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Religion: Trafficking in Nuns?

4 minute read

The state of Kerala, in southwest India, is overpopulated even by Indian standards, and life is hard for its 20 million residents. For the state’s 2,600,000 Latin-and Syrian-rite Catholics, the burden is even heavier. Strictly loyal to papal birth-control teachings, Catholic families, some with incomes of less than $350 a year, often have between eight and 15 children. Thus dowries for marriageable girls are out of the question. Under such conditions, an opportunity to send a daughter off to a European convent was like a godsend—and hundreds of families took advantage of it.

Last week, however, the practice raised an international furor. London’s Sunday Times, borrowing partially from a June story in the U.S. National Catholic Reporter, set it off by charging that empty convents in Europe were “buying Indian peasant girls from the [Indian] Catholic hierarchy.” The Italian press quickly picked up the expose. British, Italian and Indian Parliaments rang with demands for an investigation. An Indian M.P. called the practice “slave trade.” Girls were pressed into service as menials, the reports charged, while Indian clergy made a tidy profit.

The Vatican scolded the press for sensationalism, and indeed the situation was not as serious as claimed. But at the very least, reported TIME Correspondents James Shepherd from New Delhi and Wilton Wynn from Rome, church controls over the importation of Indian novices into Europe had been woefully inadequate.

Romantic Turnabout. Ironically, the idea had been encouraged during the Second Vatican Council, which saw a kind of romantic turnabout in former missionary countries sending pious novices to understaffed convents in Europe, where vocations were dwindling.

In practice, however, the idea went sour. The convents—principally in Italy, Germany, France and Great Britain—did not actually “buy” the girls but did pay their expenses, often a flat fee of between $600 and $800 to cover transportation and warm clothing. The girls were supposed to be 18, have their high school diplomas (not difficult in Kerala, where education is free), and be trained in the language of their new country. In fact, many of the estimated 1,500 recruits were often younger (some were 15), did not have diplomas and spoke little more than Malayalam, the language of Kerala. It was also true that some clerics who sent them turned a profit on the transaction, since the girls traveled on student fares and required less than $150 in other expenses.

No one seems to have made a personal fortune on the profits, which went mainly into diocesan funds in India. Even the most notorious recruiter, Father Cyriac Puthenpura, who enlisted at least 500 novices himself, seems to have used his profits for a beneficent purpose: to build the Nirmala Bhavan (Home of the Pure of Heart) Secular Institute for girls in Kerala’s Ettumannur district. In his zeal, however, Puthenpura may have oversold his audience. His recruits did not, as he claimed, “live like princesses” in Europe. Like novices everywhere, they had to wash dishes, scrub floors, and perform other menial tasks.

Recruiting Stopped. Such misrepresentation and the lack of training appear to have been the most serious injustices. With only three weeks of language instruction, the novices from India found convent life even more difficult because they could not communicate. To complicate the problem, not all the girls wanted to become nuns: many wanted to learn teaching or nursing and hoped eventually to be sent back to their homeland. Still others apparently wanted only to escape from the problems of Kerala.

The nervous breakdown of one of Puthenpura’s recruits finally brought some limited Vatican action. When Novice Mary Kutty was hospitalized in Florence in 1969, her language teacher fought for her return to India. Puthenpura failed to respond, but the convent finally sent her back and she promptly recovered. Last February papal Secretary of State Jean Cardinal Villot ordered all recruiting to stop. In June papal nuncios in Europe were ordered to interview every Indian novice; Rome’s investigation is still going on.

What is remarkable is the fact that more nuns have not complained and that many of the young Indian girls have adjusted well to convent life. The Vatican weekly, L’Osservatore della Domenica, this week published a story on happy Indian novices, including some ready to take their vows. But others are still disillusioned. In a letter released to the press, Anna E.T. Elakattu, a novice in Italy, described the details of her drudgery. “They tell us they bought us for 6,000 rupees,” she added dramatically. “What can we slaves do?” The letter made big news in Italy and in Indian political circles, but it was lost on some Keralans. At last report, they were still asking how they might send their daughters to one of those marvelous convents in Europe.

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