Sun, Jan 06, 2019 - Page 7 News List

Nuns in India tell of enduring abuse in the Catholic Church

There is an engulfing silence — talking about the church’s troubles could end with the nuns being cut off from what they have always known — but some of them are speaking up

By Tim Sullivan  /  AP, KURAVILANGAD, India

There are about 18 million Catholics in India, but that is a small minority in that largely Hindu nation of 1.3 billion. Speaking up could tarnish the image of their church, many nuns worry, and feed criticism by Hindu hardliners.

“Even we, as religious sisters, even we try to keep it quiet,” Mulackal said. “A woman who goes through this experience, she just wants to hide it and pretend everything is OK.”

The rapes happened in Room 20 of a small convent at the end of a one-lane road in rural Kerala, the nun said.

Set amid rows of banana and rubber trees near the little town of Kuravilangad, the sisters at the Saint Francis Mission Home spend their days in prayer or caring for the aged. In the garden, a statue of the Virgin Mary overlooks a decorative fish pond the size of a child’s wading pool. The pond is covered in green scum.

The rapist was Bishop Franco Mulakkal, the most powerful man in this tiny world, she said.

Smart and ambitious, Mulakkal had risen from small-town Kerala to become a bishop in north India, overseeing a sprawling Catholic community. He was also the official patron of her community of 81 sisters, the Missionaries of Jesus, wielding immense influence over its budgets and job assignments.

The nun is a friendly woman with jet black hair who is known for her quiet confidence.

Every few months, Mulakkal would visit the Saint Francis convent and summon her, she said.

Then, according to a letter she wrote to church officials, he raped her.

The letter says that the first rape happened on May 5, 2014. The last time was on Sept. 23, 2016. The dates are recorded in the convent’s visitor logs.

Mulakkal has denied the accusations, telling reporters that the charges are “baseless and concocted” and accusing the sister of trying to blackmail him into giving her a better job.

“I am going through painful agony,” said Mulakkal, who was jailed for three weeks and released on bail in October last year. “I tell everyone to pray to God: Let the truth prevail.”

Catholicism envelopes this part of Kerala. Towns are marked by their cathedrals, convents and roadside shrines, where the Virgin watches passing traffic or Saint George slays the dragon. Businesses proclaim their owners’ faith: Saint Mary’s Furniture and Bed Center; Ave Maria Electronics; Jesus Oil Industries.

Around Kerala, many see Mulakkal as a martyr.

A string of supporters visited him in jail and crowds greeted him when he returned home, a ring of police officers holding back people who showered him with flower petals. A banner proclaimed: “Hearty Welcome!”

However, at the Saint Francis convent, one group of nuns watched news reports about that welcome with dismay. While the sister leveling the accusations against Mulakkal does not speak publicly, a half-dozen nuns cluster around her, offering support and speaking on her behalf.

“Nobody came to see sister, but so many people came to wait in line to meet Bishop Franco in jail,” said Villoonnickal, the nun who moved back to Kerala to support the woman that she calls “our survivor sister.”

That sister was the second of five children in a Kerala family. Her father was in the army. Her mother died when she was in high school. Wracked with grief, she was sent to stay with a cousin — a priest — living in north India. Inspired by her time with him, she became a nun in 1994, working in her early years as a teacher.

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