Bishop Franco case: Catholic Church escapes scrutiny, again

In the end, it took 87 full days. Nearly three months. From the nun filing a rape complaint in Kerala to the powerful Bishop Franco Mulakkal being arrested from Punjab. It took more than 70 days of delay from the Kerala Police, sustained protests by Catholic nuns on the streets and indefinite fasts for the Bishop Franco story to rise to ‘national importance.’

And with a few days of outrage, the story quickly faded away. One celebrated TV anchor, who did her first and possibly only show on the Bishop Franco case after ignoring it for over 70 days, began her coverage by launching into a tirade against … “people on Twitter.” She seemed more angry with them than with Bishop Franco.

This was a characteristic feature of the coverage of the rape case against Bishop Franco by several media outlets. There was no sustained questioning of the murky role of the Catholic Church, the blatantly partisan attitude of the Communist government of Kerala and the way in which the victim had her character assassinated by powerful members of the political and Christian establishment.

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In fact, several media outlets chose to refer to the Bishop simply as Franco Mulakkal, implicitly exonerating the Catholic Church as an institution from all responsibility in the matter.

Which is a surprising choice, considering the sheer magnitude and global scale of the allegations of systemic sexual exploitation within the Church.

Only last month, a grand jury in the United States uncovered over 1000 cases of child abuse by members of the Church. It is alleged that as many as 300 Catholic priests could be involved. All this. In just *one* little state of Pennsylvania.

So deep is the rot and so systemic the sexual abuse that the Church is estimated to have paid nearly $4 billion to settle cases worldwide. These are just the cases that came to light. One wonders how much bigger the number of actual victims could be in places such as India, where a lot of the abused women and children could be from the weakest sections of society.

And yet, in what could only be described as a public relations miracle, the Catholic Church manages to evade scrutiny. Especially in India.

Like I said, several media outlets did not even use the word ‘Bishop’ for Franco Mulakkal.

Never has an institution been accused of sex crimes by so many people on such a scale across the world and come out so unscathed.

Historically, the Catholic Church has been just as lucky. The role of the Church in propping up Nazism has generally been overlooked in popular memory of the Second World War. Specifically, the Catholic Church threw all its weight behind Fascist Benito Mussolini in return for money and control of Vatican City, but history never blamed the Church for it. The only other people who got just as lucky were the Communists, who started World War 2 when they invaded Poland jointly with Hitler. The two biggest collaborators of the Nazis: the Communist Party and the Catholic Church have both been largely forgiven by history.

But at least that was a long time ago. The shocking thing is that the Church still scores over all of us, handing out diktats like a supranational government, bossing overall but accountable to none.

In India, the Church operates with impunity, with its officers openly meddling in our domestic political affairs through public appeals and even letters written on their institutional letterhead. No government, whether of the Congress or the BJP, calls them on it. Any officer of a foreign government, whether we have good relations with them or not, would face massive diplomatic blowback if they tried such a thing. But the Vatican, which is as much a sovereign foreign state as America or Pakistan, gets away with meddling in our affairs all the time.

Yes, the Vatican maintains an Embassy in India, just as much as any other foreign country does. As Head of a sovereign state, the Pope enjoys the same privileges, including diplomatic immunity, as the President of the United States or the Queen of England. That’s why Joseph Ratzinger, the previous Pope, still lives on the sovereign territory of Vatican City: courts and police in no other country of the world can press charges against him for helping cover up for cases of child abuse.

In the case of Bishop Franco Mulakkal, the man who was in the dock was a member of a minority religious institution. The state government responsible for investigating and prosecuting the crime was the CPI(M) government in Kerala. The state where Bishop Franco was residing was Punjab, one of the handful of states ruled by Congress.

In other words, Bishop Franco Mulakkal was wearing three levels of magic armour. It took a legendary 87 days for the Indian legal system to pierce that armour and arrest the Bishop. While I cannot comment on how the case will pan out in court, the one thing that’s certain is that the elites of Indian media, academia and intelligentsia will remain in the dock. The Catholic Church gets off scot-free, like always.

Abhishek Banerjee is a math lover who may or not be an Assistant Professor at IISc Bangalore.

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