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Posted at: Jul 13, 2018, 12:22 AM; last updated: Jul 13, 2018, 12:22 AM (IST)

Spotlight on abuse of nuns

An unequal power equation prevails in the church which is steeped in patriarchy; and sexually abused nuns find little support.
Spotlight on abuse of nuns
Sexual abuse of nuns is allegedly rampant in churches. PTI

Flavia Agnes
Feminist scholar & women's rights activist 

THE Christian clergy in Kerala is gripped in a series of sexual scandals where nuns and lay women have come out and lodged criminal complaints of rape and sexual harassment in recent times. At least 13 priests belonging to either the Roman Catholic or the Syrian Orthodox Church are facing police enquiries. The latest is the complaint filed by a senior nun that Franco Mulakkal, Bishop of Jalandhar (which comes under the Delhi Archdiocese of the Catholic Church), raped her 13 times since 2014.

This is not the first time that allegations of sexual abuse have been made by nuns or by other women against priests. But this time, a bishop is involved, which makes the offence very serious. A bishop is meant to act as a spiritual guide to the diocese.  

Sexual abuse and humiliation which nuns and others who serve in church institutions are subjected to has been spoken about in hushed tones. There have been some instances of nuns leaving the religious order, and speaking or writing about their experiences of humiliation and sexual abuse. But most often, the victims do not talk about it for fear that they will be ostracised since the priest is too powerful. 

Since the abuse is reportedly rampant and seldom addressed, some Christian women activists and associations of various religious orders, including the Indian Christian Women's Movement (ICWM),  the Conference of Religious India (CRI) Women's Section,  the Forum of Religious for Justice and Peace (FORUM), have been prevailing upon the Roman Catholic Church to address the issue and bring in remedial measures. But the church authorities have been dragging their feet over it. 

The Roman Catholic Church was quick to follow the dictates of Rome regarding the clergy's abuse of young children after various legal cases were filed in the US and elsewhere regarding the abuse of young male children by the clergy where the church had to pay heavy damages and penalties. A child protection policy has been put in place and it is applicable to all church institutions and church-administered schools. 

But when it came to sexual abuse of women, the Church hesitated as the authorities felt that it might tarnish its image and that it would be like accepting that sexual abuse is prevalent within churches. But due to efforts of various women activists within the church, a sexual harassment policy was finally implemented. However, it seems to be locked up in a secret chamber and vulnerable persons who need to be aware of its existence are kept in the dark.

In this setting, the alleged sexual abuse by the Jalandhar Bishop was a time bomb waiting to explode.

An unequal power equation prevails. In addition, church institutions are steeped in patriarchy which is difficult to dislodge. Religious women (nuns) do not have the power to manage church affairs or church institutions. These continue to be male bastions. Change is extremely slow and women continue to be treated as subordinates and handmaidens at the service of the male hierarchy. Within such lopsided power structures, it is not surprising that women are abused. Very little rights discourse takes place within these institutions. 

Where the victims/survivors are concerned, there is apprehension that their superiors also will not support them and a complaint may result in the complainant having to leave the convent and she may not even get social acceptance outside. 

But this time, the victim nun has withstood the pressure. When her initial complaints were ignored, she boldly approached the police. The accused is the Bishop of Jalandhar and the abuse allegedly took place in Kerala. Both the victim and abuser hail from Kerala. Hence, the investigations are being carried out in Kerala. 

But even this time, sadly, the church's stand has been evasive and Catholic newspapers have put out a narrative blaming the victim. The bishop has asked several lay people to write letters supporting his stand and making the nun look like a manipulator. He has stated that her complaint was an act of revenge. While the nun's statement has been recorded, the bishop, who has dismissed the allegations as baseless, is yet to be questioned. The victim's family says that despite a complaint to the Delhi Archbishop about the abuse, nothing was done. The police have also registered a case against the nun and her relatives on a complaint from the bishop. They say that they received the bishop's complaint first and the nun filed her complaint a day later.

Kochurani Abraham, a women's rights activist in Kerala, says that the cases have opened the floodgates and not just of sexual abuse but also general issues concerning the community. Gender justice, priesthood, confession are now discussed on TV channels, which is a positive outcome.  

Virginia Saldanha, Secretary, ICWM, says the earlier interventions have been within the ecclesiastical boundaries in order to save the face of the church. But now things are in the open. She hopes that truth will prevail and it will encourage other nuns to come out and speak about abuse, if any, and that the church leadership will wake up to the reality of women's state in churches.

Christian women's organisations have written to the president of the church hierarchy in India  as well as to Pope Francis to take up the issue and ask the bishop to step down "so that the Church is seen to actually practice the 'zero tolerance' it professes to observe in abuse cases". "If the bishop continues to remain in his position, it will erode the faith of the people in the credibility of the Church." The letter is also signed by around 175 individuals. They hope that with their backing, the nun will be able to withstand the pressure exerted on her from the bishop and the church authorities.  

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