KOCHI, India (ChurchMilitant.com) - A priest who was a key witness in a case against a Catholic bishop in India has been found dead, prompting a police investigation.
In June, a religious sister in Kerala of the Missionaries of Jesus went to authorities with her claim that Bp. Franco Mulakkal of the Jalandhar diocese had raped her repeatedly in 2014–2016.
Three other Missionaries of Jesus came forward with similar accusations against Bp. Mulakkal. The bishop firmly denies the allegations. In September, the four nuns took part in a series of sit-in protests demanding that Bp. Mulakkal be prosecuted. Bishop Mulakkal was arrested on Sept. 21 and faces criminal charges for the alleged sexual crimes. He was released on bail on Oct. 16 and awaits trial.
A priest who was a key witness in the case, Fr. Kuriakose Kattuthara, died unexpectedly. Father Kattuthara was found unconscious in his room Monday morning at St. Mary's Church in the town of Dasuya. He was taken to the hospital where he was declared dead.
Father Kattuthara passed away just weeks after he gave a statement to investigators regarding the allegations against Bp. Mulakkal. Reportedly, police are investigating Fr. Kattuthara's death owing to these circumstances.
On Tuesday, an autopsy was performed on Fr. Kattuthara's remains. The procedure was video recorded, there were four doctors present and several of the priest's family members observed the autopsy.
Father Kattuthara's brother, Jose Kurian, has his suspicions about the priest's untimely death.
"My brother had talked to me a week before the death," Kurian said. "He had expressed fear that something may happen to him. We can't believe the Punjab Police version that my brother had died due to cardiac arrest. He had no history of heart ailments."
But Fr. Kattuthara, who was 61, did have some health problems in his old age. Doctor and Sacred Heart Sister Laila Jose, at Sacred Heart Hospital in Jalandhar, said of the priest's condition, "His blood pressure and sugar levels were dangerously high when he visited us a week ago."
The parish where Fr. Kattuthara died, St Mary's Church in Dasuya, is in the diocese of Jalandhar — Bp. Mulakkal's diocese.
Father Kattuthara was born in 1957 and ordained a priest in 1983. Over the years, he served the Jalandhar diocese in various capacities.
The cook at St. Mary's Church knocked on Fr. Kattuthara's door Monday morning but did not get a response. He spoke with religious sisters, who knocked again and got no response. They informed priests in the parish and in nearby parishes. A priest from a nearby parish came, and at 10 a.m., they broke through the door to the priest's room and found Fr. Kattuthara lying unconscious with vomit near his mouth.
Although Bp. Mulakkal's four accusers are all sisters in the Missionaries of Jesus, the religious superior of their congregation maintains the bishop's innocence.
Shortly before his arrest in September, Bp. Mulakkal asked Pope Francis in a letter to allow him to step aside from his role as head of the Jalandhar diocese so he could face the allegations head-on.
The Vatican granted Mulakkal's request. Bishop Agnelo Gracias, an auxiliary bishop emeritus of the Bombay archdiocese, was appointed the apostolic administrator of Jalandhar. An apostolic administrator is a cleric who heads a diocese between bishops. He might be a bishop himself, but he is not technically the bishop of the diocese.
Bishop Mulakkal's arrest in September was the first time in India that a Catholic prelate has been arrested on charges of sexual assault.
In a country with an estimated 1.3 billion people, Christians account for only 2.3 percent of India's population. The country has a large Hindu majority, at 80 percent. India's largest religious minority is Muslims, who make up some 13 percent of the population. The current world population is estimated between 7 billion and 8 billion, which means about one-sixth of the world's population lives in India.
In addition to the Roman rite, there are some eastern Catholic rites that have a long history in India — namely, the Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara rites. Syro-Malabar Catholics trace their origins back to St. Thomas the Apostle.