Kottayam: Former Bishop of Jalandhar Diocese Franco Mulakkal was acquitted of all charges in the nun rape case by the Additional Sessions Court here on Friday.
Additional Sessions Judge G Gopakumar pronounced the verdict after a trial that lasted for more than 100 days.
The court pronounced a single-line verdict that the accused has been acquitted and relieved of all charges. The court said it in both English and Malayalam.
A visibly relieved and emotional Mulakkal, who arrived in the court to hear the verdict, burst into tears, hugged his followers and lawyers, sharing his joy over the verdict.
"Praise the Lord," the former bishop said with folded hands while leaving the court premises soon after the verdict. He didn't respond to the questions posed by the media.
In a brief Malayalam statement issued soon after the verdict, the Jalandhar diocese thanked those who believed in the innocence of the Bishop till date and provided him with the necessary legal assistance.
Some of his followers were even seen crying out of joy knowing the acquittal of the bishop.
Special prosecutor Jithesh J Babu and Subin K Varghese appeared for the prosecution while senior lawyers K Raman Pillai and C S Ajayan argued the case for the accused.
Advocate Raman Pillai said truth prevailed. "The allegation was false. It was evident that the case was cooked up. There was no reliable evidence of rape," he told Manorama News.
He said he was not at all apprehensive of the prosecution moving higher courts.
Lawyer Ajayan said the witnesses' statements were in favour of the accused. "As many as 39 witnesses were tried. There was no witnesses or documents to corroborate the victim's allegations," he told reporters after the verdict. He added that a TV interview also became a crucial evidence in favour of the bishop.
Unfortunate verdict: former SP Harishankar
Former Kottayam SP Harishankar, who headed the investigation, termed the verdict unfortunate and unprecedented.
"The verdict is highly unfortunate. This case will be unprecedented in the Indian judiciary. The nun's existence was dependent on the accused. She was not in a position to come out against the accused in a haste. She had to suffer in silence for a long time," he said.
"There have been a lot of corroborative evidence and witnesses. It's a case in which many common people came forward as witnesses. There were three medical evidences as well. We can look at this verdict only with shock. There is a social angle to this case also. The nun in the case came forward as she got a last chance. There could be many situations where exploitation takes place in fiduciary relationships like orphanages and care homes. We should check what kind of a message is this verdict passing to society," an emotional Harishankar said.
DYSP K Subhash, the investigation officer, also said the verdict was unexpected. "The victim was in a circumstances where she had no place to complain to. The court should have treated the case that way," he said.
Echoing the same sentiments, Public Prosecutor Jithesh J Babu said despite the victim's statement, the verdict came out like this.
"This could not be accepted", he said, adding that the verdict will be challenged in the higher court after getting the approval of the government.
Intense security outside court
The police had intensified the security within and outside the court premises ahead of the verdict.
Bomb squads and dog squads conducted a search on the court premises earlier today.
The former bishop reached the court shortly after 9.30am.
The case against the then Bishop was registered by the Kottayam police in 2018. Trial in the case had started in November 2019.
In her complaint to the police in June 2018, the nun belonging to a congregation under Jalandhar diocese had alleged that she was subjected to sexual abuse by the bishop during the period between 2014 and 2016.
The Special Investigation team which probed the case, arrested Franco and charged him under various sections of Indian Penal Code, including 342 (punishment for wrongful confinement), 377 (Unnatural Sex), 376 (c)(a) sexual intercourse by person in authority, 376(2)(k) (indulging in sexual intercourse by exhorting authority), and 506 (criminal intimidation).
The court had restrained the print and electronic media from publishing any matter relating to the trial in the case without its permission.
The Supreme Court had earlier directed Franco to face trial as it dismissed his plea seeking discharge in the case lodged against him by her, saying there was no merit in his petition.
In his plea Franco had challenged the July 7 Kerala High Court order, dismissing his discharge plea. The High Court had asked him to stand for trial.
The senior priest of the Roman Catholic Church had filed the revision petition following the dismissal of his discharge plea by a trial court in March 2020.