How Bishop Franco's Acquittal Pushed Kerala Nuns Into Silence Again

On January 14, acquitting Franco Mulakkal of charges of rape of a nun, the trial court observed that the victim didn't reveal history of "penile penetration" to a doctor.

Jisha Surya
Update: 2022-01-20 10:31 GMT

The nuns reading letters they received as part of the campaign of solidarity.

Fifty-six-year-old Sister Lucy Kalappura's room in the convent of Franciscan Clarist Congregation in Mananthavady, Wayanad, has some basic cooking facilities — an induction stove and utensils. Three years ago she started cooking for herself when the convent stopped serving her food from the common kitchen. Nobody in the convent even speaks to her.

Sister Lucy invited the wrath of the church when she spoke up against former Bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Jalandhar, Franco Mulakkal, who has now been acquitted in the controversial nun rape case.

Following a series of allegations, the Church expelled Sister Lucy last year. However, she continues to live in the convent on the basis of an injunction order secured from Manathavady munsiff court.

It is not just Sister Lucy who is facing the social boycott from the church. The survivor in the rape case and her five supporters at the St. Francis Mission Home, Kuravilangadu, the convent belonging to Missionaries of Jesus and Sister Lissy Vadakel, key witness in the rape case and a member of Franciscan Clarist Congregation, too are facing similar social boycott. Sister Lucy said that they all fear that the social ostracism might intensify after the judgement.

"Sister Lissy, nuns at Kuravilangad and I live in three separate convents. Our situations are very similar. We have a roof over our head, but don't get any kind of support from the convent," Sister Lucy told BOOM, days after the judgement on Franco Mulakkal.

While the nuns at Kuravilangad and Sister Lissy get police protection on court direction and food from the convent, Sister Lucy gets neither. "I live on my meagre pension amount, which could just ensure that I won't starve," Sister Lucy said.

For Sister Lucy and the nuns who questioned Bishop Franco, the January 14 judgement was the proverbial last straw.

"The survivor is deeply hurt. It would take some time for her to regain her strength. But she will come back sooner or later. I know, she had decided that she would be part of struggles demanding justice for women who face similar trauma," Sister Lucy said.

When BOOM reached out to Sister Anupama, a witness in the case and a close confidante of the survivor, she said that she was not ready to speak yet.

The nuns have not come out before the public after giving a statement to the media on the judgement day. Sources close to the nuns said that they haven't recovered from the shock of the character trial at the court.

The Character Trial

On January 14, 2022, acquitting Franco Mulakkal, of charges of rape of a nun, the trial court observed that the victim didn't reveal history of "penile penetration" to a doctor. It also found 'evidence' of photographs that show that the victim was 'quite happy and joyful' after the alleged date of crime.

This is eerily similar to the 2005 judgement of Kerala High Court acquitting 35 accused in the infamous Suryanelli rape case, involving the gang rape of a 16-year-old. One of the major observation of the court was that the victim, a 16-year-old, did not tell a doctor about the wrongful confinement and gang rape, she had been subjected to.

Setting aside the fact that the girl was subjected to continuous sexual assault, the court weighed on the doctor's statement that the girl appeared 'normal in gait and appearances', to conclude that there wasn't lack of consent.

"Seventeen years and a major amendment in Criminal Law in 2013 did not make any changes to the insensitivity of the courts to victims of sexual assault," observed lawyer and activist J Sandhya, drawing parallels to the 2005 Suryanelli and the Kerala nun rape case judgements.

Expressing surprise over the judgement, advocate Bobby Thomas opined sarcastically that the layman should first learn legal terminologies before filing a sexual assault case.

"The court has observed that the survivor told other witnesses that the bishop was forcing her to sleep with him and not meant any sexual assault. Everyone knows the meaning of 'koode kidakkan nirbandikkunnu (forcing me to sleep with him). There is no need for an explanation," he said.

However, the court observed that there were discrepancies in the statement as the survivor used different terms for various statements.

Also Read: Kerala Court Acquits Bishop Franco Mulakkal In the Nun Rape Case

The judgement also noted that the victim had "improved" on her statement to the magistrate under Section 164 of the Code of Criminal procedure. "We all know how hostile a police station is for a woman, let alone a nun. She couldn't give the graphic details of the assault due to the presence of a policeman who was a laity of her church. However, statements are given in a cordial environment in the lone presence of a woman magistrate. And I still don't know the legal aspect which says that the victims shouldn't improve their statement," he said.

The judgement notes that the complainant mentioned "penile penetration" only much later and not in her statement or to the doctor. She used various terms like sexual assault, sexual harassment in her previous statements. 

While the state is witnessing a major outrage against the trial court judgement, a campaign expressing solidarity to the nuns went viral on Wednesday. Initiated by a group of social activists, handwritten notes expressing solidarity were sent via mails to the convent. Celebrities including actors Parvathy Thiruvoth, Rima Kallingal, writers K R Meera, N S Madhavan, singer Chinmayi Sripadaa, among others, sent handwritten notes to the survivor, offering her support and love.

The mail ID was flooded with over 500 mails expressing solidarity in a short span of 6 hours.

Father Augustine Vattoli, convenor of Save of Sisters (SOS) forum, which provided solidarity to the fight of the survivor and the nuns who stood with her, said that the judgement backtracked the progress achieved in the legal systems in the last 40 years. "The trial was not against the accused, but the survivor. The amendments in the criminal procedure system bought out by the Mathura rape case in 1983 and later in 2013 after Nirbhaya case were not at all considered by this court," he said.

While the nuns are not yet ready to speak on what's next for them, Father Vattoli said that the SOS will ask the Kerala government to file an appeal immediately to bring justice to the nun. "We will also take all measures to prevent the church from reinstating the accused as the bishop," he said.

Also Read | Fake Quote On Rape Attributed To Accused Bishop Franco Mulakkal

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