In a marked change of stance, the Catholic Church in Kerala has shed all pretence of neutrality to rally behind rape-accused Bishop Franco Mulakkal. The Bishops and Church-backed politicians have been making a beeline for the Pala sub-jail, where Bishop Franco is currently lodged.
Controversial politician PC George kicked off the recent ‘pilgrimage’, followed by Jacob Murikken, the Auxiliary Bishop of Pala. However, it was the high-profile visit of the politically well-connected Kanjirappally Bishop Mathew Arackal (along with a couple of other Bishops) that actually betrayed the position of the Church. On being asked about the propriety of his visit, Arackal apparently shot back with whether Jesus Christ was crucified for being a sinner and whether thousands of church martyrs were persecuted for their sins.
Bishops and Church-backed politicians have been making a beeline for the jail where Franco is lodged. (Photo: ANI)
Pala strongman KM Mani, whose Kerala Congress (Mani) draws its strength from the Syro-Malabar Church, was not far behind, as he too called on the incarcerated Bishop the very next day. Mani compared his own visit to mission service, but sources close to him explained that he was under immense pressure from different quarters to visit the Bishop as the local MLA.
Finally, it was the turn of the Changanassery Archbishop Joseph Perunthottam to round off the list of VIPs flocking to the jail. With Mathew Arackal and the Changanassery Archbishop’s visits, the Church seems to be upping the ante to defend the accused Bishop with all its might.
The Church’s position had all along been in favour of the Bishop — but they had chosen to hide behind a veneer of neutrality till his arrest.
However, even a neutral stand was akin to complicity with the oppressor, as Fr Paul Thelakkat rightly pointed out in an interview he gave me the previous week.
Now that the facade has come off, it leaves nobody in much doubt that all the partisan statements emanating from the Kerala Catholic Bishops Council (KCBC) was indeed the considered view of the Bishops.
Bishop Franco Mulakkal was arrested only after several days of protests by nuns. (Photo: PTI/file)
The unusual delay in Bishop Franco’s arrest and investigation has to be viewed placed within this context. The chain goes a long way. There is considerable speculation that Pinarayi Vijayan himself and Mathew Arackal go back a long way.
The story of Deepika’s aborted takeover
In early 2005, the loyal readers of the Syro-Malabar Church mouthpiece Deepika (Kerala’s oldest newspaper—Est. 1887) began to suddenly notice a change in the paper’s editorial positions and political coverage. For a daily that backed the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) over the years, it had apparently suddenly transformed into a mouthpiece for a faction of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) party in Kerala.
Those were the days of intense factionalism between VS Achuthananthan and Pinarayi Vijayan, and the daily began to carry front-page editorials (virtually unheard of for Deepika till then) supporting Vijayan.
Mathew Arackal had been appointed as the Chairman of the financially distressed daily in 2003, and he had brought in a young businessman, MA Faris, (also known as Faris Abubaker) to turn around the fortunes of the debt-ridden daily. A section of followers of the publication then raised speculation over whether Faris was acting as a front for Pinarayi Vijayan’s faction in the Marxist party. From being the Vice-Chairman, Faris soon replaced Arackal as the chairman of Deepika. A senior Deepika journalist who did not want to be identified, now part of a news channel, told me of the time, “We believe Arackal was hell-bent on selling Deepika for ‘thirty pieces of silver’ in exchange for Faris apparently bankrolling educational institutions in his archdiocese. But when the mission had to be aborted following a huge uproar among the laity, his chances of heading the Syro-Malabar Church also came crashing down. He was on course to replace the retiring Joseph Powathil of Changanassery Archeparchy, and would have been the natural been heir to Cardinal Varkey Vithayathil.”
Cut to the present. Mathew Arackal remains the most powerful Bishop among the Catholic prelates and still maintains his friendship with Pinarayi Vijayan, now Chief Minister.
Arackal has a host of accomplishments in the field of education and entrepreneurship, and wields a lot of power through such ventures. In fact, the Syro-Malabar Church in Kerala has replicated this model in most of its dioceses to consolidate its power and share a slice of the political pie.
Once upon a time, Bishops used to have an aura of spirituality around them that made them leaders not just among the community they represented, but the diocesan people as a whole. This has largely dissipated following their pursuit of temporal gains and political power. The prelates came to conflate their power with material wealth, and have gradually alienated themselves from people looking for spiritual direction.
A section of the laity in fact has been deeply repulsed by the stand taken by the Church to rally behind Bishop Franco.
How the Church can be so audacious as to publicly back Bishop Franco despite his arrest, one might wonder.
I asked Fr Thelakkat about the lack of dissenting voices from within the church. “The church should not sacrifice itself for the sake of a rotten apple. If the Church is seen to be standing against truth and against morality, people will judge for themselves. And it will in no way enhance the image of the church in Kerala”, was his reply.
Advocate Indulekha Joseph, an activist associated with the Joint Christian Council (JCC) and Kerala Catholic Reform Movement (KCRM), had a different take. “No wonder the Bishops threw their weight behind Bishop Franco. In Franco, they see their own reflection and the realisation that this fate (incarceration) could befall on any of them tomorrow.”
Deepika has since been reclaimed by the Church, and the paper has been publishing a series of articles crying “media trial”. As a preface to the series, the daily sought to clarify its stand on why they didn’t give space to Bishop Franco’s case in the newspaper. It says their ethics did not let them cover stories of rape cases in detail, as they shunned sensationalism and they had consistently upheld this principle when it came to cases involving other religious figures.
Still, they did not clarify why they entirely blacked out the protests of the nuns from their pages.
MLA PC George, on his part, has been going around claiming how the Bishop was actually the victim — casting aspersions on the complainant nun. When I reached out to him for an explanation, he claimed he had ten questions for the nun, and he might now have an opportunity to present his case, as the police had booked him for his offensive comments.
MLA PC George, who had called the complainant nun an offensive term, has been hailed as 'the lone voice speaking up for the Church'. (Photo: PTI/file)
I also contacted the Kerala Catholic Bishops Council (KCBC) secretary Varghese Vallikad for an explanation for a grossly misleading statement in their circular, which says: “Without waiting for the conclusion of the police enquiry, the Church authority has acted by withholding Bishop Franco Mulackal from the administration of the diocese of Jalandhar. Hence, when the nun made a complaint appropriately towards the Church authorities due redressing action has come without delay. Therefore the argument that the nun did not get justice from Church does not stand.”
When I asked how the KCBC can falsely claim the Bishop was “withheld from administering Jalandhar” when he was the one requesting for his powers to be transferred, Fr Vallikkat had absolutely nothing to offer as explanation.
This contention was to try and claim that some action had been taken and justice wasn’t denied to the nun. That intention also served to justify the final paragraph, which says: “Whatever the reasons were, the fact that some priests and nuns agitating in the streets giving occasion to the enemies of the Church to attack the Church and Church authorities and to disdain even the sacraments, has caused much pain to all who love the Church. We hope that the members of the Church and the public will recognize that their action was not in keeping with Christian values, rightful interests of the Catholic Church and even of the statutes of their Religious Congregation.”
The Church position on the nuns’ protest cannot be clearer than that. But even if it left any doubt, the steady stream of Bishops and Church leaders visiting Bishop Franco would dispel that.
One wonders how such people can claim to define “Christian values”. In my view, this is now the absolute pits for the Church in Kerala, and they may never recover from this fall from grace.