The first place Bishop Franco Mulakkal visited after a Kerala court acquitted him of rape, was a nearby retreat centre to offer the holiest of sacraments in Christianity – the eucharist or holy communion – in the presence of priests and laity.
Since then, the bishop has been travelling across Kerala to offer holy masses in different churches, prompting churchgoers to accept his blessings.
But can Mulakkal offer the sacrament, despite the 289-page verdict vividly detailing what it seems to perceive as the sexual escapades of the Catholic bishop?
While the verdict has found the bishop not guilty of rape, according to the prosecution, the judgement veers to suggest that if there were any sexual interactions between the rape survivor and the bishop, these could have been consensual. Though such consensual sexual relationships do not constitute a crime for the court, for the Catholic church, they do.
The verdict, in fact, raises disturbing questions about Bishop Mulakkal’s clerical celibacy and his unchallenged position within the Catholic church.
Chastity, Poverty, and Obedience
The founding concepts of Catholic priesthood are chastity, poverty, and obedience. That is, when one becomes a priest, these three tenets are to be strictly observed, failing which one can be defrocked. Defrocking in this case would mean, a forceful termination of priesthood.
Quoting the medical examination report of the complainant, that is, the rape survivor, the verdict places on record the history of "multiple sexual assaults by the bishop who was an occasional visitor at the convent home."
Here’s where the verdict should ideally bring Bishop Mulakkal at least some challenge from within the Catholic church, even as it has exonerated him. Those close to the Catholic church said that even a shadow of doubt on celibacy should force the institution to prevent Mulakkal from offering sacraments. Nuns and priests who support the survivor, too said the bishop’s holy mass ceremonies are in clear violation of the church's teachings, which prevent priests from engaging in sexual activities, whether consensual or not.
A Section of Believers and Clergy Oppose
Father Paul Thelakkatt, a senior priest of Ernakulam-Angamaly Archdiocese, said the ordination to Catholic priesthood requires the candidate to take a compulsory vow of celibacy where he agrees not to marry or take part in sexual intercourse or any physical intimacy with another person, irrespective of gender, during his priestly life.
The vow of celibacy mainly dedicates the life and body of the priest to the service of the church and god, he said.
According to Thalekkatt, celibacy in priesthood is one of the church's official teachings, which has existed for centuries.
George Moolechalil, a churchgoer who stands for reforms and edits the spiritual publication Sathyajwala, said, sex outside marriage is not permissible for any member of the Catholic church. "The church even bans premarital sex and extramarital affairs, even among the faithful. Then how can a bishop who has a history of sexual escapades continue in his position without being questioned by the authorities?" he asked.
Anto Mankoottam, another leader of the Catholic churchgoers, said celibacy means complete abstinence from sexual activities. "Here, Franco, according to the court, could have had sex while staying in church-run convents. The church has to initiate action against him for rape, and also for misusing facilities of the church for violating celibacy," Mankoottam said.
That is, even if the church could have shown utter disregard for the rape charges, by its own law of celibacy, the church should have imposed sanctions on Bishop Mulakkal.
Though there may not be a Canon law, or an ecumenical law which imposes penalty for rape, there is one on celibacy, which according to the very verdict that exonerated Mulakkal, stands violated.
Survivors’ Supporters Object
Nun Lizzy Vadakkel of the FCC provincial home, had said in the past that she had, under duress, written a letter to Mother Provincial General lying that the survivor was not violated. Sister Vadakkel lied because she believed that the convent would not allow the survivor to continue as a nun if they found out that she was violated. That is, sister Vadakkel thought of the vow of celibacy which could have worked against the survivor.
Why does Mulakkal not have this fear, even as the same laws of celibacy apply to him?
Sister Lucy Kalappurakkal of Franciscan Clarist Congregation, who has been supporting the survivor since the very beginning of her protest said, "The church has done unpardonable sins. The first is protecting the rape accused bishop, and the second is allowing the bishop who has violated celibacy to offer holy sacraments. This is a church that still treats masturbation and homosexuality as sins.” The church must prevent Mulakkal from offering holy sacraments till the case concludes, she added.
The survivor is expected to appeal against the lower court verdict. The bishop was accused of having raped the nun 13 times.
Father Augustine Vattoli, a priest under Syro-Malabar order, who supports the survivor, said, "Even as per the verdict by the court, the bishop has violated celibacy. The church leadership must explain to ordinary believers why such a sexual predator should preach the gospel and conduct holy mass. Even when he was arrested and jailed, the church just kept him away from the administrative control of the Jalandhar diocese. There was no restraint from his continuous discharge of duty as a priest.”
Vattoli, however said, he thinks celibacy should be made optional. "We are of the view that the church must allow the priests to marry. Forced celibacy must end.”