Religious leaders, women in India struggle with clergy abuse of nuns

Sr. Manju Kulapuram is national secretary of the Forum of Religious for Justice and Peace. (Provided photo)

Despite her efforts, Sr. Manju Kulapuram could not get justice for a fellow nun who was a victim of voyeurism two years ago. Kulapuram is the national secretary of the Forum of Religious for Justice and Peace, an advocacy group for women religious.

The nun had complained to Kulapuram that a seminarian had secretly watched and videotaped her taking a bath. The sister and seminarian were attending a seminar on rural healthcare in an eastern Indian town. Kulapuram, whose organization assists religious in sexual abuse matters, prefers to keep the names of the people involved in the case anonymous.

The forum, a group of progressive Catholic religious in India, dissuaded the victim from going to court and assured her that they would get her justice from church authorities, says Kulapuram, a Holy Cross nun.

They took the matter to the seminarian's bishop. The prelate merely sent him to Rome to continue his theological studies, Kulapuram says.

The forum then took the case to the apostolic nuncio, urging the papal representative to speed up the process of justice and set up "an objective and impartial mechanism within the church" to address sexual harassment cases involving church personnel.

Kulapuram says, despite these measures, the victim did not get justice, and her own superiors failed to support her. "Finally she was forced to leave the religious life disgusted," Kulapuram, who worked closely with the victim, told Global Sisters Report.

The former nun is now settled in Kerala, her native state in southern India, and has cut all contact with people associated with her former life as a religious.

Poor treatment of Catholic religious women by male members of the church is "a very serious problem" in India, Kulapuram says. "If it comes out, it will be like a tsunami," she warns.

The scope of clergy abuse of Catholic sisters in India is unknown and has not been studied. In this case, and often in others, the abuser was not disciplined or removed from his clergy role, and the outcome of the cases remain secret. In June, Pope Francis spoke out against church secrecy when he decreed that bishops who protect clergy sex abusers would face removal. His law focused mostly on victims of pedophiles but also mentioned "vulnerable adults."

In 2010, the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India, the leading clergy group in the country, released a gender policy to promote equality and harmony among men and women and to denounce violence against women. The policy won Vatican approval, the bishops said, but it does not directly address clergy sex abuse.

Additionally, priests use power over women religious to control their property, require them to cook and clean for them for little or no compensation and, during disputes, deny them communion or confession, sisters and their advocates say.

In February, the forum for religious sent "a letter of concern" about the alarming trend of abuse to all bishops and major superiors in India.

A group of Indian Christian women, both lay and religious, consulted on the problem in 2010, 2011 and 2013 and drafted a set of norms to deal with sexual abuse of adults within the church. They sent the standards to the bishops' conference for action but have received no response. The group will meet again on June 26, said Holy Spirit Sr. Julie George, director of Streevani, a center dealing with women's issues.

The bishops conference did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this story.

Opportunities for abuse

The abuses take place in parishes, schools and social service centers where nuns work as subordinates to priests. Some retreat masters and priest counselors, who privately treat sisters with emotional and psychological problems, also abuse nuns, Kulapuram says.

During spiritual retreats, for instance, a nun meets with a clergy adviser in a closed room for guidance and discernment, creating an opportunity for sex abuse.

The forum secretary says that in most abuse cases the nuns do not protest. "This was the one case where the sister stood her ground," she said in reference to the voyeurism incident.

The victim immediately reported the matter to leaders at the seminar, her superiors, members of the Catholic bishops' conference and the national association of religious major superiors. She also demanded that the seminarian be questioned and the tape be seized. Several months later, she wrote to the prelate concerned after he sent the seminarian back to Rome.

"Cases of sexual violence on [religious women] go unaddressed, and its perpetrators often go scot-free. This cannot be tolerated anymore," says the letter the forum drafted on Feb. 22 at the end of its annual meeting.

About 75 priests and nuns, who are involved in struggles for justice and peace, attended the four-day meeting at Kottayam, a Christian stronghold in the southern Indian state of Kerala, to address the theme "Reinventing Religious Life in the Context of India Today."

