NEW DELHI — A Catholic bishop who was accused of repeatedly raping a nun in southern India over a two-year period was acquitted on Friday, bringing an end for now to what appeared to be the country’s first case of its kind.
The bishop, Franco Mulakkal, who had been on trial since 2020, had consistently said he was innocent. “Praise the Lord,” he said after the verdict in the city of Kottayam in Kerala State.
The judge overseeing the trial, G. Gopakumar, said prosecutors had failed to prove their case, according to news reports. Investigating officers in Kerala said the ruling would be appealed to a higher court.
The case, believed to be the first in India in which a bishop was charged with raping a nun, highlighted deep divisions within the Catholic Church in the country. The church was slow to react to the nun’s accusations against Bishop Mulakkal, and it did so only after five of her fellow nuns protested publicly in support of her.
Father Augustine Vattoly, who helped organize a group involved in the protests in Kerala, said the nuns had not given up.
“The verdict is a big, big shock for us,” Father Vattoly said. “But we will continue the fight against the notorious system of the church, which throws its weight behind perpetrators of injustice like Franco Mulakkal.”
The nun, who belongs to the Missionaries of Jesus religious order, first brought her accusations to the church authorities in January 2017. She approached nearly a dozen church officials, including bishops, a cardinal and representatives of the Vatican.
In official police complaints, the nun’s family said the assaults occurred at her convent, the St. Francis Mission Home, in Kerala, which is home to many of India’s 20 million Catholics.
Just before Bishop Mulakkal was arrested and briefly detained in September 2018, the church removed him from his administrative duties in the northern Indian city of Jalandhar, where he had been serving. Formal charges were brought against him in April 2019, weeks after Pope Francis acknowledged that the sexual abuse of nuns by priests was a continuing problem within the church.
The bishop was charged with raping the nun nine times between 2014 and 2016, during visits he made to Kerala. He was also charged under laws against intimidation, illegal confinement and unnatural intercourse.