Solidarity Sisters

How six nuns from Kerala defied a culture of obedience to confront Franco Mulakkal

Josephine Villoonnickal, Alphy Pallasseril and Anupama Kelamangalathu (left to right) are among the five nuns who confronted Franco Mulakkal about allegations of repeated sexual abuse raised by another nun of the Missionaries of Jesus. Manish Swarup / AP
Josephine Villoonnickal, Alphy Pallasseril and Anupama Kelamangalathu (left to right) are among the five nuns who confronted Franco Mulakkal about allegations of repeated sexual abuse raised by another nun of the Missionaries of Jesus. Manish Swarup / AP
15 February, 2019

“Sister, if you can’t be strong against the injustice then why are you so strong in punishing the sisters who speak and stand for the truth and justice,” Alphy Pallasseril, a nun with the Missionaries of Jesus congregation, wrote to her superior-general, on 6 April 2018. The superior-general is the highest authority in women’s religious orders under the Roman Catholic Church. In the Missionaries of Jesus, the congregation under the diocese of Jalandhar, the position is occupied by Regina Kadamthottu. Alphy and Kadamthottu exchanged three more letters, before the conversation took an unpredictable turn. On 20 June, Kadamthottu wrote, “I have received a copy of the complaint by the Diocese given to the administration in Kerala, implicating you in the conspiracy to kill our own patron and Bishop of Jalandhar Diocese, Bishop Franco.”

That day, four other nuns of the congregation—Anupama Kelamangalathuveliyil, Neena Rose, Josephine Villoonnickal and Ancitta Urumbil—received the same letter. For over a year now, the five nuns have been pursuing an uphill struggle against Franco Mulakkal, the bishop of the Jalandhar diocese, in support of another nun from the Missionaries of Jesus, who accused Mulakkal of sexual exploitation. Alphy accused Kadamthottu of turning a deaf ear to the concerns raised by the nuns: “Sister your silence is not ‘Holy’ always and imprudent silence is harmful to many souls,” she wrote. Documents accessed by The Caravan—which include a trove of letters sent by the survivor, the five nuns, and Kadamthottu—reveal that Mulakkal and those close to him in the Jalandhar diocese enforced a culture of silence and obedience even among the members of the Missionaries of Jesus.

On 23 January, I travelled to the town of Kuravilangad in Kerala’s Kottayam district, to visit the St Francis mission home—a convent under the Missionaries of Jesus, where the six nuns are staying. Since June last year, Kuravilangad has come to be identified with the nun’s allegations of sexual exploitation. That month, the 43-year-old survivor filed a police complaint accusing Mulakkal of sexually exploiting her on 13 different occasions, over a period of two years, beginning May 2014.

The survivor’s decision to approach the police was the culmination of months of unsuccessful attempts to raise the issue within the religious order. This included letters to George Alencherry, the major archbishop of the Syro-Malabar Church; to Luis Ladaria Ferrer, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, popularly known as the Holy Office; and to the current head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis. On 14 May 2018, she wrote to the Pope: “I would like to bring to your notice about my plight as a religious nun because of the sexual abuse and continues harassment meted out by Bp. Franco Mulackal.” The survivor wrote that Mulakkal first raped her on 5 May 2014, when he visited the Kuravilangad convent. “I was afraid and frightened; because of the terrible fear I could not react or reveal this ordeal to anyone.” But the former bishop “continued the same for several times,” the survivor wrote, till she “gained strength and said ‘NO’ to bishop on September 2016.”

The survivor’s letter then detailed the persecution she faced in the Missionaries of Jesus after rejecting his advances. “There after he made use of my Superior General and Councilors to harass me and accuse me,” she wrote. “In the month of February 2017 he relieved me from the in-charge of the convents in Kerala citing no reason. It was followed by taking away from me the post of superior in the community in May 2017 where I live. It brought about mental tension in me and thought of leaving the religious life.”

In a September 2018 letter to Giambattista Diquattro, the apostolic nuncio—papal representative—to India, the survivor accused Mulakkal of filing a series of false police complaints against the nuns and their families, through Peter Kavumpuram, the public-relations officer of the Jalandhar diocese. In November 2017, the survivor wrote, Kavumpuram filed a police complaint at Jalandhar against the survivor and Anupama, accusing them of threatening the former bishop that they would commit suicide. On 19 June 2018, Kavumpuram filed another complaint, in which he accused the survivor’s brother of threatening to murder Mulakkal. Four days later, the survivor wrote, Kavumpuram filed a third complaint, this time before the superintendent of police for Kottayam, accusing the family members of the other nuns, too, of threatening to murder the former bishop.

