Unholy Orders

How Franco Mulakkal wields influence and power in the Jalandhar diocese

Biplov Bhuyan/Hindustan Times / Getty Images
Biplov Bhuyan/Hindustan Times / Getty Images
12 February, 2019

On 21 October 2018, Catholics in the locality of Dasuya, in Punjab’s Hoshiarpur district, gathered at St Mary’s Church to begin their Sunday with the morning mass. James Ullatil, the priest of the parish, was out of town to attend to a programme. Kuriakose Kattuthara, a 62-year-old priest who had served the Jalandhar diocese since 1983, led the morning prayers in his stead. After delivering his sermon, Kattuthara ate at the church’s langar—common among churches in the Jalandhar diocese—and then retired to his room, at around noon, instructing a helper to leave him undisturbed if he did not answer the door after two knocks. At 10 am the next morning, he was discovered lying on the floor, unconscious. He was taken to a nearby hospital, where he was declared brought dead.

Under ordinary circumstances, Kattuthara’s death may have been considered a natural progression of events, given that the priest suffered from high blood pressure and hypertension. But the circumstances leading up to his death were far from ordinary. One month earlier, Franco Mulakkal, a 54-year-old bishop in the Jalandhar diocese, had become the first clergyman in India to be arrested on charges of rape. Mulakkal was arrested 85 days after a nun from the Missionaries of Jesus—a congregation within the Jalandhar diocese—filed a police complaint accusing him of sexually assaulting her 13 times at a convent in Kuravilangad village, in Kerala’s Kottayam district, over a period of two years beginning May 2014.

Shortly before his arrest, the Catholic Church had relieved Mulakkal of pastoral responsibilities, upon his request, in the wake of growing protest against him. During the investigation into the nun’s complaint, Kattuthara, who was then the spiritual director of the Missionaries of Jesus, had submitted a statement against Mulakkal to the police. He had also been vocal in his support for the complainant to the press. In a July 2018 interview to the Malayalam news channel Mathrubhumi, Kathuthara said, “Some of the nuns, who are said to have left or were compelled to leave, have come to me crying and said, ‘Father, as long as this bishop remains the bishop of our diocese, I cannot live in peace here. I am sorry. I will leave the congregation soon.’ If it was one or two people, it could have been dismissed as slander. But there were many who came to me.”

Mulakkal was released on bail after spending 25 days in prison, in Kerala. He returned to Jalandhar to a grand welcome, where followers assembled in large numbers and showered him with rose petals. Four days later, Kattuthara was found dead. The priest’s younger brother, Jose Kurian, requested Pinarayi Vijayan, the chief minister of Kerala, to initiate an investigation into the death. A cousin of the priest who lives in Punjab, whom the priest often visited, questioned why nobody checked on Kattuthara sooner. “Father, who went to sleep at 12, did not wake up for lunch,” the cousin said, speaking to me on the condition of anonymity. “When the helper knocked on his door with his coffee, he did not answer. He did not wake up for dinner either ... Especially when the other priest was not present, couldn’t the sisters have checked why this Father had not stepped out of the room? There is something fishy here.”

“In the days before the death, he called and told us that he was being mentally tortured,” the cousin told me. “The nuns there would implore him to change the statements he made before the police.” He said Kattuthara refrained from having any phone conversations in his room, for fear of being overheard by others in the convent, and that he had also expressed a fear of what might happen after Mulakkal was granted bail. The cousin recalled that Kattuthara had often repeated during his last days, “I am being relentlessly harassed here.”

A preliminary post-mortem report, prepared by four government doctors of the Dasuya Civil Hospital, in video-recorded proceedings, revealed no unnatural causes of death. The chemical analysis of the viscera samples remains pending. “We are not saying that he was poisoned or beaten to death,” the cousin told me. According to the cousin and his family members, the priest’s death was a result of the harassment and intimidation that he was subjected to. “We are saying that he was mentally tortured to death ... That is how Father died.”