In the end, they said they were forced to write the letter as their analysis of current challenges to religious life revealed issues that needed urgent attention by church leaders.

The letter cites "an increasing use of the Sacraments by the clerics to punish the faithful, especially religious women," and demanded an immediate end to such practices. In these cases, a priest in conflict with a nun would deny her communion, hearing her confession or saying Mass at her convent. These acts of obvious shunning create scandal in the parish.

The letter also notes attempts to "domesticate" religious life by giving a bishop "total control" over priests and nuns in his diocese. Such moves, the letter says, violate "the very nature and role of religious life," where men and women try to exemplify "radical evangelical living" in a prophetic way.

The forum stated that the exclusion of women from governmental structures in the church to be a "violation of human rights." The letter asserts the need to protect and sustain the "legitimate autonomy" of religious life.

Sr. Rita Pinto, Religious of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, left, is president of the Sisters Section of the Conference of Religious India. (Provided photo)

A call to set the standard

Several nuns and others told GSR they agreed with the forum.

Sr. Rita Pinto, president of the sisters' section of the Conference of Religious India, a national association of major superiors, says the way the Indian church deals with sexual abuse cases has become "profoundly disturbing" and it sets "a bad precedence," especially in a country plagued by sexual violence.

Pinto says the prelate in the voyeurism case refused to act against the seminarian despite having "sufficient proof." He treated the victim as the accused instead of handling her case with compassion and sensitivity, said Pinto, a member of the Society of the Sacred Heart congregation.

The 2010 bishops conference policy does not address clergy abuse but states the church "will work toward elimination of all forms of violence against women and advocate zero tolerance in all arenas of social and religious life." It also promises to set up "structures and evolve mechanisms for effectively combatting violence and sexual harassment against women in familes, workplaces and church institutions," the group's spokesman said. The policy also encourages nuns to use their talents in their prophetic calling to promote women's causes in the church and society.

However, what happens in reality is just the opposite, says Virginia Saldanha, a lay Catholic woman theologian who from 2000 to 2010 headed the Women's Desk, part of the Office of Laity for the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences. She held a similar post from 1998 to 2004 for the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India.

Although India has more than 100,000 women religious, very few volunteer to protest "the endemic issue of the abuse of women by priests," Saldanha bemoans.

She says she came across several cases of abuse when she traveled India as the head of the bishops' women's commission. When she took up the matter with the provincials, they told her that they would deal with it in-house. "But I found that 'in-house' meant punishing the sister and taking no action against the abuser."

She says her heart bled when the nun in the voyeurism case was ignored and denied justice.

Virginia Saldanha is lay theologian and former secretary of the Women's Desk of the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences, and secretary of Women Commission of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India. (Provided photo)

The way power is wielded

The laywoman cited another case in Kerala, where six nuns opposed attempts by priests to take over their parish school in 2007. An archdiocesan regulatory council clarified the nuns were the school's owners, but the priests and their bishop rejected the decision, irritated that the nuns would contest the matter. The dispute led to "a longstanding and festering sore in the Catholic church in Kerala," Saldanha recalls.

In 2011, a division bench of the Kerala High Court ruled that the local community of nuns was the owner of the school and the local superior the manager. In the end, the nuns yielded to pressure from their superiors and church authorities; they handed over the school to the priests and were transferred to different locations.

Saldanha sees signs of nuns who manage kitchens and homes for priests and bishops, a practice the forum calls "domestication." She says women religious in these roles are not recognized as "equal human persons."

Pinto says some bishops allow women orders to open institutions or projects only if they lend some nuns to work in diocesan institutions. "This is a method to bring the sisters under the control of the bishops," she told GSR. Compelling sisters to do the sacristy work or provide food to parish priests are instances of domesticating the religious, Pinto says.