Kavumpuram confirmed that he had filed the three complaints. He said the police had only registered first information reports in the second and third, and that the investigation in both cases was still ongoing. He dismissed the survivor’s allegation that the nuns and their family members had been falsely implicated. According to Kavumpuram, the second complaint against the survivor’s brother was filed after Mulakkal received anonymous letters threatening him, in April 2018. He claimed that one Sijoy, whom Kavumpuram described as a friend of the survivor’s brother, submitted in writing that the survivor’s brother wrote the threatening letter. “After all this, the Jalandhar diocese's curia assembled,” Kavumpuram told me. “The curia decided that a complaint has to be definitely filed. We couldn't stay mute after all this. We shouldn't become buffoons before the world.” But in July 2018, the Times of India reported that Sijoy had informed the police that he was “forcibly made to write the letter.”

The public-relations officer spoke about the survivor with unabashed contempt. “She has spent all her life lying,” Kavumpuram said. “She said that a crime that has not been committed has been committed and lied in 2018 about getting raped in 2014. The whole world knows this truth. If you ask why, if she is given an order, she does not go. She being a religious nun, obedience is very important.” He spoke in similar terms about the nuns’ protest in support of the survivor. “They can do whatever they want ... They are doing these shameless acts to tarnish the image of the Church.”

Two days after the third complaint, on 25 June 2018, the survivor sent an email to Diquattro referring to an earlier letter she had sent to him, in January that year, through Kurian Valiyakandathil, the bishop of the Bhagalpur diocese. She wrote that the earlier letter outlined “the sexual exploitation, mental harassment and police complaint by Bishop Franco Mulakal the Bishop of Jalandhar.” In her June email, the survivor wrote: “I was waiting for the Catholic Church to give me justice but as things are moving to worse situation even the life threat to my family who are good and God fearing catholic I am forced to approach for the legal procedures against Bp. Franco Mulakkal for notorious deeds.” Three days later, she filed the complaint at the Kuravilangad police station.

Though the efforts by the five nuns to support the survivor became public only after the police complaint, their struggle against the congregation’s leadership began much earlier. The nuns’ written correspondence with Kadamthottu shows the manner in which the Missionaries of Jesus persecuted them for speaking out against Mulakkal. “How can I take any action against His Excellency when we are all under his authority and need his support for the very existence of our Congregation?” Kadamthottu wrote, in a May 2018 reply to Alphy. “Personal problems should be resolved at a personal level through dialogue and reconciliatory procedures.” The letters exchanged among the members of the Missionaries of Jesus reveal an expectation of obeisance and obedience to Mulakkal, and a pattern of punitive measures against those who defy him.

At the St Francis mission home, I sat with the five nuns in the drawing room as they reflected on their journey so far. The nuns first gained national attention in September 2018, when they launched an unprecedented public protest near the Kerala high court, seeking police action against Mulakkal. At the time, over two months had passed since the survivor filed her complaint, and the police had not yet arrested Mulakkal, who was still serving as the bishop of the Jalandhar diocese. On the night of 21 September, one day after the Catholic Church accepted a request by Mulakkal to be “temporarily relieved” of pastoral responsibilities, the Kerala police arrested him. Mulakkal’s arrest came 85 days after the survivor filed her complaint. After spending 25 days in prison, the former bishop was released on bail.

The Kerala nuns’ written correspondence with the congregation's leadership shows the manner in which the Missionaries of Jesus persecuted them for speaking out against Franco Mulakkal. A Sanesh / New Indian Express

“Who brought it to the point that we had to get out to protest?” Anupama Kelamangalathuveliyil asked. She blamed the leadership of the congregation. “If they had forwarded our complaints, at least that would have been some justice. When that did not happen, we criticised it.”

Anupama’s correspondence with Kadamthottu in the months leading up to the public protest illustrates the gradual and calculated manner in which the congregation alienated those who dared challenge Mulakkal. On 20 May 2017, Anupama was appointed the superior in the congregation’s Srawan convent, in the city of Gurdaspur, in Punjab. The superior is the executive head of a convent. Upon reaching Srawan, in July that year, Anupama discovered that there had been a change in the transfer list, and her appointment as superior appeared to have been rescinded. Instead, she was left without any responsibilities, which led her to feel “unwantedness from my congregation,” Anupama wrote to Kadamthottu, on 14 November 2017.

