Cardinal Error in Kerala

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A land scam puts the head of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, India’s largest and oldest, in a bad spot. How long can he resist a fall from grace?

THE AMIABLE PRIEST who had zealously demanded an inquiry into a series of “opaque” land deals by the Kerala-headquartered Syro-Malabar Catholic Church over the past few years asks me, “Aren’t you familiar with the statement, ‘Something is rotten in the state of Denmark’?” His elation at attracting media attention to an alleged corruption scandal involving someone much superior to him, someone whose authority has never been questioned in the history of the church that traces its origins 2,000 years back, to the time of St Thomas, is inescapable. Cardinal Mar George Alencherry and his close associates are in the eye of a storm over land sales in Kochi that apparently resulted in huge losses to the church. Not only was the head of the church and his senior officials questioned, making it a departure of sorts in the hierarchy- obsessed church, but his name was dragged into the public by some priests angry about alleged violations of canon laws. As one of only five Cardinals from India, Alencherry, 72, is a member of the topmost echelons of the Roman Catholic Church and is thus part of the select pool of priests who name the Pope, who heads the Vatican.

Its own website states proudly, ‘The Syro-Malabar Catholic Church is one of the 22 Eastern (Oriental) Catholic Churches in full communion with Rome. It is the second largest Eastern Catholic Church after the Ukrainian Church and the largest of the Saint Thomas Christian (Nazrani) denominations with 4.6 million believers. It is a sui juris [meaning autonomous under the Catholic Code of Canons of the Oriental Churches] church governed by the Synod of Bishops headed by the Major Archbishop. The Syro-Malabar Church, with its deep-rooted spirituality and high rate of vocations to priesthood and religious life, can be considered as the most vibrant Catholic community in the world.’ It adds: ‘The Syro-Malabar Church is very actively involved in educational, social and health-related fields. The Syro-Malabar Church runs 4,860 educational, 262 ecclesiastical and 2,614 health and charitable institutions. The corporate contribution of the Syro-Malabar Church to nation-building is inestimable.’

Such a display of pride, without doubt, is a reflection the church’s influence, assets and longevity in India. Mar George Alencherry, for his part, is the first head of the Syro-Malabar Church to be elected by its Synod, which in Catholic parlance denotes an advisory body.

Powerful he may be, but Alencherry is now under unprecedented attack from within for selling more than three acres of church land in Kochi and nearby areas at prices way below market rates. The proceeds were to be used for a medical college run by the church. While the church has so far received only less than Rs 10 crore in the whole transaction out of around Rs 27 crore estimated by an agent, some of the protesting priests say that the plots were worth upwards of Rs 80 crore. They came out with a report after an extensive, months-long study.

Cardinal Alencherry does have his set of supporters within the church who aver that there has been a misinformation campaign against him, but things are far from blowing over with the Synod of the Syro-Malabar Church constituting a five-member committee of bishops agreeing to probe the controversial land deal in the Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese. The committee, headed by Archbishop Mathew Moolakkattu, comprises Bishops Jacob Manathodath, Thomas Chakyat, George Madathikandathil and Antony Kariyil. It is authorised to ‘hold necessary discussions and find a solution’, according to statement by the church. Alencherry’s detractors allege that a land mafia had a role in the real-estate transfers. A small section of the faithful contends that the whole inquiry is only a ruse to save the Cardinal. They didn’t, however, elaborate on their accusation.

Alencherry is under unprecedented attack for selling more than three acres of church land at around Rs 27 crore. Some protesting priests say the plots were worth upwards of Rs 80 crore

True, there has been high drama after the controversy came to light—and was lapped up by dissenting priests. According to two people close to the church, a group of priests had done “a thorough probe for almost a year” of the land sales before they confronted Alencherry with bare facts. Early last month, Alencherry initially responded to charges of impropriety and lack of transparency in the transaction with a sense of shock and concealed anger. Later, he stayed away from discussions citing health reasons. In early January, he was admitted to a hospital for the removal of artery blocks, according to a report. But some of the priests of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church who Open spoke to say that its “timing was suspect”. The Cardinal was hospitalised in Kochi’s Lisie Hospital, which, according to its website, was ‘founded in 1956, as a charitable institution, [and] is the living expression of the apostolic concern and social responsibility of the Archdiocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly’. Cardinal Alencherry is also the Archbishop of the Ernakulam-Angamaly Archdiocese. Open has not able to independently verify charges that the Cardinal was feigning illness.

Last month, while the All India Catholic Almaya Forum continued to urge the warring priests and other faithfuls to stop their campaign against the Cardinal, the Presbyteral Council of the Ernakulam-Angamaly Archdiocese, according to various reports, ‘shot off a letter to the Bishops to take up the issue in the Synod’ complaining of serious violation of not only canon laws but civil ones as well. The Council looks after the administrative affairs of the church. One of the members had distributed a note, setting off the confrontation between a large section of highly vocal priests on one side and the Cardinal and his supporters on the other.

Before the Synod named a five-member panel to inquire into the land deals, Alencherry had refused to attend the Presbyteral Council meeting that was to draft the complaint to the Pope. The meeting couldn’t be held because Alencherry is president of the council. Just minutes before the meeting, the Cardinal wrote to the council—in what many consider a lame excuse—that some members of the laity stopped him from attending the meeting and he was forced to ‘postpone’ it.

