Nun who reported bishop accused of rape receives witness protection

A Catholic nun has apparently become the first person in India to receive protection under a new plan to ensure security of witnesses in sensitive court cases.

The District Judge of Kottayam on April 9 ordered protection for Sr. Lissy Vadakkel, a key witness in the nun rape case involving a Catholic bishop.

The 63-year-old member of the Franciscan Clarist Congregation is categorized as a "Group A" witness, who is considered most vulnerable and at risk. A person is categorized as "Category A" if the "threat extends to the life of a witness or his family members and their normal way of living is affected for a substantial period, during investigation/trial or even thereafter."

The court direction came the same day the Kerala police charged Bishop Franco Mulakkal of Jalandhar in the rape of the former superior general of the Missionaries of Charity, a confidant of Vadakkel. He was charged with wrongful confinement, rape of a woman incapable of giving consent, causing grievous bodily harm during rape, unnatural offense and criminal intimidation, in a charge sheet that ran more than 2,000 pages. He was charged in the predominantly Catholic state of Kerala, where the nun's convent is based.

If found guilty, the bishop faces imprisonment of not less than 10 years or up to life in jail.

Vadakkel had met the police team that investigated the rape case without the knowledge of her superiors. She approached the court on March 25 amid pressure from her superiors to join the provincial house community at Vijayawada in the Andhra Pradesh region, some 667 miles (1,075 km) northeast of Muvattupuzha where she currently lives.

Shaiju Antony, joint convener of the Save Our Sisters Action Council, an umbrella organization of church reformation groups, noted that Vadakkel was the first person in Kerala to use the Witness Protection Scheme of 2018.

The plan was formulated jointly by the National Legal Service Authority and the Bureau of Police Research and Development and the Supreme Court sanctioned it on December 5, 2018.

Fr. Augustine Vattoly, former convener of the Save Our Sisters, says the order in favor of Vadakkel is the first order in the country under the program. 

The apex court judgment came on a petition filed by witnesses in the rape cases against Asaram Bapu, a Hindu religious leader. It asked the federal and state governments to enact a suitable legislation on that issue.

The Kottayam court has directed the state to accommodate Vadakkel in a private institution at Arpookara near Kottayam, managed by a Christian woman.

The court, however, allowed Vadakkel to stay at her current residence in Muvattupuzha until another, safer location is allotted.

The judge also ordered the state government to study whether there was a requirement to transfer Vadakkel to another safe location.

In 2015, the nun who accused Mulakkal of raping her multiple times shared her ordeals with Vadakkel. In February 2019, Vadakkel gave a statement against Mulakkal. Since then, she alleged, she has been facing coercion from the higher-ups in her congregation.

In March, the congregation had sent an ultimatum to Vadakkel, asking her to report to the congregation headquarters in Vijayawada. Sr. Alphonsa Abraham, the provincial superior of the congregation, asked her to reach the congregation headquarters by March 31.

The court also granted police guard for Vadakkel.

[Catholic News Service contributed to this story.]