A Sexual Abuse Case Is Tearing Apart The Catholic Church In India

A wall of silence surrounds the death of a key witness in a huge rape scandal.

JALANDHAR, India — Father Kuriakose Kattuthara was found dead on a school day. The principal at the convent school where he worked first had to make sure all the pupils were sent home so they wouldn’t catch sight of the priest’s body. Then, she had to inform the church.

By the time the police arrived on the scene, the body had already been moved to the local government hospital — where Kuriakose was declared dead on arrival — and immediately sent to what the staff described as the “fridge” in the morgue.

Many fear that one of the biggest scandals to hit the Catholic Church will be buried with the priest — because Kuriakose was a key witness in a case in which a powerful bishop has been accused of raping a nun.

Around the world, the Catholic Church has been beset by sex abuse crimes in recent years, with allegations often initially dismissed before finally being addressed. The last decade has seen the Vatican move from insisting other religions are just “as rife with abuse” and accusing victims of slander, to the pope condemning these crimes and “begging forgiveness.” But this continues to be little more than lip service — this November, the Vatican vetoed plans by US bishops to meet and address sexual abuse.

It’s a similar story in India, where there are 20 million Catholics, out of 28 million Christians — the country’s third-largest religious group after Hindus and Muslims. Victims of sexual abuse have found it almost impossible to get their allegations taken seriously, let alone bring them before a court.

Change has been slow, and painful: This year, four priests from Kerala, a southern state in India, have been accused of sex crimes. Now many Catholics are waiting to see what happens in the biggest case of all — earlier this fall, Bishop Franco Mulakkal, the man accused of raping the nun, became the first Indian bishop to ever be arrested.

The death of Kuriakose could produce a chilling effect on those who want to speak out against abuse by the clergy. As the lone priest to break ranks with the church and testify against the bishop, Kuriakose had taken a brave stance in supporting the nun, whose case would have been bolstered by his further testimony in court. Other nuns who supported their sister after she accused the bishop of rape have said they are afraid for their lives since Kuriakose’s death.

What’s more, while police say the priest died a natural death, his family says he may have died under suspicious circumstances.

In Jalandhar, a city in northern India where Kuriakose died after 30 years of service, it seems many in the church would rather forget he ever existed. A wall of silence surrounds his name — from the police to the school where his body was found.

A cook from St. Paul’s Convent School where Kuriakose’s body was found on Oct. 22 told the police the priest was last seen at lunch the day before, after which he retired to his room. The cook said he had knocked on the priest’s door once that evening to ask whether he wanted coffee or dinner, but got no reply.

When Kuriakose’s family — split between the states of Punjab in the north and Kerala in the south — learned of his death, they lodged a formal written request for a post-mortem to be carried out, stating their reasons for the belief that he had died under unnatural circumstances. One of his brothers in Kerala also wrote to the state’s chief minister asking him to intervene in the case, saying the priest had been threatened by people close to the bishop prior to his death.

Kuriakose was 62 and known to have high blood pressure and diabetes. The post-mortem, carried out by specialist forensic doctors, found no discoloration of the priest’s skin or nails to suggest he had been poisoned, an assistant at the morgue told BuzzFeed News. There appeared to be no injuries to his head either.

But the assistant said there were signs the priest had been frothing at the mouth when his body was discovered, while the clear liquid he had vomited could also be a clue to the contents of his stomach.

Crucially, the post-mortem was not yet complete — Kuriakose’s internal organs had been shipped off to different laboratories where a chemical analysis would reveal his cause of death. This final report is not expected for a few months, and the specialists who conducted the post-mortem have said they cannot draw conclusions until then.

For police however, the matter is closed. “There was no forced entry, no blood or sign of struggle or injury,” Deputy Superintendent Balwinder Singh said on a sunny day in early November, as crowd of curious onlookers gathered inside his office.

“There’s nothing suspicious going on,” Singh said, looking at the crowd hanging on his every word. “This case is in no way connected to any other case anywhere else.”

“The father woke up, vomited, and died.”

Singh, a strapping Sikh man with a snowy beard, was speaking in the low, measured tone of a man who could not afford to lose his temper but whose patience was wearing thin. “The priest’s room was undisturbed,” he said, insisting he had dusted the whole place for fingerprints and found nothing.

Even with the toxicology results being processed, Singh was adamant it was “a natural death,” contradicting a diary entry in an attending officer’s notebook — seen by BuzzFeed News — that Kuriakose’s death was “unnatural.” The entry was made, Singh said, only because the priest’s relatives had requested a post-mortem.

