Editor’s Note: This is the second in the five-part series analysing why the rich, powerful men – from politicians to spiritual leaders – across the world are victimising themselves upon being accused of sexual harassment.
Was one of the bishops to whom the Pope referred to in his sermon on sexual assault victims in September 2018 Bishop Franco Mulakkal? While the Catholic Church’s sex abuse drama plays out in America, the scandal surrounding Mulakkal is unraveling on the other side of the world. It stretches across the whole of India, from Kerala in the deep south to Punjab in the far north, and contains echoes of so many other abuses of power.
Mulakkal, who oversees the diocese of Jalandhar, Punjab, was accused in June of raping a nun in Kerala 13 times between 2014 and 2016. The bishop’s response was a page from Trump’s playbook. He cast himself as a martyr, declaring, “derogatory statements are being made against me…. Though I am an accused, but that does not give anyone the license to tarnish my character.” He spoke of his great pain, stating, “I suffered it silently. This is a time of crisis… I am going through painful agony.”
Flatly denying the allegations, he called them “baseless and concocted” and accused the nun of attempting to blackmail him for personal gain. Filing a case with the police days before the nun leveled charges against him, he accused her relatives of sending him death threats. One of the people investigated, however, told police that the bishop intimidated him into sending fake threats.
The Church closed ranks around the bishop. In July, the vicar-general of Jalandhar (the bishop’s deputy) stated, “It is all planned and timed to blackmail the bishop from taking punitive action against her.” In September, the nun’s congregation came out against her, arguing, “The victim was seen laughing with the bishop a day after when the rape was supposed to have happened.”
Undeterred, however, the victim continued her struggle. On September 8, in an open letter to the Vatican, she said, “They are arranging people to attack us, and Bishop Franco is using his political power and money to get higher authorities of the investigation and the government to bury legal proceedings that I have filed against him.” On the same day, a coalition of five nuns began an agitation in Kochi (Kerala’s most populous metropolis) to demand Mulakkal’s arrest. Every day since, they traveled to Kochi’s Vanchi Square to sit in silent protest.
One of the protesting nuns, Sister Ancita, spoke out at the home where she lives with the victim. “Our sister — we call her amma (mother) — isn’t safe here,” she said. “We can never be sure of what they might do. Our amma has taken on one of the most powerful people in the Church.”
The level of power Mulakkal possesses was illustrated when a Kerala state legislator leapt to his defence by viciously attacking the victim. “No one has a doubt that the nun is a prostitute,” said Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) PC George on September 9. “Twelve times she enjoyed it and the thirteenth time, it is rape? Why didn’t she complain the first time?” After his comments sparked outrage, he retracted the “prostitute” allegation, but simultaneously continued his attacks. “According to me, she isn’t a nun,” he said. “To refer to any woman as a prostitute is wrong. I shouldn’t have used that word. But I strongly stand by other statements that I made regarding that woman.”
George has a habit of assailing sexual abuse victims and siding with accused abusers. In 2017, a local actress was abducted by a gang, bundled into a car, and sexually assaulted for hours while her assailants filmed her abuse. As the police investigated, they concluded that Dileep, a well-known actor, may have organized the attack.
The MLA first denied the victim’s claims, asking, “where is proof that she was attacked?” Then leaping to the defence of the accused, he declared, “Superstar Dileep has been targeted and the case against him is fabricated.” Painting the actor as a martyr, he added, “Dileep is also a victim.” Arguing that the real victim was “men,” he stated, “This is not a case of harassment of a woman; this is the harassment of a man.” After the Kerala Women’s Commission denounced his comments, they reported that he responded by sending them threatening letters accompanied by packets of feces.
The victimized actress did not remain silent. Speaking out against the MLA, she demanded, “What do people like PC George think?” Speculating as to how he thinks she should have responded, she asked, “I should have committed suicide? Or should I have been dumped in a mental asylum? Or should I hide myself somewhere by not appearing in public? Can someone tell me what wrong I did?”