An Indian court has declined to intervene in the case of a Catholic nun who says she was raped multiple times over a two year period by a bishop, charges he denies.
The case has attracted significant media attention in India, where it remains extremely rare for members of the church to publicly accuse a superior of wrongdoing.
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The ruling comes after an advocacy group filed a petition on behalf of the victim in the Kerala High Court Monday, asking for the immediate arrest of Bishop Franco Mulakkal.
The group, the Kerala Catholic Church Reformation Movement (KCCRM), which is part of an umbrella body of independent groups called the Joint Christian Council, as well as some of the nun's sisters, have accused police of dragging their feet in the investigation due to pressure from local politicians and church leaders. Police deny those allegations and say the investigation is moving ahead.
The court will now review the investigation on September 24.
This is the second time in two months the nun's supporters have petitioned the Kerala High Court to intervene in the case, and both requests have been denied.
The court said Thursday it's understandable that the investigation has taken so long given that two years have passed since the alleged sexual assaults, according to Sandhya Raju, a lawyer working on behalf of the victim for KCCRM.
The 44-year-old nun, who has not been named, first filed a police report in June in Kochi in Kerala, accusing Mulakkal of raping her 13 times from 2014 and 2016. The incidents purportedly occurred while Mulakkal was staying in Kerala in a guest house belonging to the St. Francis Mission Home.
Mulakkal currently serves as the bishop of Jalandhar, a city in India's northern Punjab state.
Representatives for Mulakkal told CNN earlier this week that the Bishop is innocent.
"It is a fake allegation. We are all with the bishop," Father Peter Kavumpuram, a spokesperson for Mulakkal's diocese told CNN on Tuesday.
"We are very clear regarding the conspiracy behind this. Nuns are parading outside when the investigation is going on. There is an anti-Christian movement, people are trying to manipulate the truth," he said.
Christianity is a minority religion in India, practiced by just 2.3% of the total population, but Kerala is home to a sizable Christian community that dates back hundreds of years.
According to recent government figures, the southern state is home to more than 6 million Christians, or 19% of the total population.
Police have said they are looking for more evidence before making an arrest, as it is only the victim's word against the accused.
But because the purported incidents happened more than two years ago, police will have trouble finding any hard evidence, said Jayna Kothari, an attorney and the director of the Center for Law and Policy Research in Bangalore.
"In a rape case, the Supreme Court has repeatedly held that the testimony of the victim should be enough. The problem is that although the criminal procedure court does not give any time limit to file a case, the general practice is that the police become very reluctant to take a criminal complaint if it's filed after a long time," Kothari said.
"Her testimony should be enough, but in practice, if it happened a long time ago, the police try to use that to say we don't know if this person is lying or telling the truth, we want to do more investigations."