Bishop and his `daughter'

Spiritual Father

The Church is plunged into turmoil as a priest adopts a woman, reports KA SHAJI

THE VATICAN has suspended an Indian bishop of the Cochin diocese, John Thattunkal, for ‘adopting’ a young woman for his ‘spiritual refreshment’ and using her blood in act akin to black magic, to protect his residence from ‘evil forces.’ In an embarrassing development for the church, the bishop, a holder of a doctorate in church and civil law, has admitted to authorities that he conducted the ‘bloody blessing’ as he considered the woman’s blood to be the blood of Jesus Christ.
The church has called the incident a black magic ritual. The faithful are up in arms. Ironically, Bishop Thattunkal was suspended just a few weeks after the elevation to sainthood of Kerala’s Sister Alphonsa, the first Indian woman to be so canonised.
Sources in the church state that the Vatican only rarely suspends bishops. Thattunkal is now being kept off administrative functions of the Cochin diocese. His charge is being handed to Daniel Acharuparamabil, the bishop of Verapoly. An angry Pope Benedict XVI also ordered a detailed inquiry by a threemember panel of bishops. The only concession from the Vatican is that Thattunkal can remain a bishop until the final verdict.
In September Thattunkal adopted the 26-year-old graduate from Pathanamthitta district in South Kerala. The Bishop had met the woman during a pilgrimage abroad in April and ‘convinced’ of her ‘extraordinary spiritual powers’. Back home, the woman began to advise him on administrative matters at the diocese. According to the bishop, her predictions helped him trace and punish priests embezzling church funds. The bishop then adopted the woman as his daughter at the local registrar’s office.
AFTER THE ADOPTION, the woman stayed in a guest house within the Bishop House compound in Fort Kochi. She, however, left it after it became an issue among a section of priests in the Cochin diocese.
Many faithful are not satisfied with the suspension and are sending memorandums to the Vatican asking for punitive action, up to defrocking or removal from the post of bishop.
Thattunkal has apologised to the community for the controversy. He says he has not made any mistake but will abide by any decision of the Church.
The woman told TEHELKA that she considered the 60-year-old bishop as her grandfather and called herself his spiritual daughter.
“In this issue, we are confronted with fundamental questions of faith and moral errors that are against Catholic law. That is why we have instituted the three-member enquiry committee,’’ said Father Stephen Althara, a spokesperson for the Kerala Catholic Bishops Council (KCBC). The inquiry committee is headed by Francis Kalarakal, the Bishop of Kottapuram. The other members are Sebastian Thekethecheril, Bishop of Vijayapuram and Dr Vincent Samuel, the Bishop of Neyattinakara. Sources say that the committee will take up to three months to complete its task.


Rights of nuns

Death In The Nunnery

The suicide of a nun has shocked Kerala, leading the state Women’s Commission to recommend new laws to protect their rights, reports KA SHAJI

