The life of nuns has never been in the news as it is today. Known to work away from the glare of public eye, they have now become a subject matter of discussion everywhere. The unsung heroines of the Church who devote their lives in numerous activities, without much ado, are coming out with disturbing stories of breach of trust, mental harassment and sexual abuse at the very hands which are supposed to protect them.
None can deny the fact that the dedicated service of nuns is behind most of the recognition the Church gets for the well managed hospitals, educational institutions and social work programmes. Apart from the various Church-related activities, they put in exemplary work in taking care of orphans, destitute women and men, the mentally challenged, children with multiple disabilities, and unwed mothers, most of whom are abandoned by the near and dear ones. They constitute the face of the Church to the outside world in many cases.
The institution of nuns, known as women religious, dates back to the early ages of the Church. Women may claim with a certain pride that they were the first to embrace the religious state for its own sake, without ecclesiastical functions proper to men. But, quite often their extraordinary work is undervalued or under-rated. The Church, society, and nuns themselves do not value their work in the same way as their male counterparts. Though one gets to see scattered efforts to place the women religious on a pedestal deserving to their work and status, it is not happening everywhere.
A glimpse into the changes taking place in Vatican would be a bench mark for the women religious across the globe to look forward to changes. Unlike his predecessors, Pope Francis lives in a Vatican guest house which is run like a hotel and takes his meals in the main dining room which is staffed by paid waiters. He went for this drastic change after lambasting the practice of ‘using nuns as cheap labour’. By contrast, the late Pope John Paul had a team of five Polish nuns who ran his household in the papal apartments in the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace. The household of former Pope Benedict, who resigned in 2013, was looked after by about eight female members of a lay Catholic organisation known as Memores Domini.
Turning the focus to the Church in India, one finds that the life of nuns has been rollercoasting in the last few years. Skeletons have tumbled out of many cupboards. If one looks at the most sensational ones, the search goes back to Sr. Abhaya whose body was found in a well in the compound of a convent in Kerala. The case is still going on with clergy in the list of the accused. The world came to know about more harassments of nuns at the hands of both priests and nuns when Sr. Jesme came out with a controversial book titled Amen in which she gave a vivid account of such misdemeanors which make jaws drop. The latest in this series is the allegation of a nun of Missionaries of Jesus that she was sexually assaulted by none else but her own bishop. The episode has gained more weight in the public eye with many priests and nuns coming out in support of the nun. This could be a tip of the ice-berg.
The wails one hears from behind the veils have many aspects to deal with. Though the trigger for the recent acrimony has come from a bishop’s alleged acts of commissions and omissions, equally important is the harassment of nuns being meted out by their own superiors. It would be pertinent to point out specific cases to get a clear picture. There are congregations whose scores of sisters are working abroad and contribute to their income in a big way. Ironically, they do not get enough holidays every year to visit their homes back in India and meet with their dear ones including their parents. On the other hand, foreign nuns, their counterparts, do get to enjoy enough holidays to get away from the rigours of the daily chores. In India, nuns in many congregations are not allowed to use mobile phones or personal e-mail to be in touch with their near and dear ones. There are allegations of discrimination between earning and non-earning members within the same congregation. There are also instances of denial of basic facilities in many convents. It may sound primitive, but it is a fact that in many cases, nuns and novices continue with the unhygienic practice of using clothes during their menstruation period as sanitary pads are a strict ‘no’.
Another area that needs a closer look is the brewing tension between bishops and heads of several congregations on the issue of land ownership. In the recent past, there had been several instances of women religious congregations accusing bishops of forcibly taking over land and institutions handed over to them decades back. In many cases, the women religious had put in their heart and soul in building up such institutions from the scratch. This has created much bad blood between them, leading to trust deficiency.
In many cases, when nuns suffer at the hands of church hierarchy, their superiors do not stand up with the suffering souls because they do not want to displease priests or bishops. Hence, the victims are not willing to come out in the open to report the abuse. Moreover, they are apprehensive that they won’t be believed if they complain against their own superiors, priests or bishops as they are well aware of the power of the authority to ‘strangulate truth’. The fears of the nuns have been proved right to some extent in the ongoing Jalandhar episode wherein efforts are on at various levels to paint the ‘victims’ black.
The biggest casualty in the murky developments is the faith of the people. They are appalled at the situation and the unwillingness of the Church hierarchy to take stern action and contain the damage. No woman religious in Indian Church has previously made public her agony caused allegedly at the hands of a bishop. In the present case, the victim’s plight has forced many of her ilk and priests to come out in support of her. Yet, there seems to be a detestable delay on the part of the Church hierarchy to look into the issue. We are not in a position to ferret out the truth. We are also not pointing an accusing finger at anyone. But one thing perplexes us: The studied silence on the part of the official Church Forums, Commissions, Committees and Organisations. Action, not inaction, justifies the relevance of existence, especially in times of crisis. Sooner the action, the better.(Published on 13th August 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 33)