Bengaluru: “We will not back out until they arrest the bishop," said Sister Anupama over the phone from outside Kerala high court in Ernakulam district, where she and four other nuns are standing up for their colleague, who was allegedly sexually abused by a senior Catholic priest. The nuns are holding a fasting protest outside the court, the first such in Kerala, demanding the arrest of the accused, Franco Mulakkal, head of the Jalandhar diocese.

The protest is the latest development in the sex abuse scandal. On 28 June, the police booked a case against the bishop for allegedly raping a 46-year-old Catholic nun from the Missionaries of Jesus, a congregation in Kottayam district’s Kuruvilangadm of which he is the patron. The scandal is a major setback for the Catholic Church, which has been grappling with three other such cases in Kerala, including one in which the victim was a minor.

But in this case, ironically, the one who is grappling with the problem as much as the Church is the state’s ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, and its chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan.

Vijayan, who as home minister rules the police force, is in the US for medical treatment. He has been targeted by angry protesters who accuse the police of inaction.

“It has been 73 days since the case is booked. Why has he not been arrested so far? The victim was called for questioning several times but he was questioned only once. We believe there is a conspiracy to overturn the case in his favour," said Anupama.

The nuns’ protest has not gone unnoticed. On Sunday, they were joined by official spokesperson of the Syro Malabar Church, senior priest belonging to Ernakulam-Angamali diocese Father Paul Thelekatt, Congress member of legislative assembly (MLA) P.T .Thomas and former Kerala high court judge B. Kemal Pasha, among others.

Kerala Catholic Youth Movement (KCYM) and V.S. Achuthanandan, a veteran communist and Left MLA, have also declared solidarity with the nuns.

“I heard a statement from the DGP (Director General of Police) in today’s newspaper, that they have reached almost the end of the investigation. Does he have any shame? If the investigation has almost reached its end, why is the accused still roaming free? I believe there is a give and take policy here. The accused has even not applied for an anticipatory bail so far, he is fully aware that no court in India will give him immunity from the arrest," said Pasha.

Meanwhile, P C George, an independent MLA who has been seen drawing closer to the left camp, in a press meet attacked the victim on Sunday, calling her a prostitute, which kicked up a furore. The victim cancelled a scheduled press interaction, her first, on Sunday, reportedly upset at the attack.

Thomas said the overall nature of the investigation raises doubts on whether the police is fraught with political difficulties. It seems the government is worried of running into trouble with the church, which is completely ill-founded, he said. CPM secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan had denied any interference with the investigation.

To be sure, the communists have not always been in good terms with the Church in Kerala but have been trying to warm up to it under Vijayan. For instance, in a crucial bypoll in May, they ran a rigorous whisper campaign fronting BJP as the villain for its so-called Hindutva politics, and projecting themselves as the protector, Mint reported on 27 May.

Indirectly, the local Orthodox church also took a stand to support the CPM, shifting from its decades-long loyalty to the Congress. Both these strategies seem to have paid off.

The bishop has denied any wrong-doing. He had earlier said the rape complaint was filed as a counter-complaint of his’, accusing the nun and her family of threatening and blackmailing him. The police said they are speeding up the investigation.

“The case has not reached my level, it is investigated by the IG (Inspector General) now. So I haven’t reviewed it, but have told IG to quicken the investigation and close it within 15 days," said Loknath Behra, DGP, head of Kerala police.