Kerala Nun Case: How to Break a Rape Survivor’s Spirit

Social Commentary

Kerala Nun Case: How to Break a Rape Survivor’s Spirit

Illustration: Arati Gujar

No, I wasn’t ready. I did not want to touch him. Even though this was not the first time – it wasn’t even the tenth. But the revulsion hadn’t dulled even one bit. “What are you waiting for…” he grunted. “Pick up the oil and start. Rub it in properly, use all your strength, you puny thing.” He laughed as if he were only encouraging me.

I had barely turned 18. This was a man in my extended family.

He lay there on his back, head resting on his folded arms, body bare, save for the wrap around his waist. It felt as alien as it had last evening. I took the oil and started at his calves – the hair revoltingly tangled with my fingers, the sickening feeling rising up in my throat. He moved his legs to prod me toward his thighs. I stood up and inched toward him, trying my best to stay as close to his knees as possible. He was grunting heavily, goading me all the time to go further up.

All I could do was shut my eyes tight, and keep chanting in my head, “It’s almost over… it’s been long enough… I am done for today.”

Was it like this for her too? Are these the words she said to herself in the aftermath? She, a nun – he, a bishop. He raped her 13 times. She didn’t speak up until the 13th time. And now she is being labelled a “prostitute”. “Why didn’t she complain the first time?” asked independent Kerala MLA, PC George, “No one has a doubt that the nun is a prostitute. Twelve times she enjoyed it and the 13th time it is rape?”

In July this year, a Kottayam nun lodged a rape and sexual assault complaint against Franco Mulakkal, a Jalandhar bishop. According to her testimony, the bishop allegedly confined her to a guest room at St Francis Mission Home in Kuravilangad, in Kottayam. It was only in August that the investigation team went to Jalandhar to record the Bishop’s statement, and returned claiming that they needed more clarity on the nun’s statement. In the meantime, a group of nuns, along with the Joint Christian Council took to the streets in support of the nun and staged a protest outside the Kerala High Court.

In all of this, as the investigation proceeds at a snail’s pace, a bunch of people have already decided the verdict: that the nun is a prostitute. Because how else do you delegitimise a woman’s expectation of justice in a case of sexual assault? All you need to do is strike at her “character”. You call her a prostitute (no matter that sex work is not a certificate of immorality and sex workers can also be assaulted). Even if the woman in question is a nun, not you know… like those wanton women who wear revealing clothes and party into the wee hours of the morning with those kind of men.

She must have tempted the innocent bishop. She must have enjoyed it. At the very least, she invited it upon herself.

If that is the case, however, and if everything was consensual, why does she and her family face pressure to withdraw the case? Even when she’d reported that the bishop was taking disciplinary actions against her, “because I resisted to lie down with him.” Even when she has gone on record to state that “the Catholic church is still doubting my truth over the argument as to why I allowed him to abuse me sexually ‘thirteen times’. I had tremendous fear and shame to bring this out into the open. I feared suppression of the congregation and threats to my family members.”

How prescient of her, because this is exactly how the case has unfolded. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. When you can’t pressurise a woman into shutting up and playing along with the plan, when you can’t clamp down on her family, what do you do? You turn around to call her a prostitute.

I wonder what was going through the bishop’s mind when he was assaulting her? Did he, just like the abusive man in my family, think: “I can have my way with her, maybe it doesn’t really matter… who knows she might be ‘enjoying’ it too.”

That justification is not new for the church. As Spotlight and other cases have revealed, the Church has routinely used its authority to sexually abuse underage girls and boys, and then protected the abusers. One of the most shocking among these cases is the one unearthed by Ryan White, in the Netflix docu-series, The Keepers. The series blows the lid off a Catholic scandal from the 1960s, that begins with the murder of the 26-year-old Sister Cathy Cesnik, a beloved teacher at Baltimore’s Archbishop Keough High School. The murder investigation spurs on a juggernaut of revelations – of the serial rape and abuse of the young women of the school, by their principal Father Maskell and his cohorts.

When you can’t pressurise a woman into shutting up and playing along with the plan, when you can’t clamp down on her family, what do you do? You turn around to call her a prostitute.

The only thing common to all the cases? That the victims – whether male or female – brought the rape and abuse on themselves. That they were promiscuous. That they were “prostitutes”. From Maskell to Mulakkal, not much seem to have changed for the Church.

I suppose we should be past the phase of surprise now. Because every time a victim points a finger at a man – any man, good, bad, ugly, holy, family member or stranger – the world’s first response is to ask: Why her? What did she do to “encourage” him? Why did he pick her out?

These are the questions that stop most of us from registering our complaints of abuse – whether it’s within the family, or within the Church. Whether it was a “simple massage” or a rape. Because even when we can skirt the actual danger of making our voices heard, we know our character will be questioned at the very least. That we will be labelled “prostitutes” – whether we are 18-year-olds at the cusp of adulthood or established nuns.