An investigation by the news agency AP has revealed the shocking extent of sexual assault and abuse of nuns within the Catholic Church in Kerala, India.
Several harrowing accounts, some dating back to the 1990s, detail instances of forced kisses and unwanted advances by powerful priests, some of them under the influence of alcohol. One nun recalled being grabbed and kissed by an older priest visiting from Goa when she brought his laundry back to his room. Terrified of making a scene, the nun didn’t call for help, and reportedly pushed herself away from him till she could leave the room.
“I didn’t want to offend him. I didn’t want to make him feel bad,” she told AP.
The Catholic Church has been for long been accused of doing little to combat sexual abuse by priests around the world, and even actively covering it up in certain cases. The accounts from Kerala illustrate the punishing culture of silence that has enabled sexual abuse to continue unchecked within the institution in India. The nuns AP interviewed—some decades younger than their abusers—described the fear of retribution and being isolated or even expelled from their community, which forced them to avoid making official complaints.
“It’s a fear of being isolated if I speak the truth,” another nun told AP. “If you do that, you have to go against your own community, your own religious superiors.”
Last year, one senior nun broke this barrier, approaching the police to accuse the influential Catholic bishop Franco Mulakkal of raping her 13 times over a two-year period. Mulakkal denied the allegations, claiming the nun was blackmailing him, and the ensuing scandal sharply divided the Christian community. Some sided with the bishop, questioning the survivor’s account and even calling her a prostitute. At the same time, hundreds of nuns staged protests on the streets to call for Mulakkal’s arrest. He was put in jail for three weeks in October before being released on bail. Since then, the case has hardly progressed, and nuns have argued that the bishop’s power and influence are preventing justice from being served.
In the AP report, sisters who live and work alongside the senior nun at the St Francis Mission Home in the rural town of Kuravilangad in the southern state of Kerala, say she had complained repeatedly to church authorities, but decided to go to the police after receiving no help. In their telling, Mulakkal, the patron of their community, would visit the convent every few months and summon the senior nun. In a letter written to church officials, AP says, the nun said the first rape occurred on May 05, 2014, and the last one on Sept. 23, 2016, dates on which Mulakkal’s name features on the convent’s guest book, according to AP.
The senior nun’s harrowing experience, which would have remained under wraps had she not approached the police, highlights the impunity of powerful men in India, especially religious leaders, and how women remain unsafe even within the confines of a convent.