While the cause remains inconclusive, the death of a priest known for his stance against the former bishop cast a pall of silence over the Jalandhar diocese. In November 2018, I travelled across Punjab and spoke to more than ten people—including priests close to Mulakkal and those critical of him—about the former bishop and his ascension within the clergy. My conversations revealed that Mulakkal wields significant influence within both the Catholic Church in India and among prominent persons in India’s political leadership. As he rose to power, priests who posed a challenge to him were conspicuously sidelined. Even those who privately opposed him, or believed the charges against him, were reluctant to speak to me on record—the nuns I met in Punjab declined even off-the-record interviews. “We are priests who are working within the diocese,” a senior priest from the Jalandhar diocese told me. “How can we speak against the bishop?” But all the priests I spoke to were convinced that Mulakkal would soon be cleared of all charges and would officially return to his post—those who stood by him believed in his innocence, while those who opposed believed his power would exonerate him.

The Kerala Police arrested Franco Mulakkal on 21 September 2018, nearly three months after a nun filed a complaint accusing him of repeated sexual assault over two years. He was released on bail after spending 25 days in prison. Sivaram V / REUTERS

On 20 November, I visited Bishop’s House—a four-storey residential building for priests of the Jalandhar diocese, where Mulakkal continues to reside despite having stepped down as bishop—to seek an interview with him. “Which bishop do you want to meet?” an elderly attendant at Bishop’s House asked me. Soon after Mulakkal stepped down, Agnelo Gracias, the auxiliary bishop of Bombay, was appointed as Apostolic Administrator—effectively, the administrative head of the Jalandhar diocese, which is widely perceived to be a temporary arrangement. When I told the attendant I wanted to meet Mulakkal, he left the room for a few minutes, and returned to say, “He is not meeting anyone. He is always in prayer.” Two weeks later, towards the end of my reporting, the former bishop reached out to The Caravan and spoke to me on the condition that he would not discuss the nun’s complaint because the matter was sub judice.

“I was ordained a priest in 1990,” Mulakkal began, briefly recounting his 28 years as a clergyman as we spoke, on 12 December. From 1997 to 2001, he pursued his doctoral studies in Rome for his thesis on “a theological investigation into the moral teachings of Guru Nanak.” Between 2006 and 2008, he served as the public relations officer of the Jalandhar diocese. “In 2009, I became the auxiliary bishop of Delhi. And in 2013, I was appointed Jalandhar bishop.” Mulakkal was the third bishop of the Jalandhar diocese, which was founded by the bishop Symphorian Keeprath in 1972. Anil Couto succeeded Keeprath in 2007, and served as the bishop till he was appointed as the archbishop of Delhi, in December 2012.

A former employee of the Jalandhar diocese, who has worked with it for several years, told me he views Mulakkal’s rise in the larger context of the growth of the diocese. The diocese has jurisdiction over 15 districts of Punjab as well as four districts in Himachal Pradesh—Una, Chamba, Kangra and Hamirpur. Tracing its expansion from its early years, the former employee said that the diocese was in debt when it was formed. Under Keeprath, through the 1980s and 1990s, it set up educational institutions across Punjab and Himachal Pradesh. As a result, the fees paid by the students became the diocese’s primary source of revenue. “None of the schools you see today in Jalandhar existed,” the former employee said. “Now there are 65–70 English medium schools in addition to Punjabi-medium schools. Each school has a strength of anywhere between 1,500 to 3,000 students. The annual charge is Rs 10,000, in addition to monthly fees and other charges. Now calculate the amount of money made from each student.” According to the former employee, “The schools formed the financial base of the diocese. Then the churches and the properties came up.”

