Cover Story

Nun The Less

Saurabh Singh
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In a historic show of solidarity, a group of nuns in Kerala has forced the church and the state to finally act against a bishop who had allegedly raped one of them. V Shoba in Kochi listens to the sisters who dared

BEFORE DECIDING ON a life set apart for the Lord, young Anna (name changed) briefly pondered her father’s words of warning. They had walked home from the matinee show of Kallu Kondoru Pennu, a film about a conscientious Malayali nurse in Kuwait, and she was cold to the bone. Anna remembers the lapping of water at the threshold of the old house after days of incessant rain. Her father, a lean man with sockets for eyes, plumped her down on the divan, wrapped her in a shawl, and begged her to reconsider. “Do you want to go to a place where I can no longer keep you warm and safe?” A good Catholic family in Kerala was expected to relinquish one daughter to the Church, but her sister, several years older, was already a nun. Anna could have pursued a pure science if not engineering—the family could not afford to fund a professional degree—and lived a placid life in the south of Kerala. It had only been a few years since the body of Sister Abhaya, a Catholic nun at the St Pius Convent in Kottayam, was found dumped in a well in what is to date the longest running murder investigation in Kerala. It was a tense and troubled period for a state with an 18.4 per cent Christian population, and even the pious had begun to see the nun’s habit as a black casket with a white trim. “My family hesitated to choose the convent life for me. I had always found comfort in kneeling for prayer and saw the convent as a refuge against the outside world. That a priest could be a predator was unimaginable to me,” says Anna. “As children, we all go through some form of religious indoctrination—first at home, then at school, church or temple. Not everyone acts on it, but I felt like I could find in religion the mother I had lost early in life.”

Anna no longer believes in the same unctuous Catholicism she had been drawn to 21 years ago, when she entered its hallowed precincts as a girl of 16, nervously clutching her neck, bare without the customary gold chain. Having chosen a monastic life as an adolescent hoping for salvation and opportunity, Anna, now 37, feels trapped in a cage of vigilance and repression. “When we enter our five-year formation period, we are busy studying, praying and learning to live a communitarian life. We wait anxiously to wear the veil. The hope is that once we take our vows as Brides of Christ, we would have a direct line of communication with God,” she says, sweating into her floor-length habit in a room with a single window and no fan. The truth sinks in much later—that even after decades of sacramental life, a woman of religion would still need male intercessors, who often expect servitude and complete surrender in return, to feel blessed.

We meet on the sidelines of an indefinite protest that began on September 8th at Kochi’s Vanchi Square, demanding justice for a 44-year-old nun whose allegations of rape against Bishop Franco Mulakkal of the Jalandhar Diocese have stunned the Catholic world. The victim, after appealing in vain to ecclesiastical authorities, including to Cardinal Mar George Alencherry, the Major Archbishop of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, had lodged a police complaint on June 27th, alleging repeated sexual abuse between 2014 and 2016 by Mulakkal during his visits to the Missionaries of Jesus’ Mission Home in Kuravilangad, south of Kochi. Now, five of her fellow-nuns from the Jalandhar-headquartered congregation, which runs convents in Punjab, Bihar and Kerala, are helming a first-of-its-kind uprising in India to crack the spine of a defensive Church hierarchy that has long been using the Eucharist to vilify progressives and snuff out feminist thought.

Having chosen a monastic life as an adolescent hoping for salvation and opportunity, Anna, now 37, feels trapped in a cage of vigilance and repression

Anna is visibly upset, but she has mixed feelings about defiance. She quotes from the Book: “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger.” (Ephesians 4:26) By being here, she is directly disobeying an order issued by her congregation against associating with the sustained protest, which has spread to other districts and forced police to summon the accused to Kerala for questioning. Eighty-one witnesses have been examined in the case so far, and the bishop has filed for anticipatory bail ahead of his questioning. He has also temporarily handed over administrative responsibility of the Jalandhar Diocese to a junior priest. “I would rather die than renounce my vows. I know no other life,” Anna says, her voice barely louder than a whisper. “But I have to answer to my conscience. It is a historic moment for nuns in Kerala.”

Never before has the Church witnessed such an implosion from within. This is the first time in the history of the Roman Catholic Church that a serving nun has filed a complaint of repeated rape against a bishop, and naturally, every progressive Christian in the country is cheering for her: from the late Abhaya’s friend Stephen Mathew who is on hunger strike in front of the stage in Kochi to activists and sympathisers awaiting their turn to make fiery speeches. But it is her fellow-nuns, quiet in their dark brown robes, who stand as symbols against the institutionalisation of deviant behaviour among the clergy—and the equally disturbing tendency to cover it up. Every morning, on the two-hour drive from Kuravilangad where the victim is currently housed under police protection, to the protest venue near the High Court, the sisters talk about insidious attempts to crush their mutiny. “Every time we tried to speak up for our sister, the Superior General told us to leave it to her and the bishop to settle the private matter between them. ‘All we can do is pray,’ she told us. There was no attempt at solving the problem,” says Sister Anupama, 30, the youngest of the nuns, whose father was questioned by police about a letter of alarm she had shot off to him, fearing for her life. The intimidation did not stop there. On August 27th, two months after her first police complaint, the victim alleged danger to her life when her two-wheeler was found to be tampered with. Police have also registered a case against a priest of the Carmelites of Mary Immaculate church for attempting to influence the rebel nuns by offering 10 acres of land and a new convent in exchange for dropping the complaint against the bishop.

