Jyeshtha Krushna Shashthi
Mumbai: Former nun Sister Jesme talks to Aastha Atray Banan about her controversial autobiography Amen, in which she speaks out about sexual abuse in a convent.
Sister Jesme, the author of Amen: The Autobiography of a Nun, insists the Church asked for trouble through their repeated efforts to have her declared insane.
Jesme, who started her religious training in June 1974 taught at two Catholic colleges in Thrissur she was vice-principal at one and principal at another, for three years each.
She left the Congregation of Mother of Carmel in August 2008, after applying for voluntary retirement from service in the college.
This book, which she says she chose to write as "people around me have the right to know what happens inside the prison-like enclosures in their very midst", was first published in Malayalam, but Jesme wanted it to be released in English.
Although foreign and Indian TV news channels and papers chased her for the story, she chose to pen her autobiography.
The book, which is a shocking expose of what goes on behind the four walls of a convent, talks of nuns who come from underprivileged backgrounds being treated as menial labourers, of the church trying to keep the SC/ST seats for anyone who can afford to pay for them, and of rampant same sex and opposite sex relations between nuns and priests.
The author, who alleges that she was molested by a fellow nun, now lives a "life of peace" in a hamlet three hours from Calicut as a "law-abiding" citizen. "This book had to be written not only to prove that I was sane, but it’s also a plea for the reformation of the church," she says in an interview over the phone.
You had been noticing the goings-on of the Church since the time you joined the convent. How did you keep the faith?
I am different from other nuns I am not being boastful, but I was born with many talents, so I rose above all of it. Also, suffering made me a better person. I have suffered so much that now I have a doctorate in it (chuckles). I can stand up against anything.
You speak of class distinctions between the poorer nuns and the richer ones. Which side were you on?
I always helped the poorer nuns, and I was reprimanded for that. Soon, they gave up on me because they used to see me sitting in the kitchens with the nuns who were told to work there. But when I was told not to mingle with them, I decided to do it even more.
You write of being sexually molested by a fellow nun, and in one instance, by a priest. How did you cope?
I was very innocent, being only 17 when I joined the convent. At the church, we were told to not even touch each other. The nun who molested me had ‘played’ with other sisters as well. I finally rebelled and told the administration that they either had to transfer her or me to another convent. She was finally sent away, and all this made me stronger in my resolve. My God helped me.
But all this is very common, as I have mentioned in my book. Young sisters have sex with people outside the church as well, as only when they address their sexual side, can they bear to stay at the convent.
You say that the seats reserved for SC/ST are tampered with to keep those for the management. Why is this done?
Because they can be sold to make money. These seats are later sold to the ministers and other moneyed people.
Do you ever meet other nuns like you who want to speak out?
Yes, I get calls every day from nuns who are suffering and wish to speak out. One nun called me the other day and told me that a priest has eloped with a girl and even taken money from the church. They tell me that they don’t have the guts to speak out, so they hope I will speak on their behalf. They have trust in my ability to speak the truth, and I won’t disappoint them.
Extract 1 from Amen: The Autobiography of a Nun
Reaching Bangalore station, I get off the train and see the priest impatiently waiting for me. After breakfast, despite my reluctance, he takes me to Lalbagh. He has a hidden agenda in taking me there, I soon realise.
Pointing to each couple beneath the trees, he holds forth on the need for physical love. Then he tells me of cases of priests and bishops who have illicit relationships with women. Later, I am taken to his room for coffee prepared by him.
… he comes and embraces me hard, almost suffocating me. When I struggle to escape his clutches, he squeezes my breasts and asks me to show them to him.
Refusing him angrily, I get up to leave, but he forces me to sit down, asking: "Have you seen a man?" In no time, he undresses himself.
Now I am curious enough to watch! I have read in novels about this, but never seen one with my own eyes.
After a while, he shows me a milky liquid oozing from there and lectures me on the "thousands of lives" it has.
Although I resist undressing myself, after repeated persuasion, I oblige, and show him "a female" on the condition that it will be for a twinkle of an eye.
Gradually, I find that Sister Vimy is ‘after’ me. She writes pages of ‘love letters’ and leaves them in my canonical prayer books. As I don’t respond, Sr Vimy turns against me.
The sisters realise that her anger is because of me spurning her advances. Indirectly, they hint that I should cooperate with her. As there is none to rescue me, I am forced to succumb to her attentions for a while.
While all are asleep at night, she creeps into my bed and does indecent things to me which I hate, but cannot combat. She tells me that she is cautious to have sex only with women, lest she becomes pregnant.
Referring to her former friend and sister, Sr Vimy wonders how she escapes pregnancy because occasionally she goes to the priests for sex.