A former nun’s tell-all story which details illicit relationships, sexual harassment and bullying in the convent where she spent three decades is causing ructions in the Catholic Church in the south Indian state of Kerala.
In Amen – an autobiography of a nun, Sister Jesme says when she became a nun she discovered priests were forcing novices to have sex with them.
There were also secret homosexual relationships among the nuns and at one point she was forced into such a relationship by another nun who told her she preferred this kind of arrangement as it ruled out the possibility of pregnancy.
“I did not want to make this book controversial. I want to express my feelings and to explain what happened to me … I want people to know how I have suffered,” she said, speaking from the town of Kozhikode.
Sister Jesme, who quit last year as the principal of a Catholic college in Thrissur, alleges senior nuns tried to have her committed to a mental institution after she spoke out against them.
She also alleges that while senior staff turned a blind eye to the actions of more experienced nuns, novices were strongly punished, even for minor transgressions.
When she resigned as a college principal, she claimed convents had become “houses of torture”, saying: “The mental torture was unbearable. When I questioned the church’s stand on self-financing colleges and certain other issues, they accused me of having mental problems. They have even sent me to a psychiatrist. There are many nuns undergoing ill-treatment from the order, but they are afraid of challenging it. The church is a formidable fortress.”
The allegations are not the only controversy to rock the Catholic Church in Kerala. Last summer, a 23-year-old novice committed suicide and left a note saying she had been harassed by her Mother Superior.
Reports suggest there have been a number of similar suicides. And in November, police in Kerala arrested two priests and a nun in connection with the killing of Sister Abhaya in a notorious 1992 murder.
Last night, a spokesman for the Syro-Malabar order of the Catholic Church, Dr Paul Thelakkat, dismissed Sister Jesme’s allegations as a “book of trivialities”.
“It’s her experiences, but these are things that might creep into a society of communal living,” he said. Asked if the church would be shocked by the allegations, he replied: “Absolutely not. The church knows about these things.”
Bookshops throughout India’s Christian communities in Kerala have already sold out of Amen, the autobiography of Sister Jesme, who has alleged that priests and nuns not only broke their vows of celibacy with each other but regularly forced novices to have sex with them.
The Catholic Church in India is mired in a series of sexual controversies, and has only just begun to recover from the dismissal of a senior bishop who “adopted” an attractive 26-year-old female companion as his “daughter”.
The book by the former nun reveals how as a young novice she was propositioned in the confession box by a priest who cited biblical references to “divine kisses”. Later she was cornered by a lesbian nun at a college where they were teaching. “She would come to my bed in the night and do lewd acts and I could not stop her,” she claims.
When she was sent to Bangalore to stay with a priest known for his piety, he lectured her about the need for “physical love” and later assaulted her.