The Kerala police on Wednesday summoned Bishop Franco Mulakkal of Jalandhar diocese to appear before it on September 19 in connection with the probe into allegations of rape by a nun amid mounting pressure for action against him and continuing protests.
Announcing the decision to summon the clergyman after a meeting where the probe in the case was reviewed, Inspector General of police Vijay Sakhare said the delay in completing the investigation was due to "contradictions" in the statements given by the victim, the witnesses and the accused.
Sakhare said a decision on arresting the bishop could be taken only after ironing out the contradictions in the statements.
The review meeting also finalised the affidavit to be submitted on Thursday in the Kerala high court, which had earlier this week directed the state government to inform it of the steps taken by the Special Investigating Team.
The meeting, chaired by Sakhare, was also attended by Kottayam District Superintendent of Police Harisankar and Vaikom Deputy Superintendent of Police K Subhash, who is heading the SIT probing the case.
"Bishop Franco Mulakkal has been summoned by the investigating officer. He has been asked to appear before the IO on September 19," Sakhare told reporters.
The bishop, who was already questioned by the state police in Jalandhar last month, is expected to be interrogated in Kottayam.
The summons came as the protests by various Catholic Reform organisations and some nuns in Kochi seeking justice for the victim entered the fifth day Wednesday and a plea made before the Kerala high court seeking a CBI probe.
Leaders of the Mahila Congress, the Bharatiya Janata Party and various rights organisations expressed solidarity with the protesters.
The Kerala government made it clear that it stood with the protesting nuns and there was no need for them to be anxious, reiterating that the investigation was going on in the "right direction".
The Kerala Catholic Bishop Council, however, slammed the protests as having "crossed all limits", while noting both the complainant nun and accused bishop were members of Catholic family and the church shared their "wounds and agony".
The nun recently sought urgent intervention of the Vatican for justice and demanded the bishop's removal as the head of the Jalandhar diocese, questioning why the church was "closing its eyes to the truth" when she mustered courage to make public her sufferings.
The nun had accused the clergyman of sexually assaulting her repeatedly between 2014 and 2016.
The bishop, however, dismissed the allegations as "baseless and concocted", insisting she levelled the charges as the Catholic order had rejected her demand for alleged favours.
IG Sakhare said there were lot of contradictions in the case. "And the case is an old case and it is based primarily on oral evidence. It is very difficult to gather scientific and technical evidence," he added.
Police, as part of the investigation, have to ensure that all these contradictions were ironed out. "So that when the charge sheet is submitted we have evidences and we are totally sure about what we are doing and what evidence we have," Sakhare said.
While considering a plea filed by George Joseph K of the Kerala Catholic Church Reformation Movement seeking a court-monitored probe into the case, the court had said, "Law is above all other things and it will take its own course."
The KCBC said the allegation raised against the bishop was 'serious', adding that whoever may be the accused, they should be punished if the charges were proved. "This is the firm stand of the Church," it said.
However, it denounced the protests, saying it "has crossed all limits".
It also alleged attempts by vested interests and a section of media to tarnish the church and the bishop community as a whole under the cover of the protesting nuns and said this was not "acceptable".
Police should not succumb to any kind of pressure and should complete the investigation impartially at the earliest, Vaghese Vallikkat, deputy secretary general and official spokesperson of KCBC, said in a press release.
Senior state minister E P Jayarajan said investigation, covering all aspects, was going on in the "right direction".
"I wish to make one thing very clear. We are with the victim.
"No accused will be allowed to escape the clutches of the law," he told reporters in Thiruvananthapuram.
The government was keen that there should be ample evidence to ensure the prosecution case was strong, he added.
In a related development, a fresh petition was filed in the court Wednesday seeking a CBI probe into the case.
Petitioner V Rajendran from Alappuzha alleged that the investigation was 'ineffective' and police efforts were aimed at protecting the interests of the accused. The petition is likely to be considered Thursday.
In an indication of the Latin Church disowning its Jalandhar Bishop, an organisation attached to the Latin Catholic church issued a statement in Kochi saying that had he resigned from the post when the allegations cropped up, he would have got greater acceptability in the society.
The statement was issued by Shaji George, spokesperson of the Kerala Region Latin Catholic Council (KRLCC), headed by Archbishop of the Thiruvananthapuram archdiocese Soosa Pakiam. The KRLCC criticised Bishop Franco's argument that the personal allegations and criticism against him were part of a move to target the Church as a whole.