Shock over ex-bishop's acquittal in rape case

Letters of support are pouring in for the Sisters of Kuravilangad in Kerala who are shocked at the acquittal of former bishop Franco Mulakkal, who is accused of raping a nun.

A court in Kerala last Friday acquitted the clergyman of the charges, citing various reasons, including the nun's inconsistent version of incidents and lack of corroborative evidence to prove the prosecution's case.

The 57-year-old was accused of raping the nun multiple times during his visit to a convent in Kottayam district between 2014 and 2016 when he was the bishop of the Jalandhar Diocese of the Roman Catholic Church.

He had faced charges of wrongful confinement, rape, unnatural sex and criminal intimidation in the case.

The nun is a member of the Missionaries of Jesus, a diocesan congregation under the Jalandhar Diocese.

Thousands of people across India have taken to social media to share handwritten letters addressed to the nun and fellow nuns supporting her in the fight for justice.

Malayalam actresses Parvathy Thiruvothu and Rima Kallingal, who are often at the forefront of women's issues, took to social media with the hashtag "avalkoppam", meaning with her always.

"Absolute cruelty," wrote Rima on Instagram. "None of the witnesses backed down. Medical evidence was supportive. Situational evidences were supportive. The only 'drawback' was delay in reporting.

"And if that was the reason this man was acquitted - it is a disgusting shame for all humanity and church."

Several others expressed solidarity with the nun. "As I read through the many pages of the judgment so many times I felt that I could not read it any more because for most of the time, it looked like you (the nun) were on trial and not the accused," read a letter from Chaynika on Twitter.

Another person, Ms Indulekha Aravind, wrote: "It took tremendous effort and courage for the nuns to come out against powerful... Franco Mulakkal. This letter is to support their spirit. The verdict is a terrible shock and setback for you and countless others suffering in silence."

Thirty-nine people - a majority of them nuns from the Missionaries of Jesus convent in Kottayam's Kuravilangad where the alleged rapes and assaults were committed - stepped forward as witnesses in the case.

Although none of them turned hostile, their testimonies were dismissed as either unreliable or ill-motivated by Kottayam Additional Sessions Judge G. Gopakumar.

Acquitting the former bishop, the judge said the victim's claim that she was raped on 13 occasions under duress cannot be taken as reliable on the basis of her solitary testimony.

"There is no consistency in the statement of the victim," he ruled. "In view of the inconsistent version of the victim, this court is of the view that she cannot be categorised as a sterling witness.

"This is a case in which the grain and chaff are inextricably mixed up. There are exaggerations and embellishments in the version of the victim. She has also made every attempt to hide certain facts."

Save Our Sisters (SOS), the organisation formed to support the Kuravilangad nuns, said it will appeal to the higher court. "The sessions court verdict acquitting bishop Franco is absolutely disappointing and unexpected. The verdict was a shock," said SOS convener Felix J Pulladan.

Sister Anupama Kelamangalathuveliyil, who has been spearheading the nun's years-long fight for justice, said they would challenge the verdict in the higher court.

"We will continue our stay in the convent and take forward our fight till our sister gets justice," she said. "Police and prosecution showed justice to us but we did not get the expected justice from the judiciary."

Expressing shock at the verdict, special public prosecutor Jithesh J. Babu said that the prosecution would appeal against the verdict.

Additional Inspector-General of Police S. Harishankar, who supervised the investigation as Kottayam district police chief, said a conviction was expected in the case and an appeal would be filed as soon as possible.

"This verdict not only affects the victim who completely trusted the investigation machinery and the legal system, but also thousands of others who would have been keenly awaiting the verdict in this case to come forward with the injustice being committed against them," he said. "Such victims are now likely to be silenced forever.

"In several cases, the apex court has clearly said that the accused can be convicted on the sole testimony of the victim if she is found to be credible and trustworthy."

Indo-Asian News Service, AFP

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