Earlier that month, Anupama wrote in the letter, she had informed Annie Rose, another nun in the Srawan convent, that she felt alienated in the congregation. Annie asked her to meet Mulakkal. Anupama agreed because Rose was “insisting and forcing” her, and on 8 November, they went to meet Mulakkal. Throughout the journey from Srawan to Jalandhar, instead of addressing her grievances, Rose continuously criticised the survivor. “I felt that she is not concerned about me,” Anupama wrote.

At Jalandhar, Mulakkal did not respond to Anupama’s questions about being divested of her responsibilities, but instead questioned her support for the survivor. “It was not the answer of my question,” Anupama wrote in the letter to Kadamthottu, “but I perceived that indirectly they are answering me that I am supporting [the survivor], and that is the reason for the changes in the transfer.” She wrote that Mulakkal then proceeded to make accusations against the survivor that Anupama knew to be false. After making several allegations against the survivor, each of which Anupama listed and refuted in the letter, Mulakkal offered to reappoint Anupama as superior if she obeyed him. “In my religious formation I have learned that authority is the grace given by God,” Anupama wrote. “Till now I was unaware that these things can be purchased by pleasing the superiors.”

Mulakkal instructed Anupama to write an apology for her previous letter supporting the survivor. But the former bishop was dissatisfied with her apology, Anupama wrote, and the next day, he dictated a new apology on her behalf, which stated: “Earlier I didn’t know the truth, now I came to know more facts, I am really sorry for what I did.” Mulakkal, however, denied that he forced her to write the apology. “It is a lie,” he told me.

In her 14 November letter, Anupama sought to revoke that apology, noting that falsely accusing the survivor was “totally against my conscience.” At the end of her letter, she wrote, “I am afraid and in a situation of threat to my life where he told me on the face that I will make sure that you will leave the congregation. So in this situation I am writing this letter to you for your guidance and support.”

Kadamthottu did not provide the support she sought. “I was so surprised to receive another letter comprising 11 pages dated 14th November 2017 which was just the contrary to your previous apology letter,” the superior-general responded, in a letter dated 27 November. “In this letter you have made lots of allegations maligning the good name of His Excellency Rt. Rev. Dr. Franco Mulakkal.” Kadamthottu summoned her to Jalandhar to address the general council—the leadership of the Jalandhar diocese—on 30 November. “The failure from your part to be present on this day will incur you the suitable canonical penalties for disobedience and defamation,” she added.

Anupama appeared before the general council, and on 12 December, Kadamthottu sent her another letter with their decision. Among other things, Kadamthottu instructed Anupama to meet Mulakkal and “seek pardon” for the 14 November letter. She also prohibited Anupama from returning to the Kuravilangad convent, informing her that though she had been “relieved of her superiorship,” she continued to “be a member of the Srawan community.” Anupama defied the transfer order and returned to the St Francis mission home to join the survivor.

The congregation’s interaction with the other four nuns followed similar trajectories—of transfers, punitive actions and summons to Jalandhar. In July 2017, the congregation issued an order transferring Neena Rose out of the Kuravilangad convent. When Neena sought permission to remain at the convent for medical treatment, Kadamthottu’s response informed her that she was “relieved from all the responsibilities and studies till you complete your necessary treatment.” At the time, Neena was preparing for an exam for a masters’ degree that she was pursuing, and in effect, the congregation had prevented Neena from appearing for it. Anupama’s letter indicates that this, too, was in response to Neena speaking out against their bishop. She noted that the former bishop had told her, “I will not let Neena Rose to write the exam, and so you were also removed the superiorship, only because you both supported” the survivor.

Mulakkal denied the account of events narrated by Anupama in her letter. When I asked him whether he threatened to throw the two nuns out of the congregation, he responded, “No, no, never, not even one.”

Josephine Villoonnickal and Alphy Pallasseril had both left their assigned convents—in Jharkhand and Bihar, respectively—for Kuravilangad to support the survivor. Both of them were instructed to leave Kuravilangad. Ancitta Urumbil, too, was transferred out of the Kuravilangad convent and directed to assume responsibilities at a convent in Pariyaram, in Kerala’s Kannur district. All five nuns defied the orders. On 20 June, each of them received individual letters informing them that they had been implicated in a conspiracy to kill Mulakkal. “It is shameful for the congregation to face such a situation, therefore I order you, to go and join the community where you are appointed with immediate effect,” the letters stated.

The correspondence among the members of the Missionaries of Jesus indicates that the alienation of the congregation’s members was not peculiar to the case of the survivor, but a prevailing practice of penalising nuns who questioned Mulakkal’s authority. Mulakkal was appointed as bishop in October 2013. Four months earlier, Kadamthottu was elected the superior-general of the congregation. In an April 2018 letter to Kadamthottu, Josephine highlighted the recurrent nature of the punitive actions, noting that the Missionaries of Jesus had “lost 16–17” nuns in three years because of the superior-general’s “decisions and transfers.”

