Indian Nuns Detail Systematic Abuse From Priests

Joshua Gill | Religion Reporter
  • Nuns across India spoke with The Associated Press about the repeated abuses that sisters have suffered over decades at the hands of priests.
  • Cultural derision for women who leave their missions, veneration of church hierarchy, and taboos concerning sex, forced or not, have driven many abused nuns to stay silent.
  • One nun recently broke the mold of silence, bringing accusations of rape against a bishop that eventually led to his arrest. Her public outcry has exposed not only abuse, but also the very real threats that keep most nuns in fearful silence. 

The arrest of Catholic Bishop Franco Mulakkal for allegedly raping a nun has sparked an outpouring of testimonies from nuns across India of systematic clerical abuse.

Several Indian nuns spoke with The Associated Press on condition of anonymity and detailed personal accounts of sexual abuse and rape from priests and the hardships they endured in the face of reportedly little to no support from Catholic Church hierarchy. The nuns, and approximately 24 other individuals with direct knowledge of abuse, spoke of serial rapes, forceful sexual contact, and a culture of taboo and silence within the Indian church that has veiled the scale of the problem, according to AP’s investigation. (RELATED: Diocese Won’t Defend Indian Bishop Accused Of Raping Nun, May Pay For Nun’s Attorney)

“It’s a fear of being isolated if I speak the truth,” said a nun who reportedly endured attempted sexual assault by a drunken priest, according to AP. “If you do that, you have to go against your own community, your own religious superiors.”

The nun said she experienced abuse in her early 20s in the 1990s, during a retreat that she attended in New Delhi with fellow nuns before the renewal of their vows.

“We take one week off and we go for prayers and silence,” she said.

An Indian nun kisses a doll depicting the infant Jesus after Christmas prayers at St John's Church in Guwahati on December 25, 2018. (BIJU BORO/AFP/Getty Images)

An Indian nun kisses a doll depicting the infant Jesus after Christmas prayers at St John’s Church in Guwahati on Dec. 25, 2018. (BIJU BORO/AFP/Getty Images)

She said that a priest in his 60s displayed sexual attraction for her at the retreat. The priest knocked on her door one night after drinking and demanded to meet with her.

“You’re not stable. I’m not ready to meet you,” she told him when she smelled alcohol on his breath. He reportedly forced his way into her room, however, and forcefully groped her before she pushed him out of the room and locked the door.

“It was such a terrifying experience,” she added.

She reported the incident to her mother superior and wrote an anonymous letter to church officials. The nun said she believes the priest was reassigned, but she heard nothing beyond that from church officials in response to her letter. Despite the lack of response, the nun said she was too afraid to publicly challenge the priest.

“I couldn’t imagine taking that stand. It was too scary. For me it was risking my own vocation,” she told AP.

Indian Roman Catholic nuns of the Missionaries of Charity order attend a mass to announce St. Teresa of Calcutta a 'co-patron' of the archdiocese at the Cathedral of the Most Holy Rosary in Kolkata on September 6, 2017. (DIBYANGSHU SARKAR/AFP/Getty Images)

Indian Roman Catholic nuns of the Missionaries of Charity order attend a mass to announce St. Teresa of Calcutta a “co-patron” of the archdiocese at the Cathedral of the Most Holy Rosary in Kolkata on Sept. 6, 2017.
(DIBYANGSHU SARKAR/AFP/Getty Images)

Her experience is reportedly typical of nuns who suffer abuse in India. Another nun detailed an encounter with a priest who grabbed her when she brought laundry to his room and kissed her repeatedly on her breasts before she was able to push him away and escape the room.

Both she and the nun who fought off the drunken priest never brought public allegations against their reported attackers for fear of retribution from both their ecclesiastical and their surrounding communities. Nuns in India who bring allegations of rape forward risk being blamed for forsaking their vows of chastity. Those who leave their missions are derided as “Wall Jumpers” by the local community — people who leave the clerical community because they are sexually frustrated, AP reported Wednesday.

To bring an allegation forward against a priest is to risk alienation on multiple fronts, especially in light of the belief that priests are anointed as representatives of Christ. Nuns also potentially face vindictive actions from the priests they accuse.

“You’re not sure if you’ll be kept in your congregation, because so much is about your vow of chastity,” Sister Shalini Mulackal, a theologian in New Delhi, told AP. “That fear is there for the young ones to disclose what has happened to them.”

Mulackal also said that nuns try to stay silent concerning clerical abuse in order to preserve the church’s reputation, given that Christians are a minority in Hindu majority India.

“Even we, as religious sisters, even we try to keep it quiet,” she said. “A woman who goes through this experience, she just wants to hide it and pretend everything is OK.”

Sister Dorothy Fernandes noted that, in addition to cultural pressures and beliefs concerning church hierarchy, predatory priests also take advantage of new nuns’ struggles with loneliness after leaving their former communities and their families.

“There’s a lot of emotion bottled up and when a little tenderness is shown by somebody it can be so easy for you to cross boundaries. It can be hard to tell what is love and what is exploitation,” Fernandes said.

The nun who brought public allegations against Mulakkal, leading to his arrest in September, broke the mold of silence and, in doing so, brought to light not only reportedly systematic abuse but also the very real threats and lopsided reactions that Indian nuns endure in the event that they speak out about abuse.

She accused Mulakkal of raping her over a dozen times, lambasted the Indian church for doing nothing to stop priests’ ill treatment of nuns, and called out the Vatican for failing to respond to any of her four letters concerning Mulakkal and the negligence of other priests.

Mulakkal denied her claim and publicly smeared her with allegations that she had an incestuous relationship. A stream of supporters came to encourage him in jail after he was arrested, and a crowd of locals hailed his return with cheers and flower petals when he was released. Few if any besides her fellow nuns came to visit and encourage the nun who spoke out against her alleged abuser.

“Nobody came to see sister, but so many people came to wait in line to meet Bishop Franco in jail,” said Sister Josephine Villoonnickal.

Villoonnickal and other fellow nuns led protests in support of the nun who accused Mulakkal, despite reprimands from the church. Villoonnickal and her sisters have faced threats and demonization, but remain unfazed.

Indian Christian nuns and Muslim supporters protest as they demand the arrest of Bishop Franco Mulakkal, who is accused of raping a nun, outside the High Court in Kochi in the southern Indian state of Kerala on September 13, 2018. (/AFP/Getty Images)

Indian Christian nuns and Muslim supporters protest as they demand the arrest of Bishop Franco Mulakkal, who is accused of raping a nun, outside the High Court in Kochi in the southern Indian state of Kerala on Sept. 13, 2018. (/AFP/Getty Images)

“Some people are accusing us of working against the church, of being against the church. They say, ‘You are worshipping Satan,'” she said. “But we need to stand up for the truth.”

“We want to die as sisters,” she added.

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