Nuns who protested Indian bishop accused of rape say church trying to silence them

People hold a protest against Bishop Franco Mulakkal, after he was accused by a nun of raping her in the southern Indian state of Kerala.

New Delhi (CNN)A group of nuns who spoke out about alleged sexual abuse by a bishop in the southern Indian state of Kerala claim the church is attempting to transfer them to other parts of the country, in an apparent attempt to silence them.

The nuns recently asked the chief minister of Kerala to intervene on their behalf, after they say church officials ordered them to leave the state.
All the women who received transfer notices had supported a fellow nun who alleged last year that Bishop Franco Mulakkal had raped her 13 times between 2014 and 2016. The incidents purportedly occurred in a guest house of the St. Franco Mission Home in Kerala.
"They want to split all of us and put into different locations in India," the nuns said in a letter to Kerala authorities. "We will not be able to appear and give evidence before the court at the trial stage in such situations."
    Mulakkal, who is currently based in the northern state of Punjab, has denied all charges against him and is currently out on bail awaiting trial. Church officials in Kerala could not be reached for comment.
    Indian women hold placards and chant slogans during a September protest march to demand the immediate arrest of Roman Catholic church Bishop Franco Mulakkal, who is accused of raping a nun.

    Victim 'totally broken'

    The case attracted widespread attention last year, as nuns in Kerala broke a longstanding culture of silence to publicly accuse a church superior of sexual assault.
    The nuns also accused the church of indirectly forcing the 44-year-old victim into isolation and leaving her with no support system.
    "The victim in the above referred crime is actually living at the strength and support being extended from our side. Our presence itself is a great solace for her, who is totally in a broken situation," read the letter.
    In separate letters to all five nuns, the head of St. Francis Home, Regina Kadamthottu, accused them of shirking their religious responsibilities and maintaining a "rebellious posture."
    Making clear that her Missionaries of Jesus congregation and its members supported the ongoing case against Mulakkal, Kadamthottu added, "I urge you earnestly not to make your legal obligations in the case an alibi to compromise our affirmed religious vows and principles of community life."
    Kadamthottu could not be reached for comment.

    Ongoing case

    The nuns and their supporters have been pivotal in pushing the case forward. It first came to widespread attention when they staged a number of protests in Kerala after state police failed to make an arrest.
    Protestors demanded that the local court intervene in the ongoing investigation to ensure due process. Even though the court declined to intervene in the matter twice, the police issued an arrest warrant for Mulakkal a week later.
    He was granted bail almost immediately by a Kerala court and returned to his home in Punjab to a hero's welcome, with supporters cheering as he passed through the streets.
    Controversy has surrounded Mulakkal's return to Punjab. A few days after he arrived in the state, one of the witnesses in the case, Father Kuriakose Kattuthara, was found dead. The Diocese of Jalandhar in Punjab also released a statement in support of Mulakkal, calling allegations against him "anti-Christian."
    In their letters to Kerala authorities, the nuns expressed fears for their own safety.
    "The recent developments show that we are not safe in any aspects considering the power, influence and the 'past activities' of the other side," they said.
    Christianity is a minority religion in India, practiced by around 2.3% of the population, according to the most recent census data, but Kerala is home to a sizable Christian community that dates back hundreds of years.
      According to recent government figures, Kerala is home to more than 6 million Christians, or 19% of the state population. Communities there draw their heritage from Thomas the Apostle, who is traditionally believed to have traveled to India to preach the gospel in the first century.
      The Catholic Church has been battling allegations of sexual abuse around the world, especially against minors, for years. In an unusually blunt letter released last year, Pope Francis acknowledged that the church had historically failed to address properly wrongdoing by priests.
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