“You should suppress all those who are a threat to your politics,” Josephine wrote, in a ten-page letter that began in a sarcastic vein. “If you don’t suppress them from the beginning, they will really become a threat for all of you even to our dear Bishop Franco. Now I hope no MJ’s will be able to speak against you or Bishop Franco.” In the letter, Josephine listed the names of 12 nuns who had been compelled to leave the congregation because of the superior-general, as well as those of three nuns who are favoured by the diocesan leadership despite alleged acts of misconduct. “Whenever sisters dare to question you on your policies you silenced them with treat, transfer or lollipops,” she wrote. “The trick what Bishop Franco is playing in the Jalandhar Diocese to weaken the voice of priest who questions him, the same you are playing on us who raise their voice against injustice or the selfish/foolish decisions that can destroy our congregation.”

The accusation that Kadamthottu and Mulakkal were destroying the congregation itself appeared recurrently in the different letters—most notably, in those by Josephine and the survivor. Both alleged that Mulakkal sought to destroy the congregation, in part, because of its history. The Missionaries of Jesus was established by Symphorian Keeprath—the founder and first bishop of the Jalandhar diocese, who served till 2007, and the survivor had served as the superior general of the convent when Keeprath was the bishop. He was succeeded by Anil Couto, and in 2013, Mulakkal was appointed the third bishop of the Jalandhar diocese.

Josephine and the survivor’s letters suggested that Mulakkal harboured an enmity towards Keeprath. In a July 2017 letter to the major archbishop, George Alencherry, the survivor wrote that Mulakkal had once told the nuns, “I will bury your Congregation as I buried your founder Bishop.” She noted that in order to do so, Mulakkal granted favours and liberties to the nuns who were willing to do his bidding, and punished those who were not. “If any sisters object it, his Excellency gives transfers to those sisters as revenge. Those who are ready to do the wish of Bishop are permitted to do anything according to their freedom.”

As with the allegations in Anupama’s letter, Mulakkal dismissed the accusations in Josephine’s letter as well. He told me that he “never” said he wanted to destroy the congregation. On his equation with Keeprath, Mulakkal said, “He was my bishop and he was like a father to me.” He added that he did not interfere in the administration of the Missionaries of Jesus. “Bishop is not required to sign any matters of the vocation—promotion, recruitment, formation, transfer, higher studies, financial transaction, etc,” he said. “None of these things require bishop's signature. It is decided by the general in consultation with her elected council.” He added that the bishop’s responsibilities over the congregation were limited to seeing “that everything is going on well, that’s all.” Kadamthottu did not respond to multiple calls and messages. I sent her a list of questions over email and on WhatsApp, but received no response by the time this piece was published.

The survivor, too, noted that 15 members left the congregation because of the “moral and spiritual struggle” they faced after Mulakkal took charge as bishop. “His Excellency makes an ugly game in order to destroy our congregation. Though we never thought of addressing these to any higher authorities, the present scenario created by his Excellency is a threat to the life of our sisters, who are under the misguidance of him.”

In her letter, Josephine took note that the survivor was known to be close to Keeprath, and alleged that most of Kadamthottu’s actions were “the result of your jealous behaviour.” Josephine mentioned multiple incidents that she believed illustrated such jealousy, including preventing the survivor from spending time with Keeprath during his last days, and selecting and attacking “junior sisters who expressed their love” for the survivor. “As Bishop Franco wanted to wipe out the name of Bishop Symphorian due to his personal grudge you also wanted [the survivors’s] name should be wiped out,” Josephine wrote.

Six days before she filed the police complaint, in June 2018, the survivor wrote a letter to Kadamthottu, accusing her of a gross violation of privacy. She noted that Antony Madassery, the director of the Franciscan Missionaries of Jesus—a congregation founded by Mulakkal—and a close confidante of the former bishop, possessed a copy of a complaint against the survivor that had been written to Kadamthottu. In the complaint, a woman accused the survivor of being in a relationship with her husband—an allegation that the survivor and Anupama denied. In her letter to Kadamthottu, the survivor wrote that Madassery had tried to defame her by sharing the private complaint with the priest of her native parish in Kerala. “How this letter reached in the hand of Fr Antony Madassery which has to be kept confidential under your custody?” the survivor asked. The question is both fair and important, considering that Mulakkal’s new congregation has no relation to the Missionaries of Jesus. “Who is Fr. Antony Madassery for MJ? For all this Sr. Regina, you have to answer.”