AFTER THREE decades of service, Sister Jesmi decided to leave the Congregation of the Mother of Carmel (CMC), an order of nuns under the Catholic Church in Kerala. Citing mental harassment from her superiors as the reason, she also took voluntary retirement from the principal’s post she held at St Mary’s College in Thrissur, one of the state’s best institutions of higher education. Sister Jesmi preferred to leave even though she knew she would have nowhere, apart from her sister, to turn for survival. Ineligible for benefits from the church, she is also debarred from demanding the return of her parental property, bequeathed to the church when she joined the order.
Four months ago, a 37-year-old nun from Alappuzha in southern Kerala was found filmed in a pornographic clip circulating via MMS, and was defrocked and sent home. The nun, who worked as a receptionist at a CMC mission hospital near Kochi, was having an affair with the hospital driver, but claimed she had no idea he was filming her. Today, nobody has a clue as to her whereabouts, or even whether her home has accepted her. She, too, has no claim over the property her parents gave the church.
In August this year, Sister Anupa Mary from Kollam in southern Kerala hanged herself in her convent room, leaving a suicide note blaming the Mother Superior, Sister Albeena. Anupa’s father, Pappachan, alleges that Albeena subjected his daughter to sexual abuse, and claims Anupa spoke of it a few weeks before she died to her mother and sister, though they kept quiet about it. There is now a police investigation against Albeena, but it is moving at a grinding pace.
Nuns who give up their vows, whether from choice or compulsion, have a bleak future in Kerala as there is no mechanism for their rehabilitation. The faithful and the Church view them with contempt; often, so do their families. Survival becomes extremely difficult leaving, in many cases, suicide as the only solution, one that has claimed the lives of 15 nuns over the last 14 years.
It was in this context that the Kerala Women’s Commission approached the CPM-led state government, requesting it to enact legislation prohibiting girls under 18 from taking the veil, and prosecuting parents who forcibly send their daughters to nunneries. It also wanted protection of a nun’s share in family property and legal provisions to retrieve property bequeathed to the church, at least for those who leave their orders on grounds of harassment.
“When a Kerala girl becomes a nun, her share of her parental property is normally given to her to cover her living expenses. But should she decide to renounce her vows, she gets nothing. Such girls are in urgent need of a rehabilitation programme,” says Kerala Women’s Commission chairperson Justice D Sreedevi.
But the church leadership is not ready to listen, and is attacking the entire Commission for its ‘anti-minority’ demand, even terming its members ‘Marxist devils’. “The Commission is trying to effect changes in a universal Catholic norm, which is based on canonical law,” says Father Paul Thelakkat, spokesperson of the Syrio-Malabar Church. “As everywhere else, only a girl who completes Class XII is admitted to a Kerala convent. She then goes through a minimum five years training, meaning that she does not become a full-fledged nun until she is at least 22. So the question of inducting a minor into the nunhood does not arise.” As per figures available from the church, Kerala has more people turning to religious life than anywhere else in India. The state has 33,226 nuns.
THE ISSUE took a serious turn after the opposition Congress joined the bandwagon, calling the Commission’s demand a challenge to religious freedom and demanding Sreedevi’s ouster. Unwilling to antagonise the church, with which it is already at loggerheads, the state government is now soft-pedaling the issue. “It is just a wish of the commission,” says CPM state secretary Pinarayi Vijayan. “Everyone can express their wish. Neither the party nor the government have taken a decision on the issue so far.”
“We are not against a religion or their legitimate rights,” counters Sreedevi. “The Commission has received several complaints of torture in convents, on which we based our recommendation to the state government.”
Not all Kerala Christians are opposed to the Women’s Commission’s efforts, however. Joseph Pulikunnel, a prominent Catholic thinker and social activist, says Church officials neither admit to problems within the community, nor try to understand the reasons that drive nuns to suicide. “They always try to hush up such cases; they blame the victims and their families and protect the guilty,” he alleges. Pulikunnel welcomes the legislation the Commission is demanding, and says there is no question of its constituting an interference with religious freedom. “They are only trying to protect the basic human rights of those entering nunhood. The church ought to welcome the recommendation and try its best to get the proposed legislation implemented,” he says.
The death last year of Sister Lisa, whose body was found in the guest room of her convent near Kottayam in central Kerala, is now snowballing into an avoidable controversy for the Kerala church. Sister Lisa is said to have consumed poison; a suicide note claimed “disappointment in life” as the reason for the 34-year-old nun’s extreme step. Her father, Joseph Thottathil, says she was unhappy with her impending transfer to another convent; but when the Women’s Commission sought details, they were stonewalled. The same unresponsiveness greeted their request for information about the mysterious death of another nun five years ago.
Skirting the requirements of justice is something, however, that the Church in Kerala has long witnessed. The state High Court has come down heavily on the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) for its poor progress in an over-15-year inquiry into the murder of Sister Abhaya at a convent in Kottayam. Two priests and a nun are under the CBI scanner, but the agency refuses to arrest them “for want of evidence”. Abhaya was allegedly murdered for accidentally witnessing the priests in a compromising position with the nun.
Sister Alice Lukose, a former proponent of liberation theology, says unless the church is able to offer women a ‘new vision’ and a ‘new way‘ of committed life, religious congregations for women will face a crisis of existence. “Today, in every field, women are equal; in every field women have come up, except in the church. The moment the church acknowledges and allows women to be different, the church would be different,” she says. •

CPM MP's tryst with Nadi Astrology

The Past Haunts A Marxist

A firebrand MP’s dalliance with astrology leaves his CPM party bosses red-faced, reports KA SHAJI

RELIGION IS no longer the opium of the masses alone, if one goes by the behaviour of CPM leaders in Kerala. Gone are the days when faith was deemed the antithesis of Marxism, ensuring no believer was ever apponted to a prime party position. Concessions were given to party stalwarts like EMS Namboodiripad and EK Nayanar who were allowed to wait outside temples when their wives offered prayers. Religion is now perhaps winning the day over dialectical materialism. In the latest episode, a firebrand Muslim CPM MP from the state travelled 600 km to a village near Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu to meet an astrologer to trace his birthday, which his family had somehow not recorded.
A two-time MP from the CPM’s Kannur stronghold, AP Abdullakutty has returned a contented man from Vaitheeswaran Koiil, where an aged practioner of Nadi astrology furnished him with his complete horoscope. So impressed was he that he has now written an article for a Malayalam travel magazine, Yathra, on the visit and on Nadi astrology, the art of reading one’s destiny from one’s thumbs. Titled ‘Your Thumb Says It All’, the article has already made trouble among party leaders, who have reportedly demanded disciplinary action against Abdullakutty.
It is not the first time the 41-year-old MP has embarrassed the party with his religiosity. He recently received warnings over performing the pre-Haj in Mecca. A business he started resulted in his being relegated from the Kannur district committee to an area committee. The latest controversy may invite further disciplinary action including the denial of a ticket.
NADI ASTROLOGY is said to be 5,000 years old and is credited with being able to reveal the past, present and future of all mortals. Starting with a thumb impression, the astrologer matches the print in a vast archive of ancient palm leaf manuscripts. In these, it is believed, are found writings corresponding to every applicant, with all life-details from birth to death.
In his article, Abdullakutty claims the astrologer gave him “almost” correct answers about his birth and family. He was taken aback, he says, when the astrologer asked whether he was an MP or an MLA. “After a while, the astrologer came up with my horoscope and read out all the details of my birth, including the star, date and time of birth. He continued to say things about my past and future but I did not hear them. I was satisfied that I’d got a birthday. That was enough,” the piece concludes.
Abdullakutty says the visit to Vaitheeswaran Koil was an unplanned trip. “I went to Thanjavur to visit old temples. It was just accidental that I happened to hear about the village and I went there from curiosity,” he told TEHELKA. “The party wants members to keep away from ritual and superstition. But what is wrong with people visiting religious places as tourists?”
For the moment, though, the Kerala CPM is trying to play it down. Kannur district secretary P Sasi told TEHELKA: “A visit to a religious centre alone does not invite disciplinary action. We are probing to see whether there is anything else beyond that.”