Sr. Shalini Mulackal, the first woman president of the Indian Theological Association, says the nuns are partly responsible for their domestication in the church. "Often religious women are not assertive or bold enough or knowledgeable enough" to stand up for their "legitimate autonomy," she says, adding that this is because most women have "internalized patriarchal value systems of society."

Some bishops and priests who cling to a patriarchal mindset view women as persons with no decision-making or thinking capacity. "They consider women as inferior to men and expect them to be submissive in everything," Mulackal says.

Saldana wants Catholics nuns to be on the forefront of the women's movement in the church. "But instead they reinforce the women's stereotype of submission and unquestioning obedience," Saldanha says.

The lay leader recalls that some sisters dropped out of the Indian Women Theologians Forum after they became leaders in their congregations, lest they be seen associating with outspoken women in the progressive group.

She fails to understand why a social service project operated by nuns requires the bishop's signature to get aid from funding agencies. "Why can't the provincial of the congregation sign it? This shows how the system is created to control women," she says.

Saldanha says such undue power of bishops over women religious often leads to abuses. She recalls an incident in the 1990s when a bishop in central India ordered some nuns to leave his diocese, based on flimsy reasons. Bishops often pressure provincials to curb "errant" or "bold" nuns who dare to stand up for their rights, she says.

Sr. Shalini Mulackal is the first female president of the Indian Theological Association. (Provided photo)

The biggest taboo

Mulackal, the theologian, says few nuns speak openly about abuses because sex is "a big taboo" among the religious, as it is in Indian society in general.

"So it is almost impossible for young religious to resist and openly tell the concerned authorities to take action for fear of bringing shame upon oneself or even losing one's religious vocation," Mulackal told GSR. "It may take a long time before these issues come into the public domain."

Mulackal, who teaches in a Jesuit theology seminary in New Delhi, cited a case a few years ago when two young nuns were found impregnated by a priest who held a "high position" in another diocese. The order expelled the nuns, but everyone, including the nuns' congregation, tried to protect the priest to safeguard the church's name. "In such cases it is difficult to ascertain whether it was sexual violence or coercion, or [whether] it was with the consent of the person concerned," she told GSR.

The woman theologian says that when bishops are alerted to such cases, the most they would do is transfer the priest, "after giving him a chance of attending some counseling program."

Cheap labor

Some priests harbor "a distorted notion" that women religious should serve as cheap laborers for the church, Mulackal says, adding that nuns working in some diocesan institutions get only "a small stipend."

However, she agrees that the bishop has the right to intervene in the life of a religious community in matters of faith and morality. A bishop has to challenge the religious order, if its institutions collect unlawful donations or deny access to the poor. "If the Christian values are not lived, the bishop has a right to intervene," Mulackal says.

Fr. Varkey Perekkatt, head of the Jesuits' Delhi province, says women religious working in diocesan institutions often suffer bad treatment silently. He too agrees they are seen as cheap labor and are paid meager honorariums. Those nuns "go through difficulties with great pain, often in silence" and as a result they miss the joy of being a religious, he says.

The Jesuit provincial also opposes using sacraments as punishment. "No priest is allowed to do so. Such aberrations have to be stopped by all means, and priests perpetuating such practices have to be taken to task by the authorities concerned," he asserts.

Women religious aggravate the situation when they refuse to assert their basic rights, he says. "Peace at any cost seems to be the mode of operation. What we need is more dialogue among the partners concerned."

Perekkatt said some bishops and major superiors fail to challenge the subjugation of women as they themselves are not free from social menaces and harbor the patriarchal mindset. When the real need arises, they "fall back to their old clutches of self-protection," he says.

"Only the Lord God can liberate us from these shackles and make us true disciples of the Lord," he said.

Fr. Varkey Perekkatt is a Jesuit provincial of Delhi. (Provided photo)

[Jose Kavi is the editor-in-chief of Matters India, a news portal focusing on religious and social issues in India. This article is part of a collaboration between GSR and Matters India.]

Related 2001 investigative report from the NCR archives regarding Catholic clergy in Africa and other parts of the world -
Editor's note from Tom Roberts, explaining context of the story
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