jesus, a congregation set up under the diocese of Jalandhar. The nun joined the relatively new congregation in 1994 and took her final vows in 2004. She was made a Superior General by the founder, the late Bishop Symphorian Keeprath in the same year. After his subsequent demise, the congregation again elected her to the post in 2007 and she continued till 2013. Since this congregation is attached to the diocese of Jalandhar, its head is the bishop of the Jalandhar diocese, to which post Franco Mulakkal was appointed in 2013.
According to the letter written by the nun to the Forum of Religious for Justice and Peace, an organisation of nuns and priests within the church, she was a victim of exploitation by Bishop Franco between 2014 and 2016. When she began to resist this, she was subjected to mental and administrative torture. In another letter addressed to the Apostolic Nuncio, the papal representative in India, she says that in five years 20 nuns left the congregation as the leadership of the congregation was unable to address their problems. She further states that it was only the support and solidarity of five sisters in her congregation which had helped her to take a stand against the actions of Bishop Franco.
The five sisters had been part of a public protest to force the state government to take action against the priest, who was finally arrested 87 days after the FIR was lodged. On 16th September, bowing to intense pressure, Mulakkal wrote to the Pope “expressing his desire to step aside temporarily” and he “requested to be relieved from the administration of the Diocese”.
Cardinal Oswald Gracias, President of the Catholic Bishop’s Council of India (CBCI), issued a letter announcing that the Pope had accepted the request and had appointed the auxiliary Bishop Emeritus of the diocese, Bishop Agnelo Rufino Gracias, as the Apostolic administrator of the Jalandhar diocese. The Bishop was questioned in a police station near Kochi by the Kerala Police who have also been investigating the matter for several months. The Bishop had failed to present himself for questioning even when they arrived at Jalandhar to question him.
The survivor says that in five years, 20 nuns left the congregation as the leadership of the congregation was unable to address their problems.
The four-day turnaround time for this letter of the bishop is very short considering that the nun had written to the Apostolic Nuncio in Delhi, who is directly connected with the Vatican, as far back as January this year, and having waited four months, addressed letters to various officials in the Vatican in May by courier which were tracked to have been successfully delivered to the Vatican. However, there has been no response from any of these offices since.
Firstpost contacted Br. Verghese Thekanath, former President of the Conference of Religious (CRI), an umbrella organisation of over 800 religious Congregations in India accounting for almost 125 thousand religious sisters, brothers and priests in India. He says “The Catholic Church has reasonably good policies in place today, including protocols on child protection and women at work place. It is an agreed principle that civil law takes precedence over Church law. But the church has not still put in place a structural mechanism at different levels to implement it. This is all the more so when it comes to calling the higher clergy to accountability.”
He goes on to say, “This lacuna, along with the eagerness to protect the ‘good name ‘ of the Church, is doing immense harm. Lack of knowledge of the law is also major problem. This needs to be addressed at every level in the Church. Equally important is admission of candidates to religious life and priesthood. There are many who are unfit for this demanding life, who manage to stay on. Strict screening is necessary. Pope Francis has talked about the adverse impact of clericalism on the Church. This breeds arrogance in many. This, along with the subservience of the ordinary faithful causes much exploitation. The application of the paradigm of human rights of all is an important safeguard.”
Thus, on one hand, the church establishment is closing ranks and is supportive of the Bishop’s assertion that he is the victim of a vindictive campaign by the nun, while public opinion and even saner voices from within the establishment agree that there is a wide gap between the churches’ policies and their implementation in the church.
In an article discussing the Church’s response in such cases, the Bishop Jose Porunnedom of Mananthavady wonders, “Why does the public, including members of the church and clergy, have such a prejudicial attitude towards bishops? Why do they arrive at such conclusions?” He points to the role of media in the process, saying that the media has varied vested interests, depending on the ideology and policies of the owners. “The church has a policy of zero tolerance towards abusive clergy,” he claims, but adds, “People think that this means that the accused should be punished as soon as the accusations are leveled without the mandatory legal proceedings being completed….the accused should simply be kicked out of the priesthood”.
It’s time all churches and religious institutions ditched outdated and feudal notions of paternal power and began to practice what they preach.
Porunnedom also says that though there are Canon laws, these are actually subject to the law of the land even though in some cases there are contradictory procedures. He points to the need for church authorities to bring their own procedures in line with civil laws.
“According to Catholic theology and popular perception, a bishop is seen as a father to his people, especially the clergy. At the same time, he is also the judge in all cases in his diocese, including those of the clergy. The requirement that he be both the father and the judge simultaneously is a near impossible task”, he concludes.
The Indian Christian Women’s Movement (ICWM), a national inter-denominational and ecumenical movement of Christian women, has been active in engaging with the church on the various complaints of abuse of clerical power by the church hierarchy especially in the case of women and children. They issued a statement in support of the nun and expressing outrage at the religious-political nexus in the state (of Kerala) which was favouring and protecting the accused.
It states, “ICWM expresses its anger, pain and shame at the silence of the Catholic hierarchy…” and “…questions the credibility of the hierarchy in promoting a policy to address sexual harassment in the Church when it has failed to institute an ecclesiastical enquiry against an accused bishop.” The statement also calls for the sacking of an MLA, PC George, who had publicly shamed the survivor by calling her a ‘prostitute’. It condemns the impunity with which the MLA again publicly stood by what he said.
The Church in general, and the Roman Catholic Church in particular, thus, is at a watershed movement. With mounting pressure on them to implement their own policies for gender sensitivity and compliance with the civil law, the strategy of stonewalling all criticism using political, ecclesiastical and institutional power is clearly not going to work for much longer.
It’s time all churches and religious institutions ditched their outdated and feudal notions of paternal power over their members, and began to practice what they preach, uphold truth and justice and the constitutional values of equality and non-discrimination, and co-operate with the implementation of the law of the land.
Cynthia Stephen is an independent researcher and journalist. She is the founder of Dalit Women’s Network For Solidarity (DAWNS) and is a member of The Indian Christian Women’s Movement (ICWM), Bangalore.