It is the nuns, quiet in their dark brown robes, who now stand as symbols against the disturbing tendency of the church to protect abusive members of the clergy

The most brazen efforts to derail the investigation have emanated from the accused. In her letter dated September 8th to the Apostolic Nuncio, the diplomatic representative of the Catholic Church in India, the victim refers to Bishop Franco’s attempts to ‘hook us up in different police cases’. Her own police complaint follows from a series of cases filed by Peter Kavumpuram, the PRO of the Jalandhar Diocese, on behalf of Bishop Franco, alleging that she had threatened suicide and that relatives of her fellow nuns were conspiring to murder the bishop. In their latest move to stifle the protest, the Missionaries of Jesus, in violation of anti-rape laws, released a photograph of the victim along with a press release alleging conspiracy and tampering of evidence. A case has been registered against the congregation under Section 228A.

Even as the police attempts to walk the cat back, a barrage of insinuations has been flying overhead. The Jalandhar Diocese has claimed that the victim nun had been carrying on an affair with a married man, and that when a commission had been appointed to look into the matter, her brother threatened the bishop. The victim, in turn, has alleged gross indecency and indiscretion on the bishop’s part, stopping short of accusing him of dragging several other holy women into bed with him. “She has suffered much slander. If we give up our fight, she will have no hope left,” says Sister Josephine, who has had the longest association of all the nuns with the victim. Both women joined the Missionaries of Jesus in the mid-1990s and shared “some joyful times”. “It is a fight not just for our sister, but also for our collective dignity,” she says, from behind her placard demanding ‘justice’.

This is the first time in the history of the church that a serving nun has filed a complaint of repeated rape against a bishop, and naturally, every progressive Christian in the country is cheering for her

The movement also offers a rare chance to recoup the reputation of nuns, who have been reduced to screeching caricatures, portrayed either as sexually voracious sinners or as sacrificial victims. The angels of God, karthavinte maalakhamaar, who make invaluable contributions as doctors, nurses, teachers and selfless workers, are the backbone of the Church. But stories of their ‘secret lives’ capture perverse imaginations. “For the first time, there is an attempt to humanise nuns,” says Anna. “A false spirituality defines our existence within the convent, where we are psychologically damaged at an impressionable age. Imagine entering a place expecting a utopian community and wanting to feel a part of something bigger than yourself, and then being told that you have no free will. Your superiors are like a parole board watching a convict—you live in constant fear of punishment.” Anna felt the first sting of betrayal as a white-veiled novitiate when a Superior asked her to stop teaching computers at the convent she was attached to, and to start taking history lessons instead. “I studied science. But the Superior wouldn’t listen to reason,” she says. “Over time, she became more unreasonable. She ridiculed me when I put on some weight, and my diet was closely watched. The body, we are taught, is a vehicle for salvation,” she says. The last time Anna went home to visit her family, a year-and-a-half ago, she ate her fill of beef pollichathu. Her father died six years ago after a long illness, and she does not like to burden her brother and his wife with her troubles. One thing she realised when she looked at herself from outside the convent’s bell jar, she says, is “how it infantalises you”. “You miss your parents when they are gone. You no longer question why you must serve dinner to visiting priests and stand by waiting for their orders. You lose your self-respect. A numbness sets in,” she adds. Four years ago, smelling alcohol on a bishop’s breath, Anna flinched away from his palm, which he had been resting on her head in an overlong blessing. “He looked at me with undisguised surprise, as if I was an object suddenly come to life. He sent for me the next evening, but I feigned a fever by covering myself with blankets till I was hot and sweating,” she says. Another time, she suspected the same priest of interfering with a young novitiate, but lacked the courage to betray the unspoken pact of silence that bound them.

