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

She knew Mulakkal, of course.

Everyone in the Missionaries of Jesus knows him, but the two were never close and had no consensual sexual relationship, the accuser’s friends said.

It was about fear.

“The bishop is such a powerful person and standing against him, where would she go?” Villoonnickal said. “If she went home, what would happen to her?”

“Many times she was telling him to stop, but each time, he was forcing himself on her,” she added.

Eventually, she told some sisters what was happening, the accuser’s friends said, adding that she then repeatedly complained to church authorities and when nothing happened, she went to the police.

She also went to confession, they said.

There, she was told that she had to resist the bishop, the other nuns said.

“Even if you have to die, don’t submit yourself,” the priest told her in confession, according to Villoonnickal.

“Be courageous,” he told her.

Catholic authorities have said little about the case, with the Indian Catholic Bishops’ Conference saying in an October statement that it has no jurisdiction over individual bishops, and that the investigation and court case, which could take many years, must run their course.

“Silence should in no way be construed as siding with either of the two parties,” the group said. “We request prayers for the Church at this difficult time.”

In Malayalam, the language of Kerala, sisters who leave the convent are sometimes marked as madhilu chadi, or “wall jumpers.” It is a mocking term for the sexually frustrated and often used for nuns and priests who have fled religious life.

Those who stay get respect. They have communities that embrace them. Their lives have direction and purpose. Those who leave often find themselves adrift in India, searching for new identities, and spurned by families and friends. The events that knit families together — weddings, funerals, reunions — are suddenly off-limits. The emotional toll can be immense.

Speaking up about the church’s troubles could end with them forced from their convents, cut off in many ways from what they have always known, many nuns said.

“It’s a fear of being isolated if I speak the truth,” said the nun who fought off the drunken priest. “If you do that, you have to go against your own community, your own religious superiors.”

The result is an engulfing silence. Silence is the armor that sisters use to protect themselves and the lives that they have created, even if it also means struggling with their memories and protecting the men who abused them.

In the end, most say nothing.

“I didn’t tell anybody,” said the nun who escaped the priest kissing her chest and who waited many years to talk about what had happened to her. “So you understand how these things are covered up.”

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