‘Miscarriage of justice’: Uproar mounts on court order

Widespread outrage continued in Kerala on Saturday, a day after a Kottayam court acquitted Roman Catholic bishop Franco Mulakkal of charges of repeatedly raping a nun
Nuns hold protest demanding justice after an alleged sexual assault of a nun by a bishop in Kochi, Kerala. (FILE PHOTO)
Nuns hold protest demanding justice after an alleged sexual assault of a nun by a bishop in Kochi, Kerala. (FILE PHOTO)
Published on Jan 16, 2022 12:43 AM IST
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Thiuruvananthapuram:

Widespread outrage continued in Kerala on Saturday, a day after a Kottayam court acquitted Roman Catholic bishop Franco Mulakkal of charges of repeatedly raping a nun.

The court’s verdict cast aspersions on the victim, many women activists, artists and legal experts said. Some have started an online campaign called Avalkoppam (with her) to vent their anguish at the court order that gave a clean chit to the lone accused in the case, former bishop of Jalandhar diocese, Franco Mulakkal (57). Others asked the state government to immediately challenge the verdict in the Kerala high court.

“None of the witnesses backed down. Medical evidence was supportive. The only drawback was delay in reporting the crime. It is disgusting the man walked free,” said actor Reema Kallingal.

“It is sad the court questioned the integrity of the victim. It will give a wrong message to the suffering,” said lawyer and activist Asha Unnithan.

The verdict was a clear case of “miscarriage of justice, ” said B Kemal Pasha, former judge at the Kerala high court. Justice Pasha questioned some of the findings in the verdict. The Supreme Court has clearly stated that a rape accused can be convicted on a victim’s testimony, if she is found to be credible and trustworthy, he said.

“I found it interesting that the trail court said prosecution failed to produce the mobile phone used by the victim at that time of the assault and later. And delay in reporting such a case cannot be the reason for the acquittal. Reason for delay is well explained, going by the social background of the case,” the former justice said.

Acquitting Mulakkal, the judge of the additional district and sessions court I in Kottayam said in the verdict that 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 are exaggerations and embellishments in the statement of the victim. Police failed to seize the mobile phone of the victim as it would have given some input into alleged messages sent by the accused. The in-fight... of the nuns and desire for power and position to control congregation is evident in the case,” judge G Gopakumar said in his verdict on Friday. The court dismissed the case, also citing reasons that the victim’s statements were contradictory on several occasions and corroborative evidences were missing.

“This is a case in which grain and chaff are inextricably mixed up. It is impossible to separate chaff from the grain. She made every attempt to hide certain facts. It is also evident that the victim was swayed under the influence of others who had vested interests in the matter,” said the 289-page verdict. The order further said: “This court is unable to place reliance on the solitary testimony of the victim and hold the accused guilty of offences charged against him.”

The verdict was disappointing for all women, said human rights activist Joemon Puthanpurakkal, who fought to get justice for Sister Abhaya, who was murdered in 1992, for 28 years.

“It seems that instead of going after the accused, the court has done a good research on the victim and agreed to all contentions put forward by the defence,” Puthanpurakkal said. “Besides this, prosecution was also overconfident. It is disappointing verdict for all suffering women.”

Abhaya’s body was recovered from a well in a convent, and while initially the police dismissed it as suicide, a nun and a priest were convicted in the case 28 years later in December 2020. Friday’s verdict was a temporary setback and the nun should continue her fight for justice, Puthanpurakkal said.

Mulakkal is the first Indian bishop arrested in connection with a rape. In her complaint to police in June 2018, the victim nun had alleged that she was subjected to sexual abuse by Mulakkal between 2014 and 2016. The special investigation team probing the case arrested the bishop in September 2018, and charged him with wrongful confinement, rape, unnatural sex and criminal intimidation.

Mulakkal was the bishop of the Jalandhar diocese of the Roman Catholic church. The 43-year-old complainant nun is a member of the Missionaries of Jesus, a congregation under the same diocese.

The case attracted national attention after five fellow nuns staged a two-week sit-in protest in Kochi, seeking action against the bishop. Though the victim filed a complaint on June 29, 2018, it took three months for police to arrest Mulakkal on September 19.

Trial in the case, which started in November 2019, had concluded on January 10. The court had restrained media from publishing any matter relating to the trial.

Interestingly, right before the trial started in the case, a relative of the victim, her cousin’s husband, had reportedly sent a lewd message to her, which she promptly informed her cousin. Soon after the case came up for hearing, the cousin filed a police compliant against the nun, and the defence used this to question the morality of the victim.

“Soon after she filed a police complaint, there was a concerted social media attack on her by people close to the church. Many theories and stories were floated once she filed a complaint about this. And this case was part of it and it was summarily rejected the police. Sad that the court also fell into the trap set by the defence,” said Sister Jesme, who came out of the congregation, questioning the alleged ill-treatment by church authorities.

The court was trying to give an interpretation that the relationship between the victim and accused was consensual, Jesme said, which she found shocking.

Meanwhile, the prosecution has started discussion to file an appeal in the high court. “We have given the go-ahead. We will approach the high court in a couple of days,” said former police superintendent S Harishankar, who supervised the three-year-old investigation.

His outburst against the verdict on Friday that “it was unprecedented in legal history” triggered a controversy. A defence lawyer said it was not expected from an Indian Police Service officer and this will be brought to the notice of the high court’s registrar.

After walking free, Mulakkal visited some of his relatives and also Kerala Congress leader PC George on Saturday, with people close to him saying he is likely to leave for Jalandhar.

A big reception was waiting for him in the diocese headquarters, they said. George, who supported Mulakkal since the case first came up, said, the “move to dent the powerful church was foiled by believers”.

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Ramesh Babu is HT’s bureau chief in Kerala, with about three decades of experience in journalism.

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Thursday, May 19, 2022