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 coerced lesbian encounter, being forced to strip in front of a naked priest who then masturbated and being accused of mental instability after she complained to her superiors. (See pictures of young nuns in the U.S. who have taken their vows.)
Since the book's release on Jan. 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 antireligion people in Kerala society," said Stephen Alathara, deputy secretary of the Kerala Catholic Bishops Council. "They are using this for their antisocial, antichurch activities." In 1957 Kerala voted in the world's first democratically elected communist government, and it has been under communist rule since the last state elections in 2006.
A spokesman for the Syro-Malabar order of the Catholic Church, Father Paul Thelakkat, said 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 added that Raphael's allegations are "not especially serious." "The church never claims there's no sin within the church," he said. "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 Feb. 11, Sister Josephine, a nun in the Daughters of Mary congregation in Trivandrum, 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 Aug. 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.