Protests broke out in Kerala after Bishop Franco Mulakkal’s photo was included in the 2021 calendar issued by the Trichur (Thrissur) Archdiocese under Syro Malabar Church. Protesters are against the Bishop’s photo being included in the calendar because he has been accused of sexual abuse in the church- raping a 44-year-old nun, who was a Mother-General, multiple times over the course of 2 years (from 2014 to 2016).
But people who believe the Bishop is innocent ask “Why didn’t she report him the first time? It can be called “rape” if it happened once, but 13 times? Why didn’t she refuse or fight back?”
The answers to these questions have led us to wonder if the Church should consider a monastic reformation.
A nun (and monk) is a person who has vowed to follow not only the commandments of the Church, but also the evangelical counsels (vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience). To be a nun (or monk) is to live in a commune and dedicate their lives to the service of God.
This puts a nun who is a victim of sexual abuse in the church in a difficult position. By reporting the crime to the police, they would tarnish the reputation of the Church, the very institution they have decided to dedicate their life to. And as with most cases of sexual abuse, the victim is blamed. Also since chastity is one of the vows, they also run the risk of being expelled from their congregation. Many times in the past, whistleblowers have had to face severe repercussions from the Church.
So what can a nun do? Raise it with authorities in the Church, which might lead to priests getting reassigned. But most often, there are no public reprimands.
In a conservative society like Kerala, sex is taboo and hence, young nuns have not had sex education. Add to this the fact that a priest is looked upon as the embodiment of Christ, and you can imagine how nuns (or any religious person for that matter) is at a huge disadvantage at identifying and fighting advances from a priest. The culture of silence that is prevalent has further perpetrated sexual abuse that is often brushed under the carpet.
Now, there’s one more aspect that compounds the issue – the Church is inherently a patriarchal institution. The clerics control everything from nuns’ vocations to their salaries. While we talk about “glass ceilings” in the world outside the Church, there is a very real career ceiling for nuns. A nun cannot be a vicar general, deacon, or priest. This leads to a power imbalance that can be misused. Furthermore, the fear of being isolated and targeted makes it difficult for nuns to voice out the abuse.
Pope Francis’ admission that clerics have sexually abused nuns, and in one case they were kept as sex slaves in 2019 is a good start. It shows that the Church is willing to admit and make amends. It gives victims the courage to report cases and confidence that perpetrators will be punished. But so far, there have been few cases where strict actions have been taken and this has made people sceptical about the Church’s claim of zero tolerance toward clergy abuse.
In the absence of a reporting protocol and other action from the Vatican, congregations have had to devise their own ways of tackling the issue. Some of them are issuing written contracts that spell out duties and hours for sisters working in parishes to minimise vulnerable situations in which they would be working alone. Congregations are organising seminars and workshops to train their sisters, especially novices and postulants, to avoid vulnerable situations and report cases of inappropriate behavior. These workshops include sections about “grooming” of victims and role-playing exercises to practice rebuffing advances and reporting cases to their superiors.
But many believe that real change will come only when there is a fundamental shift in the Church hierarchy and attitude about women. Feminist theologian Mary Hunt says the problem is symptomatic of a deeper and more widespread “spiritual abuse” perpetrated upon women by the male-dominated church. “We have been told things that are not true,” she said. “Women have been relegated to second-class citizens” in the church.
A reformation of clericalism and elevation of women, and women religious, to positions of leadership would send a message to bishops worldwide about the status of women, particularly in developing countries where such cases seem to be widespread.
So what are your views about sexual abuse in the Church?
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