Women have been fighting for equal rights and equal representation all over the world since ages. Women’s empowerment is now becoming a symbol of strength and courage due to the relentless and tireless efforts of our mothers and grandmothers and great-great-grandmothers. While women empowerment is gaining momentum across the world with movements like #MeToo garnering a lot of courage to speak up, there are still many women who are shunned and mouth-taped. One such segment of women is the Nuns or the ‘Women Religious’ who have devoted their lives to their faith and belief and given themselves to the service of the god (humanity) through a congregation, leaving behind all the worldly pleasures.
Although, away from the glare of the public eye and behind the adornment of a robe of purity and faith; horrendous and upsetting stories of sexual assault by both men and women, rape and mental torture have been emerging out of the congregation in the recent past. Many nuns who have been a victim of such indecent acts have now been voicing their outrage and asking for justice. Three Catholic reform organisations namely, Call To Action, Future Church and Women’s Ordination Conference have also launched the #CatholicToo campaign on December 2017, “as a Catholic response to the outpouring of testimonies from women breaking their silence about harassment and abuse across industries (#MeToo).”
The recent rape case of a Kerala nun by a Bishop which witnessed a huge support from the institution of the nuns have stirred the conversation again over the subjugation and horrific atrocities meted out towards the sisters of the congregation. Although the alleged Bishop has been arrested and is now already seeking for bail, the silence of the church has been deafening over the years. “Amen: an autobiography of a nun” a controversial book written by Sister Jesme, a former nun from Kerala, who have long left the congregation due to the indecent activities happening inside, have brought to light the reasons that compelled her to let go of the grey ‘habit’. Citing an incident that happened to Sister Jesme in Bangalore, she writes in her book, “I was told to stay at the office of a priest respected for his strong moral side. But when I reached the station, he was waiting there and hugged me tight on arrival. Later in the day, he took me to Lalbagh (a garden) and showed me a cupid-struck couple and tried to convince me about the need for physical love. He also narrated stories of illicit relations between priests and nun to me. Back in his room, he tried to fondle me and when I resisted, got up and asked angrily if I have seen a man. When I said no, he stripped himself, ejaculated and forced me to strip.” The book also highlights the mental torture the nuns are subjected to if they seek help and justice.
According to a report in Global Sisters Report , a project of National Catholic Reporter and a dynamic online community that reports and gives voice to Women Religious around the world, Sr. Manju Kulapuram, the national secretary of the Forum of Religious for Justice and Peace, an advocacy group for Women Religious, could not get justice for a fellow nun who was a victim voyeurism. The nun had complained that a seminarian had secretly watched and videotaped her taking bath while they were attending a seminar on rural healthcare in an eastern Indian town. She was dissuaded from taking any legal action and was assured justice by the church which never materialised. The priest was sent to Rome to continue his theological studies. Despite measures being taken, the nun did not get justice, and her own superiors failed to support her. “Finally she was forced to leave the religious life disgusted,” Kulapuram told Global Sisters Report. The problem here lies in the poor and almost non-existent structure inside the church in relation to the dealings of such misconducts. There are no defined rules or norms which protects the victims of abuse. The least harm done to the perpetrators is a transfer to another place.
According to a report in the National Catholic Report, Pope Francis, on June 2016, signed the new universal law for the Global Catholic Church specifying that a bishop’s negligence in response to clergy sexual abuse can lead to his removal from office. The report also reiterates that the law empowers several Vatican dicasteries to investigate such bishops and initiate processes of removal. 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 but it does not directly address clergy sex abuse, as per the Global Sisters Report. In September 2017, the Bishops’ Conference published a guide on sexual harassment in the workplace. It was circulated to all and emphasized the Church’s policy to maintain “zero tolerance” of sexual abuse of children and women (ucanews, New Delhi. June 25, 2018). But several members of the clergy are not even aware of the guide and its confidentiality which reflects the unwillingness of the church to be transparent in such matters says the report.
The scope of clergy abuse has not been well investigated and researched upon. But these incidences of sexual assault that have been brought before the public reflects the eye-opening reality of what happens behind the closed doors and the massive problem that exists within the congregation that shuns those who have been victimised and subjugated by the perpetrators. There are countless cases of abuse which mostly go unreported. The nuns have been and are still being denied the right of justice due to the hierarchical structure of the church which covers most of the cases of rape and sexual assault in order to protect the reputation of the clergymen and the church by simply whisking them off to a different place so that the report of abuse goes unnoticed. It is about time the Church acknowledges the Women Religious and honours them the respect and the right to justice they deserve. The pertinent point here is not about bringing down the reputation of the church but about shaming those perpetrators who have been victimising the nuns and taking advantage of the culture of silence that has been the norm inside the congregation, through structured and well-defined policies in place to keep a constant check on such matters.
Kavi, J. (2016, June 24). Religious leaders, women in India struggle with clergy abuse of nuns. Retrieved from https://www.globalsistersreport.org/news/equality/religious-leaders-women-india-struggle-clergy-abuse-nuns-40571
DeGeorge, G. (2018, August 3). LCWR, Catholic reform organisations respond to AP report on sexual abuse of nuns by clergy. Retrieved from http://www.globalsistersreport.org/news/equality/lcwr-responds-ap-report-sexual-abuse-nuns-clergy-55232
Secrecy shrouds Indian church’s sex abuse procedures. (2018, June 25). ucanews.com. Retrieved from https://www.ucanews.com/news/secrecy-shrouds-indian-churchs-sex-abuse-procedures/82631
Image Credit: Chicago Tribune
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