There is actually small need for a Biblical reference to link dereliction of duty with a display of moral cowardice: just over six decades back President John F Kennedy had asserted that “those who did not speak when they should lose the right to speak altogether.”

The Catholic Bishop Conference of India (CBCI) runs the risk of forfeiting its claim to lead the Catholic Church in the country by the overly-technical, wishy-washy statement it has just issued saying that the law should take its course in the Bishop Mulakkal affair.

The statement went beyond the CBCI “washing its hands off” the diseased development by claiming it had “no jurisdiction over individual Bishops”, and declared that a reported statement from Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Mumbai that Franco Mulakkal should step aside had been made in a personal capacity ~ unlinked with his high position in the Conference.

At a point in time when the faithful are looking to their religious leaders to help them weather unprecedented turbulence the CBCI has let down the people. The affairs of the Church had traditionally been isolated and insulated from common law ~ divine law and authority took precedence, it was contended. Now the CBCI has turned that position upside down by abdicating a spiritual duty to play a role in a raging controversy.

Can the CBCI now claim, for example, the inviolate secrecy of the confessional or fail to recognise judicially-granted divorce? The orchestrated defence of the Bishop of Jalandhar (a lowly counter-attack, some would say) has far-reaching implications from a legal perspective, and has simultaneously eroded the credibility of the Clergy’s leadership.

All controversies could now be referred to the courts. No doubt that the allegations against the Bishop are too serious to be adjudicated anywhere but a court of law, and he is fully entitled to establish his innocence, but did the CBCI not have a moral role to play? While some sections of the Church leadership have flayed the handful of nuns who are publicly demanding Mulakkal’s arrest, little attempt has been made by the CBCI, or any other body to rein-in the vicious campaign of character assassination against the nun who has alleged that she was sexually exploited.

The CBCI could have publicly admonished the Missionaries of Jesus; among the most recent charges is that the nun had once wanted to quit the convent to get married. If that were a crime to be squarely condemned there would be many vacant places in the pews.

The squabble has been permitted to descend to a brawl in the streets. And that is where the CBCI, either collectively or courtesy individual Bishops, has betrayed the congregation. It points to leadership failure: the Church in India must look within, ask itself if the likes of Simon Pimenta, Dursisamy Lourdasamy, Valerian Gracias or Angelo Fernandes would have permitted such sordidness to go viral.