The persecution of the nuns did not stop after the complaint and protests brought the attention of the national media to the case against Mulakkal. On 3 January, the congregation again issued orders transferring four of the five nuns—except Neena Rose—out of the Kuravilangad convent. Neena, too, received a letter, which summoned her to Jalandhar on 26 January, to appear before the congregation’s leadership about leaving the convent to which she had been assigned. None of the nuns complied with the congregation’s orders. On 9 February, the five nuns joined a one-day protest against the transfer orders, organised by Save Our Sisters—an umbrella movement formed during the nuns’ September protest, which called for action against Mulakkal.

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, 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.” Yet, within hours, Kavumpuram, the public-relations officer of the Jalandhar diocese, issued a clarification noting 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 but stands.”

After receiving the transfer orders, Anupama 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.”

Though over seven months have passed since the survivor filed the police complaint, the five nuns continue to be wary of leaving her behind in Kuravilangad. On the day of my visit to the St Francis mission home, I was unable to speak to the survivor, though she was present at the convent. According to the nuns, she used to remain in her room for days at a stretch, and she had only recently started to step out. Though the police are yet to file a chargesheet, the nuns believed that the survivor would not be safe at the convent, in view of the impending trial. “If we go, her security and safety will be threatened,” Josephine said. “Nobody in the congregation is supporting her. How can we leave her in their care?”

Besides the six nuns, there are four other nuns living in the convent, including the superior, Anit Koovaloor. None of the other nuns support the demand for action against Mulakkal. As a result, the six nuns face isolation within the convent as well. The nuns said that it had become a routine part of their life ever since they went public with the allegations. “They did not want us to do anything at all,” Alphy said, referring to the four other nuns at the convent. The six nuns, including the survivor, have no posts or duties. “We were active in the places where we were posted previously,” Josephine said. “But we have been confined to our rooms for six months now … We have been spending all this time in a sad state, doing nothing. So we planned on starting a kitchen garden. A man we had called to work on the garden was driven out by our Mother.” She added that Koovaloor claimed to have driven the man away for their safety. “She told us to plant the garden ourselves. It is safe if we plant it ourselves, but when an outsider does it, it is not safe.” Koovaloor told me she prevented the nuns from starting the garden because they had not taken permission from Kadamthottu.

The isolation is also enforced through constant surveillance. The convent has round-the-clock police security, and all visitors are asked to fill in their personal details in a register. Josephine said that the visitors’ register is often checked by the other nuns, who are loyal to the superior-general. On the day of my visit, while I waited for Anupama to invite me into the house, a woman police official kept a watchful eye on me. When I went to the front of the building to click photographs, she followed me and politely asked me to wait at the back entrance.

The Missionaries of Jesus also appears to be continuing its persecution of the nuns in other ways. According to the nuns, the convent has been deliberately late in giving them their monthly allowance of Rs 500. While the nuns who did not participate in the protests receive their allowance by the fifth of every month, the nuns alleged that the six of them receive it in the middle of the month, and only after repeated requests. “When we ask for the money, they claim that it has not arrived from Jalandhar,” Anupama said. “And when we go to follow up, the person is unavailable. They just say that they will look into it.” Moreover, the congregation has not given the nuns the conventional Christmas gifts either. “Every Christmas, each of the sisters is given a gift,” Alphy said. “This year, all of us were to receive Rs 1,000 each. It’s been a month since Christmas and New Year, but we have not received it yet.” Koovaloor denied that there were delays in the disbursement of allowances. All the nuns at the convent were “given the same treatment,” she said.

The letters indicated a similar sense of apathy on the part of the congregation’s leadership even in the context of the nuns’ personal health. In a December 2017 letter, Neena Rose, who was under medical treatment for an illness in a hospital in Kottayam, wrote, “I also asked to my superior Sr. Tincy for financial support for my treatment, and the answer from my superior was to go and get from Jalandhar.” But in a letter responding to Ancitta Urumbil, Kadamthottu claimed that she was ensuring their well-being despite their protests. “Even as you and a few other MJ members continue to feel no qualms in issuing malafide public statements and circulate baseless stories tarnishing the image of the MJ congregation … I have been ensuring that the congregation continue supporting you all with food, accommodation and the cost of medical treatment as required.”

The Kuravilangad nuns showed no signs of cracking under the pressures of their congregation or the Jalandhar diocese. “I still don’t think it was wrong,” Anupama told me. “We have only stood with the truth. Our sister needs justice. That is our only intention. Be it through protests or TV channel debates, we have only reacted as any citizen with fundamental rights would. We never thought of it as wrong, and we never will.”

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