IN AN APPARENT embarrassment for the Cardinal, the permanent Synod of Syro-Malabar Church, which has four members other than Alencherry, observed on New Year that the Cardinal had not been vigilant while handling the land deals which led to the loss of such a huge sum to the Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese.

Sensing disquiet, on January 8th, Alencherry offered a tactful apology, expressing regret over the lapses—which he reportedly termed as ‘technical’—at the Church Synod. Though the discussion on the issue that had kicked up controversy had not been on the agenda, the mood among other attendees was palpable, according to people in the know. The matter is expected to be taken up for discussion shortly.

Meanwhile, the Kerala Catholic Association for Justice lodged a complaint with the police accusing top officials of the church of corruption. Its president, Paulachan Puthupara, according to a report in The New Indian Express, charged the Cardinal and the priests with committing ‘a criminal offence by evading tax and stamp duty and selling the church property at a throwaway price’.

Asked if the Vatican would make a pronouncement on the case, Presbyteral Council Secretary Father Kuriakose Mundadan says he is sure “they have already come to know of the matter”

The Presbyteral Council secretary, Father Kuriakose Mundadan, tells Open that he is glad that the Synod has taken the controversy over the land deals seriously. “Definitely there was a lack of transparency and violation of laws,” he said, emphasising that he wouldn’t “judge” the Cardinal, because only the Pope has the right to do that. He hastens to add that he isn’t impressed with reports that the whole thing has turned into a “Cardinal versus priests” fight. “Some of us are just seeking the truth,” he says, seeking to distance himself from the media projection of a major standoff within the church.

Asked if the Vatican would make a pronouncement on the case, Mundadan says that he is sure “they have already come to know of the matter since it is in public domain and several media reports have come out”.

Though he doesn’t spell out clearly that this kind of a furore within the church is a first in India, Mundadan adds, “In my 25 years of ordination, I have never heard of something like this in our church”. Several priests had said that they didn’t want to remain silent after having come to know of such a major scam. One of them tells Open that “it is not those who are speaking out against, but those who want to suppress us who are defaming the Syro-Malabar Church”, which has more than 4.6 million followers and 35 dioceses under it. At least two priests close to the matter state that despite the sweeping powers and the influence of the Cardinal, the deal has become the talk of the town “notwithstanding his efforts to duck the issue and flee from discussions”.

Indian Currents, a weekly news and views magazine owned by Indian Current Publications, ‘under the patronage of the Capuchins of Krist Jyoti Province of North India’, was to run a cover story on the reportedly flawed Kochi land deals, titled ‘Cardinal Sin’. But it withdrew the report later ‘under obedience’. In a disclosure to The Hindu, its chief editor Suresh Mathew said he was asked by ‘his superior to withhold the uploading of the cover story on the land deal ...and wait until the report on the land deal came out so that there would be a more complete picture’. But a file of the story had been leaked by then. A blurb in the leaked report said, ‘At the core of the fast-escalating controversy concerning the financial incongruity and misappropriation of assets within the church is a laity that has for eons looked up to and revered the clergy always respectful, always dutiful, (and) always compliant.’ The leaked article argues that ‘the Kerala Syro-Malabar Church faces its worst crisis in recent history over a land row in the Archdiocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly’. The cover story was meant to put the spotlight on prime land sales—totalling more than three acres which reportedly includes a plot of land meant only for charitable purposes and not for sale.

One of the priests Open spoke to says that “these details” could only be the tip of the iceberg of “rampant corruption” in the church. Another says that the priests had to do “extreme hard work” to unearth the alleged improprieties in the land deals. They continue to insist on remedial measures that include resignation of top officials of the church. The Cardinal couldn’t be contacted despite repeated attempts.

According to sources in the church, the plots of land were sold in 36 small portions. The major plots sold include 60 cents near Thikkakara Bharat Mata College, 69 cents on Seaport-Airport road; one acre near Kakkanad; 20 cents at Nilampathinjamugal and so on.

Though the authority of cardinals is rarely challenged in India, with the probable exception of this case, several people occupying similar positions overseas have faced extreme scrutiny and disciplinary action. The late Bernard Law, an American Cardinal, had to relinquish his posts after an investigative report uncovered his role in shielding priests involved in sexual abuse and paedophilia. Cardinal Keith O’Brien of Scotland was another one who was asked to resign by the Pope over sexual misdemeanours. Various other senior priests abroad had to vacate their positions over financial irregularities and sexual controversies. Several of them were, for years, protected by the church that had come under sharp attack for being soft on paedophiles and very senior officials accused of malpractice.

The hierarchical structure of the church still remains rigid and top officials continue to walk away with impunity despite scores of charges against them. Priests who are demanding that the truth be told about a set of land deals in Kochi hope that things are going to be different this time round. “This is an incident that should become global news and a lesson for those who go astray. We would pray for a great outcome,” says one of them. But then, historically, in the church’s scheme of things, crimes of the powerful are not often followed by befitting punishment.