That written request, also seen by BuzzFeed News, began with a curious detail. The family said that a cousin had recently received a phone call from a man who identified himself as “Father Mathew.” “Father Mathew” asked for the cousin’s exact whereabouts, and the cousin responded by saying he was at home and asked why the other man wanted to know — but the caller refused to answer any further questions and hung up. Later that day, the relatives learned that Kuriakose had died.

Singh declined to discuss the phone call, calling it irrelevant to the case.

“There’s nothing suspicious going on,” Singh said, looking at the crowd hanging on to his every word. “This case is in no way connected to any other case anywhere else.”

Kuriakose and the bishop were from the state of Kerala, one of the primary sites of Christianity in India. Both had traveled to the diocese in the city of Jalandhar in Punjab (Kuriakose in the early 1990s, Mulakkal in 2013), where they became members of a congregation called the Missionaries of Jesus — Kuriakose had helped found the congregation in the 1990s, and in 2013, Bishop Mulakkal had become its head.

The nun who accused Mulakkal of raping her was also a member of the southern chapter of the same congregation. She lives and serves the church in Kerala.

In June 2017, the nun wrote to her parish priest and the local bishop alleging that she was being “tortured” by Mulakkal because she had “refused to lie with him.” She alleged she had been raped more than a dozen times between 2014 and 2016 — each time, she alleged, Mulakkal had been visiting Kerala from Jalandhar, one of the largest cities in Punjab, with a Christian population of almost 350,000. For a year, the nun received no response from the church authorities she had contacted. Finally, in July 2018, she approached the police with her complaint.

At least one priest from the church did believe her — Father Kuriakose. In August this year, when the nun’s complaint became the subject of a police inquiry, Kuriakose stepped forward to help investigate charges against Mulakkal. In a five-page statement, Kuriakose told the police that several nuns in the Jalandhar diocese had told him about the “immoral character” of Mulakkal.

“I believe in Jesus Christ, but I would never kiss Bishop Mulakkal’s ring. Father Kuriakose felt the same way.”

Kuriakose’s relatives in Jalandhar were reluctant to speak out against the bishop. One of Kuriakose’s cousins told BuzzFeed News, on the condition of anonymity for fear of bringing further harm to their family, that Kuriakose rarely discussed his work or the bishop with them, but that he had opened up more after his statement to the police. “When he talked he used the word ‘torture’ to describe what was happening,” the cousin said.

“Look, it is just that we are different people,” the relative said. “Kuriakose and I, we prefer to stay in the background and do our work. This man [Mulakkal], he likes attention and sycophants. I believe in Jesus Christ, but I would never kiss Bishop Mulakkal’s ring. Father Kuriakose felt the same way.”

The relative would not confirm whether Kuriakose had ever confronted Mulakkal about the complaints from the nuns in Jalandhar, or the nun in Kerala who alleges that she had been raped. Then in April, Mulakkal personally demoted Kuriakose from being the parish priest of a district in Jalandhar and sent him to a different district, to assist with Catholic ceremonies at a convent school. The new position came with lower pay and significantly less comfortable living conditions.

“We were worried about him after he was transferred,” the relative said. “Earlier, he would come over every week or so, for a hot South Indian meal, to help my child with their homework. Now, he was alone and far away. I kept promising that I would come and visit him there but it never happened.”

The relative said that he and Kuriakose had never been close when they were in Kerala, but in Jalandhar, away from home, they had become like brothers.

“I still cannot believe he’s gone,” he said. “He had become so tense in the last few months.

“Now, he was alone and far away. I kept promising that I would come and visit him there but it never happened.”

“On one day, there was a press conference where a politician from Kerala called the nun a prostitute. I remember he became extremely disturbed and agitated then.”

That press conference was part of the ugly backlash that followed the nun’s police complaint being covered in breathless detail by the local press, making national news, and then drawing the attention of the Catholic community elsewhere in the world. The minister from Kerala who called the nun a prostitute later withdrew his comments but has refused to apologize.

Mulakkal also gave interviews with TV channels in Jalandhar, describing the nun’s allegations against him as baseless and motivated by a desire for vengeance. He said he was in “painful agony” and was a victim of blackmail — in the past, he said he had initiated disciplinary action against the nun for violating religious vows, disobedience, and having sexual relations with a man. He claimed the nun was falsely accusing him in order to defame him.

Mulakkal and spokespersons for the Jalandhar Diocese declined to comment to BuzzFeed News despite repeated emails, text messages, and phone calls. Since he was released on bail, Mulakkal has not spoken to the press.

The Missionaries of Jesus — the congregation that the bishop, the nun, and Kuriakose belonged to — made their stance on the matter clear by launching a media campaign to discredit the nun’s testimony. A spokesperson for the congregation said an internal inquiry had found Mulakkal innocent, and questioned why the nun was still seen in photographs with the bishop at public events after the alleged assault.