The expansion continued under Mulakkal, and it was marked, in particular, by the setting up a range of companies under the aegis of the diocese. He set up a construction company named Sahodaya, which enters into contracts for building churches, schools and other concerns of the diocese. The diocese also has a transport company, which runs buses for its schools, and a security service, which deploys guards at the diocese’s properties—both of which were established after Mulakkal was appointed as bishop. The former bishop told me the companies were set up “to give employment to poor people.” In another significant move as the bishop, in October 2015, Mulakkal founded a new congregation under the Jalandhar diocese—the Franciscan Missionaries of Jesus, or FMJ.

The former employee said that Mulakkal is distinct from his predecessors in the diocese with respect to the political patronage that he has sought and received. “When he was the PRO of the diocese, he developed connections with all politicians. Gurdaspur and Amritsar have a significant population of Christians. He used this to his advantage. All parties went to him for the Christian vote.”

Mulakkal’s political hobnobbing appears to be strategic and determined. “He used to say that he will only play with those who know how to win,” Stanley Kozhichira, a priest with the archdiocese of Delhi who has known Mulakkal since 2001, recalled. “He has his plans in place as to where he should be, 25 years from now. He does a lot of things to move towards his goal.” LK Advani, the Bharatiya Janata Party stalwart, was the chief guest at the golden jubilee celebrations of the Delhi archdiocese in 2009. “Bishop Franco recommended that we should bring him,” Kozhichira said. The former employee, too, noted that Mulakkal “has excellent political manoeuvring skills.” He added that the former bishop has won the confidence of both Amarinder Singh and Parkash Singh Badal—respectively, the current and former chief ministers of Punjab. Kozhichira and Mulakkal both denied speculation that the former bishop played a role in the induction of Alphons Kannanthanam, the union minister of state for culture and tourism, into the National Democratic Alliance government. But Kozhichira added that Kannanthanam regularly visited the church and had attended the bishop’s installation—the formal induction of a designated bishop into a diocese. “Bishop had a major role in asking him to join the BJP for sure,” he said.

Mulakkal (centre) stands with Sukhbir Singh Badal (fourth from the left), the former deputy chief minister of Punjab, and the state’s cabinet ministers at the inauguration of a statue of Mother Teresa, in Amritsar, in 2016. Mulakkal is distinct from his predecessors with respect to the political patronage he has sought and received. NARINDER NANU/AFP/Getty Images

Mulakkal also continues to command a large following in the diocese. On a Sunday morning in late November 2018, I visited the Sacred Heart Catholic Church—which shares its compound with Bishop’s House—where the local Christians gather for two separate masses held in English and Punjabi every day. A predominantly Malayali crowd of around 30 people, who had just attended the English mass, stood outside the church. When I introduced myself as a journalist to a group of women, one of them asked me if I was going to write “negative or positive news.”

“All these are cooked-up stories,” the woman, a member of the Kerala Catholic Community who requested not to be identified, said, referring to the nun’s complaint.“It is unfair that we always mistrust the man in such cases.” She argued that the Christians who protested outside the Kerala High Court did not have “a deep understanding as they don’t live here.” Her voice rose in volume as she continued, and some on-lookers nodded in agreement. “Why didn’t she speak up on the second instance? If I am interested in a man, he cannot touch me without my permission.” Quoting a Malayalam proverb, she added, “If a leaf falls on a thorn or a thorn falls on a leaf, it is the leaf that gets damaged.” The leaf in this case, she implied, is Mulakkal’s reputation.

Antony Madassery, the director of the FMJ and Mulakkal’s close confidante, referred to the reception that the former bishop received upon his return to Jalandhar to emphasise on his following in Punjab. “It is not about support,” Madassery said. “He lives in the hearts of the people because till date he has lived only for people.” But an elderly priest I met in Jalandhar was dismissive of the support for Mulakkal in Punjab. “Why couldn’t he mobilise so much support in Kerala?” he asked, requesting not to be identified. Referring to five nuns who were at the forefront of the protest against Mulakkal, he added, “In the case of the sisters, people themselves came. It became a people’s movement.” When I asked him about the rousing reception that Mulakkal received, the priest responded, “What is there to rejoice in that? That is not acquittal. He wanted to show his power.”

