Bengaluru: Sister Lucy Kalappurakkal, 56, is persona non grata in the convent that has been her home for the past 40 years. She is not allowed to eat with other sisters or even speak to them. She lives an isolated life in a room stripped bare of her everyday things. Her bookshelves are gone, as are her iron and sewing machine.
Not so long ago she lived, studied and worked happily as a much respected senior nun. Today she has no friends at the convent in Manthavady, a town in northern Kerala.
So what happened? Why did the Franciscan Clarist Congregation in the lush Wayanad district of Kerala, the refuge where she found her calling when she was still a schoolgirl, turn against her? Why did she have to go to court to prevent them from evicting her? She spoke to Article 14 from her convent, where she continues to stay, thanks to a court order.
The charges levied against Sister Lucy in August 2019 include, among other things, publishing a book without the Convent’s permission; getting a driving license; and buying a car. But Sister Lucy said those charges were added later. The real reason she was asked to leave, she said, was because she stood up for a nun, whom she did not know, who alleged that she had been raped repeatedly by a Bishop, Franco Mulakkal.
Bishop Mulakkal of Jalandhar in Punjab was accused of raping a 46-year-old former superior general of the Missionaries of Jesus 13 times between 2014 and 2016 in the congregation’s convent guest house in Kuravilangad, a village near Kottayam, Kerala. The nun went public with her accusation in 2018, after superiors in the convent failed to act on her complaint. The bishop was arrested in September 2018 but released on bail.
“It’s an open secret that nuns are subjected to sexual abuse in the convents,” said Sister Lucy. “If a nun complains to her superiors, they usually try to protect the abuser rather than the nun.”
The daughter of a farmer who told us she realised, when she was younger, that she could still serve without being a nun, Sister Lucy received support from the Catholic laity and the general public when she shared her trauma and filed a police complaint. Five sisters from the convent of the rape survivor nun who had witnessed her agony, publicly protested to express support. Sister Lucy joined them, although she belonged to a different convent, lived in another town and did not have her convent’s permission.
She also spoke to the media.
This irked already angry superiors in her own convent and they threatened to expel her. Undaunted, in 2019, Sister Lucy published a semi-autobiographical novel ‘Karthavinte Namathil’ (In the Name of God) where she wrote, in explicit detail, about the sexual abuse that nuns faced both from priests and other nuns. Although other nuns, including a former nun called sister Jesme, had written about such abuses in detail in books, they did so only after they left the religious life.
Sister Lucy was unique in that she stayed inside the convent and made the accusations.
When the convent expelled Sister Lucy in 2019, she refused to leave. Instead, she went to court. She appealed to the munsiff court against the eviction order, and she also appealed to the Pope. Sister Lucy three appeals to the Vatican since 2019 were rejected on the grounds that she had not paid heed to canonical warnings or shown remorse for leading a lifestyle that went against the tenets of the convent.
After her lawyer withdrew from the case, for reasons that were not made public Sister Lucy argued her own case before the Kerala High Court. On 22 July 2021, the high court issued a stay order and ordered the lower court to dispose of the case at the earliest.
There is a temporary hiatus now in Sister Lucy’s case, and she is aware of a long, lonely, battle ahead. “We are like orphans because our families have given us up to the convent,” said Sister Lucy.
Sister Lucy now has a powerful supporter. Former justice of the Bombay and Karnataka high courts, Michael F Saldanha, has taken up her cause. “I am prepared to represent her/assist her at the hearing as I happen to be a qualified and experienced lawyer and not one who can be bought over by Church funds or intimidated,” said Justice Saldanha’s letter to the Vatican. She also has a new lawyer.
Edited excerpts from the interview with Sister Lucy.
Can you tell me about your early life?
I come from Cannanore District. We were five girls and six boys in our family. My father was a farmer. But because he was a heart patient, he was not active in the fields. One of my elder sisters became a nun. My parents were against it, and she had to argue and convince them. She even went on a fast until they agreed to let her go. For me it was a bit easier, as she had already shown the way. From a very early age I wanted to help the poor and those in distress. I used to help the nuns in the convent school where I studied. When I was 16, I told my parents I wanted to join the convent. It was my own wish and my parents agreed. They fixed a date and took me to get admitted in the convent.
Did you have any regrets? Did you for instance feel that life in the convent was very strict?
Not really. At that point of time, I did not know much. I only knew I wanted to do service, and I missed my family. But no one had told me that I need not become a nun to do service. Or that I could study further or get married and still do service to society. I have no regrets about not getting married or joining the convent. But I realised very early that service was not the main focus of attention for most of the inmates. I now strongly feel that some of the rules which were imposed hundreds of years ago should be changed to suit our times. I feel that they hamper us from doing real service to the poor. So, I sometimes feel that I have wasted my life here.
You have spent 40 years in the convent and you have mentioned in your book ‘Karthavinte Namathil’ that you have seen many things here which you did not like. Can you talk about that?