“Any woman, who was raped by a man, would never attend functions or travel with that man,” the spokesperson said. “This is a truth that cannot be denied.” (The photographs were of the nun attending a public religious function with Mulakkal, a man who held a post superior to her in the church’s hierarchy — the appearance was akin to a professional obligation.)

In the statement, the spokesperson also maligned the nun and asked reporters to investigate whether she was being funded by outside agents to cause suffering to the church. Finally, the Missionaries of Jesus handed out a photograph of the nun at a press conference, despite laws in India protecting the anonymity of rape survivors.

In response, the nun wrote a letter to the Vatican, which was subsequently leaked to the press by her supporters. “I had tremendous fear and shame to bring this out into the open,” she wrote. “I feared suppression of the congregation and threats to my family members.”

The nun has since complained to several Indian bishops, including the Vatican’s ambassador to India and Nepal, Archbishop Giambattista Diquattro, the Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, and even Pope Francis himself. She says she has received no response other than receipts from the courier company confirming the letters had been delivered.

The Vatican did not respond to a request for comment for this article.

On Sept. 22 Mulakkal was arrested on suspicion of rape. Once again, the Missionaries of Jesus declared their loyalty to him by praying for his release. Around this time, according to his relatives, Kuriakose said that if the bishop was ever released on bail, he would fear for his life.

Things had already become difficult since the time he testified against Mulakkal — according to the cousin in Jalandhar BuzzFeed News spoke to, members of the parish had begun to turn against Kuriakose. On the day that Kuriakose’s testimony was recorded via a statement to the police, his home and a vehicle parked close had been attacked.

On Oct. 15, one week before Kuriakose’s death, Mulakkal was released on bail amid fanfare and garlands, and returned home. The allegations of rape against him are still under investigation.

The accusations against Mulakkal, and Kuriakose’s death have cast a shadow over the church’s reputation in India. On Twitter, right-wing Hindu nationalist trolls have used the story as a way to deflect attention from other sexual abuse allegations, or even accuse “liberals” in the media of trying to “cover up” the church’s sins.

Not long after Mulakkal was taken into custody, the church appointed an auxiliary bishop to take his place in Jalandhar — Mulakkal has stepped down as the head of the diocese, but continues to bear the title of bishop. The church has indicated it will not bear Mulakkal’s legal expenses. BuzzFeed News asked the Jalandhar diocese as well as the Vatican whether the church would support the nun who accused Mulakkal meet her legal expenses, but received no response.

Meanwhile in Kerala, another priest who supported the nun, has received a warning to desist from slandering the church’s reputation.

On Nov. 4, the gates to the Bishop’s House — Mulakkal’s official residence — in Jalandhar were closed to the public. An attendant said Mulakkal had confined himself in a room to pray, and directed church-going traffic toward the fairground, where the weekly Sunday Mass would be held alongside an annual feast for Mother Mary.

Priests and sisters mingled freely with visitors at the feast, blessing children, praying for the aged, enjoying ice cream cones, and playing with fidget spinners. Two schoolgirls — church volunteers — were posing for selfies at the fair, outside an exhibition of scenes from the Old Testament, called Bible Valley.

Enjoying a cheerful day of shopping and hawking Jesus swag, they spoke freely about the size of Jalandhar’s parish, their favorite holidays, and how much work had gone into organizing that year’s feast.

There was nothing to indicate that a priest from the Jalandhar diocese had lived — and died in mysterious circumstances. There was no photograph, no tribute, no sermon or memories shared among members of his parish. Two weeks after his death it was as though Kuriakose had never existed at all.

When the girls were asked whether Kuriakose’s death had made organizing the feast more difficult, the mood shifted instantly.

“We wouldn’t know what you’re asking about. We weren’t told anything about all that.”

Eyeing each other with discomfort, the girls put their phones away and made as if to leave.

“We have no information on this subject,” one said, suddenly switching to a more formal way of speaking.

“We wouldn’t know what you’re asking about,” the other added. “We weren’t told anything about all that.”

Mulakkal, on the other hand, was everywhere. A plaque outside St. Paul’s Convent — the school where the priest’s body was found — declared that that building’s foundation stone had been laid by the bishop. His face appeared on the cover of the school magazine, on the calendar that hung above an empty aquarium in the waiting hall.

The receptionist at St. Paul’s Convent School said Sister Elisabeth, the principal, had suddenly been taken ill and had returned to Kerala. The substitute principal wouldn’t be free to speak to a reporter for months. The orderly who found Kuriakose, BuzzFeed News was politely told, was on leave too. What about the security guard? What about the receptionist herself? How long had they worked here?

“We arrived five days ago. There’s nothing unusual here. Thank you for visiting,” she said, closing the school’s gate. ●

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