Mulakkal is believed to use his power and influence to ensure that nothing comes in the way of his ambitions—often at the cost of derailing the rise of his fellow clergyman. Several members of the diocese told me that dissent or non-cooperation was unwelcome under Mulakkal’s watch. “When you oppose his statements, he would not be very happy to take it,” Kozhichira said. In my conversations with the priests, one name cropped up recurrently—Basil Mookanthottathil, a priest who was junior to Mulakkal and commanded a large following, and whom the former bishop suspended from the Jalandhar diocese for disobedience, in March 2017. Priests close to Mookanthottathil told me that Mulakkal could not accept that a junior priest was more popular than him, and that the former bishop punished Mookanthottathil for refusing to toe his line.

Though Mookanthottathil was ordained to priesthood in the Jalandhar diocese in 1995, his acquaintance with Mulakkal dates back to his education at a seminary in the city, since 1983, where the former bishop taught him English. Mookanthottathil also worked with Mulakkal for three months in Kanwan village in Punjab before he was ordained. A priest close to Mookanthottathil, who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity, said that “he used to tail Franco and learnt a lot from him.” But in later years, the priest added, Mulakkal grew to resent his junior because his reach among the laity grew greater than that of the former bishop.

Over the two decades he spent in the diocese, Mookanthottathil grew widely popular for his sermons and prayer vigils he held at Prarthana Bhawan—a spiritual retreat centre of the diocese that he started in Machhian Khurd, a village in Ludhiana—which were telecast through their channel, Prarthana Bhawan TV. He was routinely invited to lead spiritual conventions organised in Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Kerala and other parts of the country. “These conventions were attended by a lot of people,” the priest close to Mookanthottathil said. “On the other hand, people were not going for Franco’s programmes. So he felt jealous. As the bishop, he wanted everything to be in his control.”

According to him, Mulakkal hoped to leverage Mookanthottathil’s image to popularise his congregation, the Franciscan Missionaries of Jesus. He said the former bishop often asked Mookanthottathil to join the FMJ, and told him that he was the only person who could lead the congregation. “He told Basil, ‘Look, I have 25 years to go. Stay with me for just five–six years. I can let you go later if you want. I am the bishop, after all.’ But Basil was not interested.” In an open letter that he wrote on 9 June 2017, Mookanthottathil said he believed that the “real reason” behind his suspension was his refusal to join the FMJ. “If I am such a bad person as I am portrayed to be in these days, how could bishop ask me to join his precious and holy congregation FMJ?” he asked.

In June 2016, Mookanthottathil was transferred out of Prarthana Bhawan to Ludhiana. “I found the situation and circumstances to be potentially full of different types of dangers for me,” Mookanthottathil wrote in his letter. “I was to live in a building all by myself. The entrance to this building and different areas of this house was under CCTV surveillance. The recorder and the control of the same, was in an unknown place.” According to the priest close to Mookanthottathil, “He was not given the charge of a parish as Franco worried that he would start an initiative there as well.”

Due to the sense of insecurity, Mookanthottathil wrote, he left Ludhiana after submitting a request for a leave of absence, on 17 June that year, stating that he would be visiting the Kurisumala Ashram—a monastery of the Catholic Church in Kerala. Four months later, the Jalandhar diocese issued an order transferring him to Punga village, in Amritsar, which Mookanthottathil refused.

In mid March 2017, Mookanthottathil was slated to address a convention in Punjab’s Ferozepur district. But shortly before the convention, a local priest of the Syro-Malabar parish requested Mookanthottathil to cancel it in the face of threats from goons who he alleged were acting on the behalf of Mulakkal, a member of the Latin Church. The Syro-Malabar Church and Latin Church are branches of the worldwide Catholic Church that follow different sets of rites. Though Mulakkal was ordained as a priest at a Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, he was ordained as a prelate—a high-ranking member of the clergy—and as a bishop, under the Latin Church. The priest close to Mookanthottathil said that Mookanthottathil received a call “requesting him to cancel as it could cause a conflict with the Latin Church … Franco belongs to Latin Church.”

