An Indian court has cleared a Roman Catholic bishop of charges of raping a nun between 2014 and 2016 in her rural convent, a scandal that sparked a wave of outrage and was at the heart of the issue of allegations of sexual harassment at religious institutions across the country.
Franco Mulakkal, 54, left court smiling on Friday after a trial that lasted more than 100 days was concluded by sessions judge G Gopakumar in a single-line verdict.
The bishop was arrested in September 2018 after the unnamed nun alleged that Mr Mulakkal raped her 13 times at her Congregation’s mission house in Kottayam district during the two-year span.
She said she went to the police only after complaining repeatedly to church authorities, and wrote an open letter to a representative in the Indian capital of Delhi in 2018, claiming it was her fourth missive.
The 54-year-old was the first Catholic bishop to be arrested in India over allegations of rape after nuns launched unprecedented public protests.
The nun’s lawyers have said they will challenge the verdict in the high court, while activists described the acquittal as “shocking” and “unfortunate”.
“This is an extremely unfortunate verdict, it is shocking for us. We had expected a conviction fully,” investigating officer S Harisankar, who was earlier the Kottayam superintendent of police, told reporters.
The supporters of the bishop, however, celebrated the judgement outside the court and welcomed him by showering flower petals as he came out smiling.
“Praise the Lord,” Mr Mulakkal said before leaving the court premises.
Hours after his clearance, Mr Mulakkal conducted a mass at a Christian retreat centre in Kottayam.
FRANCO CONDUCTS HOLY MASS
Former Bishop #FrancoMulakkal conducted a holy mass at a Christian retreat centre in Kottayam an hour after the Kottayam Additional Sessions Court acquitted him of rape. pic.twitter.com/cLFdVGoz0g
— Mirror Now (@MirrorNow) January 14, 2022
Away from the bishop’s cheering supporters, a group of nuns and activists had gathered to show solidarity with the nun who accused him of rape.
The protesters raised placards demanding justice in the case, which saw hundreds of nuns speaking up about their abuse and attacks for taking part in protests.
Sister Anupama, a colleague of the nun, said: “The world is that of those with muscle and money power .. and we believe [that] happened in this case. We now feel that poor people like us should keep silent and not file a case. When the trial was happening, we did not feel it would be against us. We will continue to fight until our sister gets justice.”
Rekha Sharma, the chairperson of the National Commission for Women, said she was shocked by the judgement. “The victim nun must go to high court. NCW is with her in this fight for justice,” she said.