A group of nuns in one of India’s oldest Catholic communities is calling for the arrest of a bishop who has been accused of raping one of the church’s sisters multiple times over a two-year period.
The case in the southern state of Kerala has attracted international attention, as it is extremely rare for nuns to publicly accuse a superior of wrongdoing, let alone sexual assault.
Five nuns have been protesting outside the Kerala High Court, which is hearing the case, calling for Bishop Franco Mulakkal to be arrested and the investigation to be expedited.
More than 100 citizens have come to support them since the demonstration started on Saturday, according to George Joseph, the president of the Joint Christian Council, an advocacy organization working with the nuns.
Unlike the rest of India, where Christianity remains a minority religion practiced by just 2.3% of the total population, Kerala is home to a sizable Christian community that dates back hundreds of years.
According to recent government figures, the southern state is home to more than 6 million Christians, or 19% of the total population.
The 44-year-old victim first filed a police report in June in Kochi in Kerala, accusing the bishop of raping her 13 times from 2014 and 2016. The incidents purportedly occurred in a guest house of the St. Francis Mission Home in Kerala.
Mulakkal, the bishop of Jalandhar, a city in India’s northern Punjab state, denies the allegations, according to his lawyer, who told CNN his client believes the nun made up the story because she had been accused of having an affair with another man.
The Diocese of Jalandhar said the bishop was a frequent visitor to Kerala for church-related events.
“It is a fake allegation. We are all with the bishop,” Father Peter Kavumpuram, a spokesperson for the diocese told CNN on Tuesday. “We are very clear regarding the conspiracy behind this. Nuns are parading outside when the investigation is going on. There is an anti-Christian movement, people are trying to manipulate the truth,” he said.
Mulakkal has not been charged but authorities say they are investigating the case.
The Joint Christian Council believes police are deliberately slow tracking the investigation, and are under pressure from church leaders and politicians in the state government to drop it.
Joseph and the Joint Christian Council filed a petition in August seeking the immediate arrest of Mulakkal and a speedy investigation to the Kerala High Court.
However, the court ruled that the current investigation was “on the right track.”
“Merely because the accused is not yet arrested, it cannot be said that the investigation is not moving on the right track,” the court ruled.
Authorities reject any allegations of impropriety and say the investigation has been efficient. Hari Sankar, the local district police chief, told CNN that Mulakkal would only be arrested if sufficient evidence was collected in the case.
Joseph said that the Joint Christian Council filed a new petition Monday, asking for the immediate arrest of Mulakkal, freezing his passport and checking his bank accounts to verify transactions.
The Kerala High Court is expected to rule on that petition Thursday.
The Catholic Church has been battling allegations of sexual abuse, especially against minors, for years. In an unusually blunt letter released last month, Pope Francis acknowledged that the church failed to properly address wrongdoing by its priests.
“Looking back to the past, no effort to beg pardon and to seek to repair the harm done will ever be sufficient. Looking ahead to the future, no effort must be spared to create a culture able to prevent such situations from happening, but also to prevent the possibility of their being covered up and perpetuated,” Francis said.
Mary McDougall contributed to this report.