Mookanthottathil cancelled the convention and left for Kerala despite Mulakkal denying him official leave. Shortly after, on 30 March, Mookanthottathil was suspended from the Jalandhar diocese and from exercising his “priestly ministry everywhere due to persistent violation of ecclesiastical discipline.” In effect, Mookanthottathil was stripped off all priestly duties and responsibilities, including at the Prarthana Bhawan.

Six months later, Mathew Palachuvattil, a senior priest who served as the executive director for education and culture of the Jalandhar diocese till 2011, wrote a letter to Mulakkal, raising, among other things, his concerns about Mookanthottathil’s suspension. The Caravan has accessed a copy of the letter. The suspension order “does not mention that Fr. Basil had applied for a leave of absence on many occasions and that you kept replying to him, placing conditions one after other,” Palachuvattil wrote. “I do not know if the opinion of a third party – acceptable to both – have been sought at all. I do not know whether Canon Law gives a party to an argument also the right to act as the judge.” Palachuvattil declined to comment when I spoke to him.

“Personally, I do feel that Fr. Basil has not got a just deal in this matter from the part of the diocese,” Palachuvattil wrote in the letter. “A proper conclusion to this issue will help remove undue fears from the minds of the priests.” But Mookanthottathil’s suspension has not yet been revoked. He now runs a prayer centre named Yeshu Masih Bhawan at his house, in Malout village of Punjab’s Sri Muktsar Sahib district.

Kuriakose Kattuthara (left) and Basil Mookanthottathil (right), both priests of the Jalandhar diocese, are said to have suffered similar punitive actions at the behest of Franco Mulakkal.

Mookanthottathil is not the only priest believed to have suffered consequences for getting on the wrong side of Mulakkal—Katthuthara, too, is said to have faced a similar pattern of punitive action. Despite being a senior priest who worked closely with the Jalandhar diocese’s founder Keeprath, Kattuthara was transferred to Dasuya, in Punjab’s Hoshiarpur district, in April 2018, in a position subordinate to Ullatil—a junior priest who was once his student. “He was not even put in charge of the parish,” Kattuthara’s cousin told me. “Franco had persistently tried to get Kattuthara to join his group. Franco knew that Kuriakose had brains and that if he gets the latter to be with him, he can get a lot of work done.” According to the cousin, the transfer to Dasuya and stripping Kattuthara of any significant responsibility—as in the case of Mookanthottathil—was Mulakkal’s retaliation against a priest who refused to cooperate with him.

Mulakkal denied that he had pressurised Mookanthottathil or Kattuthara. He said that Kattuthara was denied a parish because “there were very serious issues,” but he refused to reveal what they were. Mulakkal said Mookanthottathil was suspended because he refused to comply with the transfer orders. The former bishop emphasised that these transfers were issued along with those of other priests. “If he was not happy [in Ludhiana], he was given another option to go to Punga,” Mulakkal told me. “He refused that also. Because of his disobedience, he was canonically suspended. There was nothing personal.”

The Franciscan Missionaries of Jesus has been controversial for reasons beyond Mulakkal’s alleged attempts to coerce priests into joining the congregation. Two aspects of the FMJ, in particular, have faced criticism within the Jalandhar diocese—its decision to accept eight students who had been expelled by seminaries, and the lifestyle within the congregation. “They were all thrown out from other seminaries,” a seminarian who spent six months in the Jalandhar diocese for mission experience told me. “A seminarian undergoes a formation over 12 years after the twelfth standard. In the 12 years of formation, the person will be evaluated spiritually, emotionally, physically, intellectually. There are some people who are sent out because they are not suited to this particular lifestyle. All those people [rejected from other seminaries] were brought in by Bishop Franco.”

