The judgment of the Kerala Sessions Court in the 2018 nun rape case in which the accused, “Bishop” Franco Mulakkal was acquitted, is a deeply worrying development on many levels.
This is not the first time that accusations of church abuse have been handled with legal gloves in India. And it won’t be the last. But the implications this has for the future security of women and children in India are dire to say the least.
In post-independent India, the Catholic Church has steadily grown stronger in terms of institution building, networking with power structures and real estate. Today, the church is arguably the largest religious network with enormous political and social power. No Hindu organization can come close to the Catholic Church in terms of the power it wields over state institutions in secular India.
At the same time, in principle, the Catholic Church is a transnational religious institution which aims to submit secular authority to its religious authority, as far as possible.
In the West, this is virtually impossible given the strong secular nature of institutions and the rivalry of non-Catholic churches and international denominations like Anglicans and Lutherans. But in postcolonial countries like India, where the Catholic Church is in combat mission mode, it seeks to overthrow or co-opt secular authority as much as possible.
This enabled the church to enjoy the same influence in India as it had in the pre-secular West. Accepting the supremacy of the church is part of the worldview of the powerful English-educated elite in India. For the English-educated elite, Indian civilization is somehow inherently deficient, and Western civilization, as well as Christianity, removes these deficiencies. So what can be considered crimes of the church would be treated as errors in India; individual human failings not to be confused with the institutional nature of the church which is benign and a blessing to India.
This is not the first time that such an attitude has manifested itself in secular institutions in India. From the state apparatus to the media, all have shown abject submission to the power of the Church.
In 1992 when the murder case of Sister Abhaya hit the headlines, remember how the Kerala state CB-CID ruled it a suicide. There have been accusations of CB-CID tampering with evidence and even pressure from within the CBI to close the case as a suicide. It was not until 2020, after 28 years, that a CBI court on December 22 found Father Kottoor and Sister Sephy guilty of murder.
But there will be appeals and when justice is finally done, it may be too late unless the church decides the defendants no longer need to appeal. Put simply, the church decides which of its victims should be compensated and which need not be compensated, and there seems to be a tacit agreement with the will of the church in the secular establishment of the India.
The Sister Abhaya case and the current Franco Mulakkal case may be sensational, but they are only the tip of the iceberg. The case that should have shaken the conscience of the Indian state should have been the Kannur rape case.
It was in 2019, after two years of filing a complaint, that a rapist Catholic priest, who impregnated an underage girl, was convicted by the Thalassery POCSO court in Kerala, on the basis of DNA evidence. The power of the church over the family of believers was such that the the victim’s father was made to confess to the heinous crime. Moreover, the young girl who had been raped several times by the priest was not even informed that she was carrying his child and had to undergo an operation in an ecclesiastical hospital for the birth of the child under the pretext of a appendicitis operation. The mere fact that the church could pull off such a cover-up shows the unbearably inhumane nature of the crime against this innocent minor.
The born child was admitted to an orphanage, again run by the Catholic Church. In other words, the child molester was strongly supported by a powerful professional network within the church.
This case should have blown the lid off institutionalized church abuse. Yet there was silence – a highly inert silence.
The POCSO court eventually convicted only the priest and acquitted other church officials. One can be sure that even the final sentencing of the priest would take years, if not decades, with appeals and other delaying tactics to which the church is adept.
The lack of national outrage over this case shows that we prefer to treat this as a simple “sex scandal” and not as a symptom of a deeper institutionalized disease. Western media like the BBC, CNN and the New York Times, who practically even record a cracked windowpane in a remote church as a “persecution of Christians” in India, prefer to remain silent regarding the crime against Indians by the church.
This omission and lack of media spotlight should show the inherent pro-church bias that exists in secular media in the West as well as in India.
For the Vatican-headquartered Roman Catholic Church empire, the abuse of Indian Christians is not such a serious problem. This is pragmatic theo-racism practiced by the church, without saying it openly. And this is a historical outcome of theo-colonialism. The church brings a ‘higher truth’. He brings “the love of Jesus to godless pagans who suffer from moral deficiency”. Surely some abuse could be silently suffered by converted pagans? Surely some forbidden carnal privileges could be granted to those who work to bring the message of Jesus to the Gentiles in their darkness?
Compare this with the way a Hindu sanyasi would be represented if caught up in a scandal. Along with fast-paced, strong state action, there would be cartoons, jokes, stand-ups, movies, parodies, and even commercials. But when was the last time an artist was seen in India talking about the endemic and institutionalized abuse of children in the church?
The child-glove treatment that we see with regard to the problems of sexual and psychological abuse in the churches of India is a continuation of the deeper malaise of theo-colonialism. You don’t have to be officially converted to suffer from it.
We Indians must first heal and heal our collective psyche of theo-colonialism – the deeply held belief that the church is an institution of peace, justice and love. Historically, it has been more of an institution of power, abuse, exploitation and oppression.
He made a course correction in the West. But in the Indian context, it’s a throwback to dark times. Sadly, Indian secularism has singularly failed to free itself from theo-colonialism and has become an unwitting accomplice in the abuses the church has unleashed on its Indian victims.