At the Joint Christian Council's (JCC) meeting in Kerala’s Kochi, the mood was celebratory – with several elderly leaders of the organisation, which has been at the forefront of the four-year-long agitation against Roman Catholic Bishop Franco Mulakkal, issuing statements cheering his resignation. Franco Mulakkal resigned from his position as Jalandhar Bishop on Thursday, 1 June, five years after a nun of Missionaries of Jesus accused him in 2018, of repeatedly raping her between 2014 and 2016.
Missionaries of Jesus is a celibate order for women that's governed by the Jalandhar diocese.
A senior leader of the JCC, Felix Pullodan, told The Quint, “We are hoping that this resignation will bring some respite to the tears of the sisters (nuns) who were wronged. The JCC, the survivor, and the nuns who support her will continue the fight till Franco Mulakkal is punished by the law.”
The JCC was the first organisation to come out in support of the survivor. The organisation platformed several nuns of Missionaries of Jesus who were in support of the survivor.
Was Franco Mulakkal Forced to Resign?
In 2022, Mulakkal was acquitted by a Session’s Court in Kerala. The State, on behalf of the survivor, subsequently filed an appeal in the High Court. The appeal is currently under the purview of the High Court of Kerala.
While Mulakkal’s resignation was accepted by Pope Francis, he has not been defrocked or prevented from offering sacraments, including the holy communion, to Catholic devotees. “He will be allowed to perform all roles of a priest but will not have the bishop’s powers,” said George Joseph, a senior leader of Save Our Sisters (SOS) movement, another collective which was formed to support the survivor of the alleged sexual assault.
As per a press release issued by Apostolic Nunciature of the Holy See (Pope) to India, Mulakkal will continue as bishop emeritus, a status awarded to Catholic bishops when they retire.
The nunciature, in its release, has also clarified that Mulakkal himself tendered the resignation and that there was no “disciplinary measure imposed upon him.” Mulakkal too reiterated the nunciature’s words, when he said, in a video which he released on 1 June, that he resigned because Jalandhar diocese needs a new bishop.
The JCC and other outfits supporting the nuns are, however, hopeful that the resignation could help their legal battle.
Can the Bishop’s Resignation Help the Nuns?
While both the nunciature and Mulakkal maintained that the resignation was a gesture made in good faith, sources within the Catholic church told The Quint that resentment against the bishop has been growing in the Jalandhar diocese. “Senior leaders and clergy were not happy with the allegations against the bishop affecting the Catholic church’s image. They wanted him gone and this was communicated to the Pope,” a source said.
Mulakkal meeting Pope Francis in person in February 2023, too had drawn flak.
In stark contrast with the support he got in Kerala when he was acquitted, the bishop’s popularity within the Jalandhar congregation had taken a hit over the past few years, church elders said.
“Most in the Kerala Catholic Bishop’s Conference (KCBC) were in support of Mulakkal. But the administrator from the Mumbai diocese, who was appointed to take care of the Jalandhar diocese in Mulakkal's absence during the trial, did get the support of the congregation. Thanks to the administrator, Mulakkal’s influence in Jalandhar waned over the past five years,” a source told The Quint.
Mulakkal’s ebbing influence in the church could help the nuns, Anto Mamkuttam of Kerala Catholic Reform Movement (KCRM) told The Quint. As they put up a brave front in support of the survivor, several nuns had to face disciplinary action including transfers. Some of them were allegedly forced to leave the order and placed under surveillance. Vatican’s decision to accept Mulakkal’s resignation has come as a moral boost to the nuns, George Joseph said. “The nuns could get a respite from disciplinary action as Mulakkal will no longer be able to call the shots,” Joseph hoped.
An End to Franco Mulakkal's Influence?
Mulakkal did enjoy a towering influence in the church as, according to some church elders, he has been a “good businessman.” Jalandhar diocese, which he used to govern, had acquired wealth during his tenure, sources said. From establishing schools to running other church-owned institutions, Mulakkal was instrumental in the growth of the diocese, it is widely believed.
In Kerala, his home state, Mulakkal was widely supported even by the laity. When he was released on bail from prison in 2018, a huge crowd of parishioners welcomed him – chanting his name and singing hymns in the same breath.
However, Catholic Bishop’s Conference of India (CBCI) has not been looking out for Mulakkal, of late, a source said. CBCI has been of the opinion that tainted bishops could ruin the church’s reputation. With support dwindling outside Kerala, Mulakkal is expected to relocate to the southern state in the near future.
“He still has the financial means to carry on with the legal battle. But now, he is considered tainted. Though he can continue to offer sacraments, not many people will be willing to let him officiate,” a source predicted.
Though The Quint reached out to the nuns who have been fighting for justice, this correspondent has not got a reply. The article will be updated when they respond. Anto Mamkuttam, meanwhile, said, “The nuns will rejoice when they get justice. Mulakkal’s resignation is not the final solution.”