Palachuvattil also criticised the FMJ’s decision to admit these students in his letter, arguing that it could be perceived as going against “the collective decision of the superiors of the seminary.” Palachuvattil also opposed the name of the congregation for its similarity to Keeprath’s congregation, the Missionaries of Jesus. “Will it not be a matter of respecting the wishes of the late Bishop to leave aside the short form MJ for the congregation started by him and coin some new name for the new entity?”

Palachuvattil did not, however, find fault with the other concern raised by priests—the “crème de la crème treatment,” as the former seminarian put it, afforded to the FMJ’s members. The seminary is housed in a four-storey building with centralised air conditioning and a swimming pool, located in Malupota village in Punjab’s Nawanshahr district. The compound used to house an international school, which then shut down. Subsequently, the diocese bought it. In the context of the traditionally austere lifestyle expected of the Catholic clergy, the facilities provided by the congregation, which include paid air travel for its members, are perceived as ostentatious by several priests within the diocese.

On 20 November, I visited the FMJ Generalate, the headquarters of the seminary, located in a ten-acre farm house in Jalandhar’s Partappura village. As I strolled around the compound, I saw a stable with white horses, a large farmland where cows were grazing, and a two-storey bungalow, which served as the residence of the congregation’s director, Antony Madassery.

Madassery denied that the seminary’s members were being offered lavish treatment. “We will have horse-riding courses in a new school that we are starting next year,” he told me, referring to the horses that I had seen on the farm. “Whenever we are getting horses free of cost or very cheap, we buy and keep it and we train them.” Madassery added that the farmhouse provided local villagers with a livelihood. “When harvest season is over, they are out of work. So they will take care of this farmhouse. They will have a job and five–six families will be fed by them. And through their work, in another two–three years, we will be able to support another 50 families.”

Madassery also denied that the FMJ’s students had been expelled from other congregations. He said that some had voluntarily left their congregations because they were unable to follow the strict rules of their previous seminaries, and that others left in order to join the FMJ. “We had around 40 or 45 people putting up their applications of which we have taken only ten.” Dismissing the allegations that Mulakkal had pressurised priests to join the congregation, Madassery added, “Even priests have put up applications for joining FMJ which we have politely refused, reason being that we feel that he may not fit with our systems.” According to him, Mulakkal once told the congregation in a meeting, “If anybody comes and tells you that they are joining FMJ, you try to demotivate them maximum and even then if they join, only then I can say that they have a dedication to the congregation.”

He was quick to rise to Mulakkal’s defence on every question that pertained to an allegation against the former bishop. “The bishop is a man of the people,” Madassery said. “He will not leave any stone unturned for the development of the people.” He was emphatic about Mulakkal’s innocence and said that he believed in him “110 percent.” When I told him that many priests found it odd that Mulakkal visited Kuravilangad frequently, he replied, “That is our mission house”—a term for residential quarters functioning under the aegis of the diocese. “He should stay there if he is in Ernakulam and Kottayam districts, not anywhere else,” Madassery insisted. “Bishop Symphorian stayed there ... It was built by Bishop Symphorian and he earmarked one room for the bishop. Don’t think that he was visiting because she was there.”

Kozhichira, the priest who has known Mulakkal since 2001, found it hard to believe that the former bishop could be guilty of the charges against him because of the meticulousness with which Mulakkal managed his work and life. “I don’t think it is possible for him to be caught in a situation like that,” Kozhichira said. “He will go to the remotest possibilities of repercussions of an action.” The priest has visited Mulakkal twice since the nun accused him publicly, and he said he asked the former bishop about the allegations on his second visit, in mid July 2018. “I felt the freedom to ask him if anything had occurred between him and the nun, since they had travelled together. He looked me in the eyes and said, ‘My integrity will never allow me to do something like this.’”

