In the case of raping and threatening a nun who was a member of the Missionaries of Jesus and inmate of the St Francis Mission Home in Kuruvilangad, Kottayam district, former Bishop of Jalandhar Franco Mulakkal has been acquitted by the trial court. It was at the end of an in-camera trial that lasted hundred days that the Kottayam Additional Sessions Court Judge G Gopakumar pronounced a one line judgement. In the nun's complaint to the Mother Superior of the convent in March, 2017, she stated that the Bishop had sexually abuser her 13 times during 2014-16. It was this complaint that later turned into a nationally debated court case. The nun, victim of a heinous act, and her colleagues conducted a legal battle braving all threats in totally unfavourable circumstances, which had few parallels in legal history. For that very reason, it won the support from various corners of the society; thus Kerala witnessed several protests and struggle on the issue too. The general expectation during the long process was that a conviction would happen. The fact that no witness had turned hostile in the course of the trial and the existence of multiple forms of evidence which apparently corroborated the allegations of the plaintiff gave the impression that Franco would be punished. But that was not to be. Now the judiciary has given a clean chit without giving much explanation in the order.
It is nothing unnatural that those who fought for obtaining justice for the nuns of Kuruvilangad and those who expressed solidarity with them, are disappointed at this stage. Nor is there any surprise in the furious responses that surfaced in the social media following the judgement. And these voices of protest cannot be seen as a mere mob scream. Right from day one of the case, Kerala had seen moves from various quarters and of different kinds to upend the case. Attempts were made to hush up the case by threatening the complainants and later to entice them. When they went ahead with the complaint, Franco and his team tried to block the arrest of the accused. And it is no secret that it all enjoyed the support of the Church. Even when the charge sheet was filed with Franco as accused, the pressure tactics of this camp continued. The accused approached courts, ranging from the sessions court upto the Supreme Court pleading for deleting his name from the charge-sheet. His prayer was that there was no proof against him, the case was fabricated and he should be released without trial. But the observation of the then High Court Judge V Shircy was that there was prima facie evidence of abuse of the nun by the Bishop. Consequently Franco's petition was rejected. The prosecution had presented documents to prove that on the days when the alleged torture had taken place, the Bishop had stayed in the convent. Along similar lines, the Supreme Court also turned down Franco's petition, while the bench also expressed displeasure asking whether the petitioner was exerting spiritual power on the court. And that paved the way for the trial. In other words, even before the trial began, the evidence against Franco had come up before the court in different forms and the court had considered them, and hence the confidence of the plaintiffs and the civil society that Franco would be convicted.
But, as of now it is unclear what judicial factors led to Franco's arguments getting acceptance above all these factors. It has been the declared stand of the nuns who stood by the plaintiff that they would go to any extent to secure justice. They have repeated it even after the judgement was pronounced. They have asserted that their hopes about the path of law is not lost and cite the turn of events that had happened in the case of Sister Abhaya after a lapse of 28 years. Therefore, now it can only be said that Bishop Franco has escaped temporarily. When the trial is repeated in higher courts, the outcome could turn different. The prosecution has indicated that it would go in appeal - a move that is certainly to be welcomed. But then a doubt still lingers: even when not a single witness has turned hostile, and despite the presence of ample evidence of the crime, where did the prosecution falter in making a convincing case before the court? It is on the basis of such suspicions that one is led to take at face value the allegation of the nuns following the court's judgement that Franco had sabotaged the case using money and influence. With other cases in the background before the public like that of Walayar and Palathayi where the prosecution failed in a similar manner, would it be easy to dismiss the loss of justice to the nuns as accidental? And if it is the same approach that guides the prosecution, will justice still remain far? Let us pray for that not to happen and for justice to be dispensed as due.