There are many things that happen here that are adharmic. It is the superiors in any congregation who lay down the rules. And no one can question them. Since this is a sacred place, there is no transparency about what happens inside. For instance, there is no transparency about where all the money that is collected in the name of charity goes. Those in power have a lot of wealth at their command. At the same time if any of the sisters need even Rs.100 they have to beg for it and often are refused.
You have written about sexual abuse in the convents in your book. Was this book published before or after you were expelled?
This book was published in 2019, after I was expelled. It’s an open secret that nuns are subjected to sexual abuse in the convents. It is based on my own experiences and what I saw happening inside the four walls. Senior priests sexually abuse nuns and they have no one to turn to. The exploitation can go on for a long time. Because if a nun complains to her superiors, they usually try to protect the abuser rather than the nun. We are taught obedience above everything else. So, it is difficult to refuse the demands of these superiors. We are like orphans because our families have given us up to the convent. It is also true that sometimes the nuns themselves give in to their carnal desires and forget their vows of chastity.
You have been accused of disobeying canonical orders and not showing any remorse about your lavish lifestyle. What are these acts of disobedience?
You can hardly call mine a lavish lifestyle (laughs). In 2017 I wanted money to buy a smartphone. I had to make a request to my superiors in writing, as all the money I earned as a teacher was handed over by me to the convent over so many years. I was refused. The very superiors who refused me all had smartphones and even iPhones of their own. I decided to buy a phone on my own and took a loan from a friend. In 2018 I wrote the lyrics for some devotional songs and wanted to publish them in the form of a book and cassette. This too I was refused. And then I wanted to get a driving license and buy a small car, so I could travel to and from the school where I taught. I also thought having such a vehicle would be helpful to others in the convent. All my requests were turned down. I finally achieved everything with the help of friends, relatives and some loans. I then decided I would keep some of my salary every month to pay back my loans. This too was not acceptable to the convent.
Why did you get involved in the Bishop Franco case? Did you know the survivor nun?
No. I did not know her. I belong to a different congregation and live in a different part of Kerala. I read about the case in the papers in 2018 and I felt very angry especially when I saw that all the superiors were supporting the Bishop and not the sister. I just couldn’t stand it. I knew she was speaking the truth, as I have seen other similar cases. I also knew I would not get permission to go to her support. So, I informed my superiors that I was visiting some relatives in Kottayam. I went to my cousin’s house, left my luggage there and then went and sat in the satyagraha. When some TV channels asked me to speak, I did. This angered my superiors when they heard about it.
Can you tell me about your legal case?
I was dismissed from the convent in 2019. The original accusation against me was that I had supported Franco. But when they found that many publications, which were mostly non-Christian, were supportive of the sister and that they also supported my stand, they changed the reasons for my dismissal. I was asked to leave the convent. So, I went to court.
Did you have a lawyer?
I had a lawyer to begin with, but when the case was in High Court, he backed out. I argued my own case in the High Court. I pointed out to the judge that the convent had been my home for 40 years and I had nowhere else to go. A couple of weeks ago, the court gave a stay order and said I could stay in the convent till the main case against me was resolved.
Are you in danger inside the convent ?
I don’t think there is danger! I am totally alone inside the convent. They all think it’s a sin even to look at my face (laughs ruefully)! It’s been two years now. They have even emptied the kitchen and locked all the provisions in a separate room to which I have no access. I have bought my own vessels and now cook my own food. They have removed everything from my room. Sometimes the electricity is cut. I even starved one day because of these problems. My guests are not allowed to come through the front door. I am isolated.
Do you have any friends at all inside the convent?
Ayyo! (laughs) Nobody…nobody…nobody. I think they are all my friends, but to them I am an enemy. Outside the convent I have a lot of support from ordinary people. That is my strength.
Are you in touch with the survivor sister and her supporters? Do you think she will get justice?
Yes. I am in touch with all of them. The police case is still dragging in court. It is clear that she should get justice. Unfortunately, the “Sanyasi Sabha” [a reference to the congregation of powerful male priests] views the survivor sister as the wrongdoer. They are supporting Bishop Franco. Because he has a high status. He is a Bishop. And yes, also he has money. These are important factors in his favour. So, from them, I doubt if she will ever get justice
You appealed to the Pope thrice asking him to review your case. Recently your appeal was rejected for the third time. I think you cannot appeal again. Why did this happen?
First of all I have not given up. They have to prove that the final rejection letter sent to me is genuine. Justice Saldanha, who is a senior retired judge of the Karnataka and Bombay High Court, is helping me. He wrote a letter to the Vatican in June this year; he asked that the expulsion order be withdrawn and that I should be given a fair hearing. He has also pointed out that the date on the final rejection letter indicates that it was written when the Vatican was closed due to Covid, followed by holidays. Obviously there is something wrong. How could they have sent an official letter when the office was closed?
What are your plans now?
I have enrolled for an LLB course. I am retired now, and I am looking forward to attending physical classes
Do you get a pension?
Yes. I get a pension, but it is not much.
Do you get support from your own family?
I do not ask for monetary support. But all of them are supportive of the stand I took. Especially my mother. She is very proud of me.
(Gita Aravamudan is an author and independent journalist based in Bengaluru.)