The Catholic Church has a lot to confess.
Confess, seek forgiveness for — and, most importantly, remedy.
A report published by Associated Press on January 3 presents a horrifying picture of the sexual abuse nuns in India reportedly suffer at the hands of powerful priests — and of a merciless system that protects the accused, even as it leaves the victim totally defenceless.
A policeman stands guard at the Kerala convent, a resident of which accused Bishop Franco Mulakkal of rape in June 2017. (Photo: AP)
The report speaks of closed communities where young women, cut off from family and outside connections, are utterly at the mercy of their religious order. If a more powerful member chooses to turn predator, these women have no one to turn to.
There are stories of priests who kissed, groped, assaulted and raped nuns. And the women did — could do — nothing.
A few did report the matter to their superiors, but the most that came of it was the nun being discreetly removed from the priest’s immediate vicinity.
The stories are appalling — and far away from any idea of divinity, holiness, morality.
Some of the stories AP has reported date back to the nineties. Those men must since have accumulated more power, more clout, more impunity.
One can only wonder how many more nuns they preyed upon.
After the survivor nun spoke out, many rallied in her protest. Today, they face boycott and hate mail, the AP report says. (Photo: PTI/file)
Keeping this exploitative system going is the triple burden of shame, vulnerability and subservience the women are apparently made to live under.
The priests are ‘representatives of Jesus Christ’ — the sisters have been taught to respect them. On a less ecclesiastical level, these priests control the purse strings, choosing what positions, roles, convents a sister can be allotted to, and how much funds her seminary receives.
Then, of course, is the ‘shame’ of the entire encounter.
The AP report says: “Many nuns say a sister who admits to a sexual experience — even if it’s forced — faces the risk of isolation within her order, and possibly even expulsion.”
Many women choose the life of a nun because they feel it’s their vocation. And living within the system, they cannot have powerful enemies. Walking out of the convent is not exactly an easy choice, either. Many have been cut off from all moorings in their pre-Convent life, and in the outside world, they would be utterly adrift. Completely alone.
The Church needs to admit that it is not a few errant men who could have harmed these women. It was instead a system that made the option of speaking out unavailable to them.
Just last year, one nun in Kerala summoned up the courage to accuse a powerful bishop — Bishop Franco Mulakkal — of rape. The nun was called a ‘prostitute’, the sisters supporting her boycotted. The bishop had flowers showered on him when he came out of prison on bail.
People lined up to welcome Bishop Franco Mulakkal after he came out of jail on bail. (Photo: India Today)
It is impossible that this abuse has continued for so long without the Catholic Church establishment being aware of it.
The establishment apparently turned a blind eye because powerful men need to back each other to keep oppressive systems going, even if they are ‘God’s men’.
It is not difficult to put a stop to this.
The Church needs to set up internal complaints committees and build support structures for women who speak out.
In fact, for nuns, their seminaries are their workplaces. Why shouldn’t Vishaka guidelines — or a similar structure of rules especially for the church — be applicable to them?
The Catholic Church’s record in addressing its own ills so far has not been great. In July this year, the #MeToo movement reached the Vatican. But not much came of it by way of corrective action.
Now, yet again, going by this latest report, the Church has a lot to confess. Whether God may forgive those who have kept such a system going is, of course, a different question.