The lack of financial, social and emotional security often leaves nuns with no option but to stay on at abusive convents

“Obedience is the vow that matters the most. Poverty and celibacy rank lower in the list of priorities. Before that comes unfailing good health. Should you fall ill in your active years of service, you are treated as someone who cannot earn her keep, and sidelined,” says Maria Thomas, 56, a former nun from Kannur who hung up her robes over two decades ago. A liberated woman who now lives with an Australian partner, it took her years to come to terms with her lost youth. “A back condition meant I could not slave away all day, and I fell out of favour with the Mother Superior. I felt rejected—both by the community, and by my family whom I could not return to because Malayali society would not accept a mottechi (literally, a bald woman—nuns were once shorn of their hair when they took their vows) living amidst them,” says Thomas, who is penning a memoir. When she did start to look for a husband, well into her forties, the proposals came from divorcees who needed a stepmother for their children, or “stupid Malayali men expecting a Virgin Mary”. “Writing has been cathartic for me. Some other nuns who managed to run away from a life of suffering have been rehabilitated thanks to community organisations like the Kerala Catholic Church Reformation Movement and the Catholic Priests, Ex-Priests and Nuns Association. But thousands are still unable to assimilate into society and find viable jobs,” she says. The lack of financial, social and emotional security leaves nuns with no option but to stay on at abusive convents, Thomas says. As a survival mechanism, some of them begin to internalise the values of their male oppressors, and covet a share of the money and the power that the priests have.

“We are the sheep of God, but we are fated to follow the whims and fancies of our superiors, hoping we will be put in favourable positions. You will not believe the pettiness inside some convents. A cruel Mother Superior can ban all access to mobile phones and TV, cutting you off from the world,” says Sister Teena Jose, a 64-year-old nun and an advocate who successfully contested the Bar Council of India’s objections to nuns practising law. She has fallen out of favour in the Congregation of the Mother of Carmel (CMC) sisters despite winning a judgment for the nuns in a case reinforcing their rights over a school in Ernakulam against senior priests seeking control of it. “The truth is, the sisters would rather give up what is theirs than take on powerful priests,” she says, amidst the sloganeering. “There are very few candidates enrolling to become nuns. Where there were 18-20 sisters joining the CMC from each province every year, now there are one or two, sometimes none. As a result, the workload of the sisters is increasing manifold.”

Ask Anna what she earns as a teacher of math, history and social sciences, and she draws a blank. “The last I checked, it was Rs 35,000-plus,” she says. Plus what, she may never find out. “Salaries go directly to the congregation. We are given an allowance of Rs 400-500 a month for buying washing soap, slippers, essentials like that. The senior ones can keep mobile phones if their families pay for them. The convent replaces our clothes—three dark habits, three white ones for mass and special prayers, and two cotton nighties—every couple of years.” Anna wears a pair of strappy black slip-ons with a thin band of plasticky gold running horizontally across the toes. It is the only sartorial expression she allows herself. “They cost Rs 270. Some of the nuns like to wear heels costing Rs 500 or more. Without the money that our families give us, we cannot manage to meet our expenses.”

As a survival mechanism, some nuns internalise the values of their male oppressors, and covet a share of the power that the priests have

OSTULANTS ARE customarily given a modest sum of money as a parting gift—known as patrameni —by their families, who sometimes expect them to sign away their share in the property to siblings. This sum, too, goes to the common coffers of the congregation. “Priests own much of the land around this square. They earn tens of lakh in rents every month and lead full social lives, while nuns cannot even attend weddings in their family or own a thing of value. Unless they emerge as threats to the Church, they are denied any compensation upon dispensation,” says Indulekha Joseph, a young lawyer at the Kerala High Court who is among the activist voices spearheading the protests demanding Bishop Mulakkal’s arrests. Joseph and other activists, including her father Joseph Varghese, the author of a book critiquing the Church in Kerala, are seizing the moment to advocate reforms in the sacrament of confession—citing recent cases of blackmail—and to propose that the Government take the draft Church Properties and Institutions Bill, prepared under the guidance of the late Supreme Court judge VR Krishna Iyer, seriously. The Syro-Malabar Church is yet to dispel the shadow cast by its most serious land sale scandal, where Cardinal Alencherry, senior priests and a middleman were named as the accused in an FIR filed months ago. The complaint alleged irregularities pointing at personal profiteering by priests through the sale of land belonging to the Church. The draft proposal of the so-called Kerala Church Act seeks to bring in periodic audits of church properties as well as institutions.

“You have to demand things of the Church, just as it demands things of you,” says Sister Anna, citing the case of Anitha, the whistleblower nun from Aluva who alleged sexual abuse and mistreatment at the hands of priests and Superiors during her stay at convents in Madhya Pradesh and Italy. In 2015, Anitha was paid a severance of Rs 12 lakh by the Church, widely interpreted as hush money for making a quiet exit from its corridors. “As individuals, not many of us can pose a big threat to the authority of the Church. But a movement like this inspires us to stand up for basic, everyday liberties.” Normally, on Saturdays, Anna would have contemplated the five Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary, from the Annunciation to the Finding of Infant Jesus in the Temple, reciting, under her breath, Our Father, 10 Hail Marys and Glory be to the Father, bead by bead. She would have added her usual intentions to the prayer—good health for her brother’s asthmatic son, and peace of mind for a greying aunt who presses a 500-rupee note into her palm every time she visits. But not today. “Today, tomorrow, the day after, every day until the bishop is brought to book, I will recite nothing but Christ’s suffering, contained in the Sorrowful Mysteries. If God does not identify with our suffering, then he will soon be staring at empty pews.”