A Former Nun’s Memoirs Rock India’s Catholic Church

TIME-CNN:A Former Nun’s Memoirs Rock India’s Catholic Church
Friday, Feb. 27, 2009
A Former Nun’s Memoirs Rock India’s Catholic Church
By Madhur Singh
A group of Catholic nuns walking in Kerala, India
A group of Catholic nuns walking in Kerala, India

After 26 years as a nun, Jesme Raphael gave up her robes and walked out of the Congregation of the Mother of Carmel, the Catholic order in Kerala, India, that had been her home for three decades. Two years later, Raphael, now 53, has come out with her memoirs, Amen: An Autobiography of A Nun, cataloging lurid details of bullying, sexual abuse and homosexuality in the oldest Catholic women’s order in the idyllic coastal state in southern India. Shocking as it is, the book is only the latest in a long series of accusations and scandals afflicting the Catholic Church in the state with the largest population of Christians in India.

“All the brothers here send you greetings. Greet one another with a holy kiss [1 Corinthians 16:20],” Raphael quotes a priest as telling her, after she confronted him with allegations that “he kissed almost everyone who went for one-on-one meetings.” In other episodes, she tells of a forced lesbian encounter, being forced to strip in front of a naked priest who then masturbated, and being accused of being mentally unstable on complaining to her superiors. (See pictures of young nuns in the U.S. who have taken their vows.)

Since the book’s release on January 30, publishers DC Books have already sold all 3,000 copies, and a reprint has been ordered. The Catholic church is miffed. “There is no dearth of anti-religion people in Kerala society,” says Dr Stephen Alathara, deputy secretary of the Kerala Catholic Bishops Council. “They are using this for their anti-social, anti-church activities.” In 1957, Kerala elected the world’s first democratically elected communist government, and it has been under communist rule since the last state elections in 2006.

A spokesperson for the Syro-Malabar order of the Catholic Church, Father Paul Thelakkat, adds that Raphael’s allegations stem from “some wounded feelings” which Raphael should have raised with the church instead of “maligning the life of religious nuns”. He goes on to add that Raphael’s allegations are “not especially serious”. “The church never claims there’s no sin within the church,” he says. “We’re not angels, we’re human beings of flesh and blood, so some omissions and failures can happen. But the church is perennially on a path of renewal and reformation; we’re trying to deal with these problems and such allegations.” (See pictures of India’s floods.)

There has been no shortage of them in recent months. On February 11, Sister Josephine, a nun in the Daughters of Mary congregation in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala’s state capital, was found dead in her room in an apparent suicide. Members of the congregation said the 38-year-old nun had been under treatment for depression. After news of the incident spread, a crowd gathered around the house and shouted slogans alleging that harassment had led Sister Josephine to kill herself. The police had to intervene, and an inquiry into the case was later ordered. Six months earlier, on August 11 of last year, 23-year-old Sister Anoopa Mary had been found hanging in her room in St Mary’s Convent in Kollam, north of the capital. In what was purportedly her suicide note, she had said she could no longer withstand the senior nuns’ harassment. Her father, a cook in the local Bishop’s house, charged that sexual exploitation had led his daughter to take her life. The convent has denied the allegations, though a court investigation is still ongoing.

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Recently, there have been expulsions and other disciplinary action in response to other cases of misconduct within the Church. In June last year, a nun in a Christian hospital was expelled after a video of her having sex with a driver was circulated over mobile phones and the Internet. In October, Pope Benedict XVI suspended a bishop in the coastal city of Cochin after his adoption of a 26-year-old woman as his daughter raised questions. The bishop has denied any wrongdoing, and said he adopted the woman out of fatherly love. But the church took him off all duties and instituted an inquiry.

“Such problems have been there in almost all convents [in Kerala],” says Joseph Pulikunnel, a veteran Syrian Catholic social reformer who edits Osanna, a magazine aimed at Kerala’s Catholic community. “The convents are closed to the public; we don’t know what is happening inside.” He says India’s Catholic church, which accounts for 70% of all denominations among India’s 25 million Christians, owns vast properties across the country, including over 30,000 educational institutions and 6,000 hospitals. In Kerala, the Church runs 60% of the private educational institutes. The state’s near 100% literacy — a singular case in a country where the average adult literacy rate is just about 60% — is thanks largely to the church’s zealous missionary activity. Yet critics claim this gives the church a high degree of political and economic power. Church reform activists also say the affairs of the Catholic church — to which 60% of Kerala’s Christians belong — should be brought more directly under the control of Indian authorities to make its workings more transparent. As of now, church affairs are under the stewardship of the Pope. (See pictures of spiritual healing around the world.)

In recent months, the church has been more forthcoming about the problems it faces. Sathyadeepam, Kerala’s Catholic weekly, released a report in January that said almost 20% of the region’s nuns — the church says there are about 45,000 — feel “insecure or unaccepted” in their convents. Cases of nuns speaking up like Raphael are still rare, but there may be an avalanche building up due to the changing social scene. Earlier, girls from disadvantaged families embraced the vows, finding that life in a convent, while hard, saved them from the worst of deprivation. But once in an order, they found it difficult to complain or leave. “They simply had nowhere to go,” says Pulikunnel, “If they quit the convent, they’d be thrown out penniless, and their families wouldn’t take them back.”

But times have changed. Churches around the world have been coming to grips with legacies of quiet abuse, and Indian society, too, has evolved. There is no longer a stigma attached to giving up the robes and returning to the laity. There are plenty of well-paying jobs — nursing has proven particularly attractive for Kerala women as it is seen as a passport to a foreign job and big bucks — and many youngsters are not up for a lifetime of celibacy and a religious vocation. Although figures have not been collated, activists claim a steady decline in the number of young people taking the vows, or, like Raphael, renouncing their vows.

But to stem the rot that has set in, the church will first have to admit the real nature and extent of the problem. If Dr. Alathara’s reaction is anything to go by, that candor is a long way off. When asked about the numerous allegations of sexual abuse in the church, he says, “[Alleging sexual abuse] is an old tool of hitting at the ecclesiastical society. It’s nothing new. It happened 2,000 years ago too.” Father Thelakkat’s reaction is somewhat similar — though he doesn’t deny Raphael’s allegations, he refuses to acknowledge their seriousness either: “The incidents may be true, but they are isolated cases.” Clearly, it’s time to connect the dots, and see the bigger picture.

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2 Responses to “A Former Nun’s Memoirs Rock India’s Catholic Church”

  1. What is actually a sign of Catholic unity has unfortunately become an area of contention, leading some Catholics to leave the Church altogether. Calista Lesbian

  2. This blog’s great!! Thanks :).

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