But Kozhichira also acknowledged the risk that the nun was taking in going public with the allegations. “If she has to go and expose herself to this, it has to be a grave situation.” Kozhichira was among the first priests in India to publicly call for Mulakkal’s resignation. “If the bishop has to step down from his office in order to facilitate the probe, I think he should do that,” Kozhichira said, in a July 2018 interview to the English news channel NDTV. “Individuals are important but not at the cost of the institutions.”

Though Mulakkal refused to entertain any questions about the nun’s complaint, the nature of our conversation left little room for doubt on how he may have responded had we discussed it. Every time I posed an allegation raised by the priests, Mulakkal responded with the word “lie” in a tone of exasperation. When I asked him about the concerns raised by priests about the FMJ, Mulakkal said that the practice of priests switching congregations is normal within the church. “These people are making a mountain out of hole,” he said.

When I told him that several priests requested anonymity in this story as they feared him, he responded, “That is because they know what they are telling is a lie. I do not take revenge. I do not react. Even now, I respect their opinion.” Mulakkal, too, emphasised on the support he continues to command. “Except those who are determined to tarnish my image, the whole Punjab believes in my innocence.” Mulakkal told me. “I do not consider anybody to be an enemy. From my side, all are friends.”

But Mulakkal’s ascension in the Jalandhar diocese was not as smooth as he sought to portray. At the time of his appointment as bishop, several Punjabi Christians had protested against Mulakkal in Jalandhar. Mulakkal acknowledged that there is an opposition to him by those who want a Punjabi bishop in the diocese, but downplayed the protest against his appointment, noting that it had only around fifty participants.

Peter Sahota, a member of the St Sebastian Catholic Church of the Jalandhar diocese, who had led the protest, told me that he was opposed not only to Mulakkal, but to the diocese in its entirety. “They don’t fulfil their responsibilities towards us Punjabis,” Sahota said. “They just want to run their businesses. The church itself is a business for them.” He pointed to the huge economic difference between the prosperous church and the Christian community of Punjab. “Look at the cars parked here. There is AC in their rooms. They lead a life of luxury while our community is just as poor it always was.”

The former employee of the Jalandhar diocese echoed these sentiments. Referring to the backward status of Punjab’s Christian population, he told me, “When you fill a form here in Punjab and write that you are Christian, the assumption is that you belong to the Scheduled Caste.” Indeed, the diocese’s wealth appears almost vulgar when considered in the context of the poverty of Punjab’s Christian laity. “The priests here are not interested in anything spiritual. How to make money and to enjoy it. That is what matters to them.”

John Dayal, the former national president of the All India Catholic Union, elaborated on the friction between the Jalandhar diocese and Punjab’s Christians. “In Punjab’s mission station areas, almost the entire local population is Dalit,” Dayal said. “The clergy, which include priests, bishops and nuns, include many Malayalis originally from the Syro-Malabar Church in Pala. There is a schism between the clergy and the local people. They are always different.” Commenting on the local demand for a Punjabi bishop, he added, “There is always a demand across the globe that people be administered to temporally and spiritually by their own.”

Even in the aftermath of the nun’s complaint and Mulakkal’s arrest, the former bishop continued to command the loyalty of both the Jalandhar diocese and the Missionaries of Jesus, where the nun was a member. When five nuns of the congregation began an unprecedented public protest against Mulakkal, in September 2018, the congregation issued multiple press statements expressing its unequivocal support for the former bishop. One of its press releases claimed that the nuns’ protest was a “part of an agenda to destroy the image of the Jalandhar Bishop, the MJ congregation and the Jalandhar diocese.” Amid the September protest, the Missionaries of Jesus also released a photograph of the complainant with the former bishop—in violation of the Indian criminal law, following which the Kerala Police registered a complaint against the congregation.

