F Rosa Rubicondior: Catholic Abuse News - The Nuns' Stories

Friday 11 January 2019

Catholic Abuse News - The Nuns' Stories

Sister Josephine Villoonnickal, left, sister Alphy Pallasseril, center, and Sister Anupama Kelamangalathu, at St. Francis Mission Home, in Kuravilangad.
Credit: AP Photo/Manish Swarup
Nuns in India tell AP of enduring abuse in Catholic church

The sexual perk of choice for Catholic priests in Britain, Europe, North and South America, and Australia, is traditionally vulnerable children over whom they are able to exercise control, although nuns feature too, especially in places like Africa and Asia where many nuns come from a misogynistic, patriarchal and uneducated background.

In India, it seems, according to this AP News report, the choice for recreational sex for priests is nuns. Many Indian Catholic nuns come from a culture which reveres Catholic priests and in which a woman is expected to be servile and subservient.

Often, as with the abuse of children, the whole system relies on silence, both of the victims and of witnesses, and of those in positions of authority either being involved themselves, or turning a blind eye to it.

As the AP News report points out:

Still, the scale of the problem in India remains unclear, cloaked by a powerful culture of silence. Many nuns believe abuse is commonplace, insisting most sisters can at least tell of fending off a priest’s sexual advances. Some believe it is rare. Almost none, though, talk about it readily, and most speak only on the condition they not be identified.

But last summer, that situation began to change. A nun, after years of complaints to church officials going ignored, filed a complaint to the police against Bishop Franco Mulakkal who oversees her religious order, the Missionaries of Jesus, accusing him of raping her 13 times over two years. Mulakkal vigorously denies the accusation, accusing Sister Villoonnickal of trying to blackmail him into giving here a better job. As bishop overseeing a sprawling Catholic community in north India, Mulakkal wields enormous power over budgets and job allocations.

According to Sister Villoonnickal, who is supporting the victim, the rapes took place in Room 20 of a small convent at the end of a one-lane road in rural Kerala. She alleges that Every few months, Mulakkal would visit the St. Francis convent and summon the nun. Then, according to a letter she wrote to church officials, he raped her; the first time on May 5, 2014; the last time on Sept. 23, 2016. The dates are recorded in the convent’s visitor logs.

The AP News report highlights the case of another nun, forced to fight of the advances and sexual assault of a drunken priest at the retreat in New Delhi:

She had traveled to a New Delhi retreat center, a collection of concrete buildings where she gathered with other young nuns. A priest was there to lead the sisters in reflection.

The nun, who like others interviewed for this story spoke on condition she not be identified, is a strong and forceful woman who has spent years working with India’s poor and dispossessed, from battered wives to evicted families.

But when she talks about the retreat her voice grows quiet, as if she’s afraid to be overheard in the empty room: “I felt this person, maybe he had some thoughts, some attraction.”

He was in his 60s. She was four decades younger.

One night, the priest went to a neighborhood party. He came back late, after 9:30 p.m., and knocked at her room.

″‘I need to meet you,’” he said when she cracked open the door, insisting he wanted to discuss her spiritual life. She could smell the alcohol.

“You’re not stable. I’m not ready to meet you,” she told him.

But the priest forced open the door. He tried to kiss her. He grabbed at her body, groping wherever he could.

Weeping, she pushed him back enough to slam the door and lock it.

It wasn’t rape. She knows it could have been so much worse. But decades later she still reels at the memory, and this tough woman, for a few moments, looks like a scared young girl: “It was such a terrifying experience.”

Afterward she quietly told her mother superior, who allowed her to avoid other meetings with the priest. She also wrote an anonymous letter to church officials, which she thinks may have led to the priest being re-assigned.

But nothing was said aloud. There were no public reprimands, no warnings to the many nuns the priest would work with through his long career.

She was too afraid to challenge him openly.

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

So the fierce nun remained silent.

As Tim Sullivan for AP News points out:

... for a nun, fighting off a priest’s advances means pinballing through centuries-old sexual and clerical traditions. Celibacy is a cornerstone of Catholic religious life, as is sexual purity among nuns. 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.

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

At the same time, priests are seen as living representatives of Christ, with obedience to them another Catholic cornerstone.

Then there is the isolation of young women struggling to find their way in new communities after leaving their homes.

Caught at this intersection of sexual taboo, Catholic hierarchy and loneliness, sisters can be left at the mercy of predatory priests.

This is confirmed in the account given by Sister Dorothy Fernandes who has spent years working with the urban poor in eastern India:

“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.”

It’s particularly hard for sisters from Kerala, a deeply conservative region long the birthplace of most Indian nuns. Sex is rarely mentioned openly in small-town Kerala, boys and girls are largely kept apart, and a visible bra strap can be a minor crisis for a young woman.

“Once you grow up, once you get your first menstruation, you are not encouraged to speak normally to a boy. And the boys also vice-versa,” said a nun from Kerala, a cheerful woman with sparkly glass earrings and an easy smile. She remembers the misery of Sunday mass as an adolescent, when boys would stand outside the church to watch girls filing in, eyes crawling over their young figures. “We have a terrible taboo about sex.”

That naivety, she said, can be costly.

Like the time she was a novice nun, still in her teens, and an older priest came to the Catholic center where she worked. He was from Goa, a coastal region and former Portuguese colony.

She shook her head: “I was in charge of visitors, and we had this bad habit of being hospitable.”

At one point, she brought the priest’s laundry to his small room, where he was sitting. As she set down the clothes, he grabbed her and began to kiss her.

At first, she had no idea what was happening.

“The kissing was all coming here,” she said, gesturing at her chest.

The confusion of that day is still clear on her face: “I was young. He was from Goa. I am from Kerala. In my mind I was trying to figure out: ‘Is this the way that Goans kiss?’”

She quickly understood what was happening but couldn’t escape his fierce grip. She also could not call out for help: “I cannot shout! He’s a priest.”

“I didn’t want to offend him. I didn’t want to make him feel bad,” she said.

So she pushed herself away from him until she could slip out the door.

She quietly told a senior nun to not send novices to the priest’s room. But, like the nun who fought the drunken priest, she made no official complaint.

The new assertiveness amongst Indian's Catholic nuns culminated in street protests and a sit-in by nuns of the Missionaries of Jesus order in Kerala, organised by the “Save Our Sisters” movement, demanding justice for the nun acusingt Bishop Franco Mulakkal of raped. The protest only ended after police arrested Mulakkal. This has prompted Archbishop Kuriakose Bharanikulangara, a New Delhi-based Catholic Church leader, to come out in support of the nuns and to apologize for this and other scandals involving the Catholic Church.

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