In March 2002, the body of a 21-year old nun was retrieved from the well of her convent. It took the justice delivery system 28 long years to prove what everyone in Kerala knew to be the truth.

Kerala heaved a sigh of relief when, finally, the culprits, Fr. Thomas Kottoor and Sr Sephy were convicted by a special CBI court on 23 December 2020. They have been awarded 28 years in prison.

The murdered nun happened to see them in a compromising position in the early hours of dawn, as she went to the kitchen to drink water. She was killed, in order to hush up the escapade. Her body was thrown into the well, to make her death seem a suicide.

Since Sr Abhaya’s murder, nuns have continued to die ‘under mysterious circumstances’. But none of them has been investigated, or the truth about their deaths established. The concerned church, which has immense economic and political clout in Kerala, has not as much as hinted to this day that it wants these deaths investigated.

What makes this all the more curious is that the officialdom of all churches in Kerala rend the sky with their grievances if a nun is raped in a distant corner in India. But, if nuns are killed right under their noses, they keep a Sphinx-like silence.

The official line is that the church does not interfere with investigations. May be.

But, questions remain, in respect of Sr. Abhaya’s case. Why did the Kerala police and crime branch do all they could to junk the case? At whose behest? Why did some of the investigators destroy the evidence; even evidence taken from the court on the pretext of further investigations? Why did an upright CBI officer, the first to come to the conclusion that Sr Abhaya was murdered, have to leave his job, with ten years of service left? Through a press conference he revealed that he was forced by his superior officer to change his findings and to report the matter falsely as one of suicide.

Why did one of the investigating officers commit suicide? Are we to believe that police officers, on their own, had grudges against a nun, and were acting spontaneously to deny her justice? No matter what stand the church takes, everyone in Kerala knows that it will stand with the criminal clergy, and against the victim in every such instance.

The reason needs to be stated.

As Pope Francis said two years ago, sexual abuse of nuns is rampant in the Catholic Church. He went as far as stating that thousands of them live in sex-slavery. They resent the degradation inflicted on them; but they dare not resist.

The Pope attributed two reasons to this. First, the sexually abused nuns know it is impossible to fight the system. Second, they are brainwashed into believing that submitting to their superiors is a spiritual duty.

They endure hell in silence. Not, all of them. A nun in Kerala had the guts, in 2018, to lodge a police complaint against her bishop, Franko Mulakkal, accusing him of raping her repeatedly. Predictably, the police refused to act on her complaint.

Attempts were made by the sympathisers of the church to degrade her as a woman of loose morals. It took a prolonged public agitation to force the police to act on her complaint. In this case too, the church disowned the victim and stood with the alleged rapist. The money power brought to bear on hushing up serious crimes involving priests and bishops is in the realm of speculation; but it cannot be short of crores of rupees.

Again, why does the church feel obliged to bail out the offenders? The answer lies in the institution of mandatory celibacy for priests. Not celibacy, but purity, is the relevant spiritual discipline.

There is no scriptural warrant for imposing celibacy on anyone.

The idea that the sexual union of man and woman is sinful is as senseless as it is contrary to the biblical view of life. The strange thing about the Catholic Church is that it adopts a pro-life stand vis-à-vis family planning, but takes an anti-life stand in relation to the man woman relationship, which is the bearer of life.

So, it plays both ways. Says ‘yes’ and ‘no’, as convenience dictates. This hypocrisy is at the root of the wide prevalence of sex-related crimes and aberrations among priests and nuns. The church, in other words, cannot absolve itself of these crimes. Individuals behave abnormally because they are kept in subjection to unnatural conditions.

Because the disease is rampant, of which the serial murders of nuns are but symptoms, it is costly for the church to allow even a glimmer of hope to victims that they can seek and secure justice against the interests of the church.

The church cannot keep a lid on the libido of its sex-starved priests.

Nor can it afford to let them roam nightly in red-light areas. The only alternative is to let them find their nightly fixes in convents where innocent girls, nearly all of them from poor families, are defenseless victims.

They are enticed into convents with the romantic delusion of becoming ‘the brides of Jesus’. Thousands of them, if Pope Francis is to be believed, live as de facto sex-slaves.

Here are the Pope’s words: “Given the extensive sexual slavery of minor children which has existed in the Catholic church for decades upon decades, it should come as no surprise that nuns are also sex slaves of priests. . . The sexual slavery of nuns and of children are crimes against humanity.”

The organizational clout and economic might of the church depend, to a large extent, on this human sacrifice. A vast majority of the nuns embrace celibacy before they are mature enough to take an informed decision in this regard.

Once inside a convent, it is impossible to escape, except at the cost of extreme personal suffering. Sr Jesme, who managed to escape and survive, continue to be vilified and stigmatized. The worst is the economic helplessness such nuns face.

Consider the case of Sr Lucy. She worked as a high school teacher all her life. The convent took every rupee of her income.

Now that she has fallen out of favour, she is being forced to leave the convent without a rupee of her earnings reimbursed to her. That is what the Canon law prescribes. If doesn’t take much wisdom to realize that such laws are created to make fleeing from convents unviable.

The issues raised by these developments are, by no means, exclusive church issues. They are human rights issues. Whether a woman should live sexually exploited against her will lifelong, is not a religious issue. It is a serious human rights and civilizational issue.

Whether women, for the sole crime that they chose to be nuns before they were mature enough to know what they were getting into, should remain in hell because of the economic disability inflicted on them, is not a religious issue.

It is high time that such issues are brought out from behind the curtains of religious exclusivity. No religious law should stand that runs counter to the fundamental principles and ideals in the Constitution of India. Many do.

They should not be allowed to, mocking the Constitution and common sense alike.

The writer is former Principal, St. Stephen‘s College, Delhi.