In September 2018, five nuns and their supporters staged an unprecedented public protest outside the Kerala high court, in Kochi, seeking police action against Franco Mulakkal, then the bishop of the Jalandhar diocese. AFP/Getty Images

Dayal believes that the Missionaries of Jesus congregation should be dissolved because it is tied to the Jalandhar diocese. He was critical of congregations such as the Missionaries of Jesus, which have a single diocesan affiliation, and advocated for congregations to be affiliated to multiple dioceses. He said the Missionaries of Jesus only serves the Jalandhar diocese, because of which the nun’s complaint was met with hostility within both the diocese and the congregation. The decentralised nature of multi-diocese congregations ensures a distance between the nuns and the parishes for which they work. In a multi-diocese congregation, he added, a complainant would have had the support of other dioceses. “If something like this happens [in a multi-diocese congregation], on the first sign of suspicion, he is transferred,” Dayal said.

The Missionaries of Jesus has not stopped its persecution of the protesting nuns. On 3 January, the congregation issued orders transferring four of the five nuns out of the Kuravilangad convent, in Kerala. The fifth nun, Neena Rose, was asked to appear before the congregation’s leadership on 26 January. But none of the nuns complied with the orders. Instead, on 9 February, they joined a one-day protest against the transfer orders organised by Save Our Sisters—an umbrella movement that was formed during the nuns’ September protest, which called for action against Mulakkal. The protest took place at Old Police Grounds, in Kottayam, and was attended by eminent personalities, some of whom, such as the activist Kavita Krishnan, had earlier written to the Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan to request the nuns’ protection.

The protest took place amid significant developments. On 5 February, Pope Francis acknowledged that the Roman Catholic Church faced a persistent problem of sexual abuse of nuns by priests and bishops. On the day of the Kottayam protest, the current head of Jalandhar diocese, Agnelo Gracias, broke his silence on the controversy and wrote to the five nuns assuring them that they would not be forced out of the convent. “As far as it lies within my power, there will be no move from the Diocese of Jalandhar to oust you from the Kuravilangad Convent as long as you are needed for the Court case,” Gracias wrote. He also noted that any letter to the nuns would require his “explicit permission,” and that this would be an order issued in his capacity as “in charge of the Congregation.”

But within hours, Peter Kavumpuram, the public-relations officer of the Jalandhar diocese, issued a clarification noting, “The Church has no intention to scuttle the case.” Kavumpuram added that the letters issued to the five nuns “was not a transfer order” but an “invitation to them to return to their rightful communities from which they had walked out without any permission.” He further stated that Gracias “has not interfered in the internal affairs of this Congregation, therefore the order to return to their rightful communities … is not cancelled by stands.” After receiving the transfer orders, one of the five nuns, Anupama Kelamangalathuveliyil, had told the media, “This is nothing but a vindictive transfer and the game plan of the Church is to split us to different places.” Kavumpuram’s clarification has not weakened her resolve. “Clarification statement is not acceptable for us,” Anupama told the media on 10 February. “We will continue to stay in this convent till the case is over.”

The Kerala Police are yet to file the chargesheet in the case against Franco Mulakkal. “We can only say that it will be filed soon because discussions are on with the special prosecutor,” K Subhash, the deputy superintendent of Vaikom police station, told me. Regardless of whether he is proven guilty, Dayal believes that the case against Mulakkal will leave an indelible mark on the Jalandhar diocese. The trial “will resolve only a very small component,” he said. “The larger issues of morality, of church administration, will remain with us for a very long time.”

This is the first report of a two-part investigation into Franco Mulakkal and the six nuns from Kerala who raised their voices against him. Read part two, “Solidarity Sisters,” here.


Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the survivor accused Franco Mulakkal of sexually assaulting her on 14 different occasions; identified Mathew Palachuvattil as the executive director for education and culture of the Jalandhar diocese; and noted that K Satchidandan was present at a January protest by Save our Sisters, in Kottayam. The survivor had accused Mulakkal of 13 incidents of sexual assault; Palachuvattil left the position in 2011; and Satchidandan was not present at the protest. The Caravan regrets the errors.