October 22, 2018 / 11:15 AM / 10 months ago

Indian police investigate death of key witness in nun rape case

NEW DELHI/KOCHI (Reuters) - Indian police are investigating the death of a witness in a case involving the alleged rape of a nun by a Roman Catholic bishop, after the body of the witness, a priest who had given a statement to police against the bishop, was found on Monday.

Bishop Franco Mulakkal (2nd R), accused of raping a nun, is escorted by police outside a crime branch office on the outskirts of Kochi in the southern state of Kerala, India, September 21, 2018. REUTERS/Sivaram V

The death comes as India’s Christian community is reeling from a string of cases - including the arrests of five priests in August on allegations of sexual assault.

Police said the body of Kuriakose Kattuthara, a Catholic priest who police said had spoken to them about Bishop Franco Mulakkal, was found in his room in a church in the northern state of Punjab.

“There were no blood marks on his body, and we are investigating the cause of death,” said Achhru Ram, a senior Punjab state police official in the Dasuya region.

Mulakkal, bishop of the Diocese of Jalandhar in Punjab, was arrested in the southern state of Kerala last month on charges of raping the nun.

The Kerala nun had accused him of raping her repeatedly over a period of two years. Just before his arrest, the Vatican had accepted a request from the bishop to be temporarily relieved of his pastoral duties.

He is now on bail.

Neither Mulakkal nor his lawyers have made any public comment since his arrest though he has denied the charges in media interviews in the past.

He did not immediately respond to email requests seeking comment on Monday.

The diocese of Jalandhar said in a statement on its web site that Mulakkal had expressed sadness over “the sudden demise” of Kattuthara.

Kerala police had said earlier that Kattuthara was a prosecution witness who had given them a statement.

Outside India, the Catholic Church is facing sexual abuse scandals in the United States, Chile, Australia, Germany and other countries.

Reporting by Sudarshan Varadhan in NEW DELHI and Jose Devasia in KOCHI; Editing by Robert Birsel

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