Syro-Malabar Catholic Church in Kerala shaken by graft row



The Syro-Malabar Church in Kerala is caught in an unprecedented crisis with the Major Archbishop of the church, Cardinal George Alencherry, facing a possible police investigation in a series of land deals that his critics say have landed the archdiocese in financial difficulties and violated both Canon and civil laws.

The turmoil in the Syro-Malabar Church, triggered by open defiance of the Cardinal’s authority by a sizeable section of the clergy over the past few months, might well reach the Pope with the priests submitting a memorandum to the auxiliary bishop demanding that their sentiments be communicated to Rome. The priests, who claim the backing of a majority of 458 of their peers, took out a march to the seat of the archdiocese in Kochi on Friday to submit their memorandum to Auxiliary Bishop Sebastian Edayanthrath.

The priests say that they will not settle for anything less than the Major Archbishop stepping aside till his name is cleared through the police investigation ordered by the Kerala High Court last week.

‘Voice not being heard’

“The community of priests has been forced to raise this demand because we have the feeling that our voice is not being heard,” Father Kuriakose Mundadan, secretary of the council of priests, told The Hindu.

However, others like Father Antony Poothavelil have alleged a conspiracy by a group to remove the Cardinal from his position.

The allegations against Cardinal Alancherry have shaken the Syro-Malabar community of Catholics, numbering about 2.5 million.

The church, which is under the Catholic Church, runs hundreds of educational and social service institutions and is widely considered socially and politically influential. The Kerala High Court ordered the police to register an FIR against the Cardinal and two senior functionaries of the archdiocese on a writ filed by Sherin Varghese, a layman and member of the Archdiocesan Movement for Transparency.

While issuing the order, the Court had observed that there was prima facie evidence to suspect a criminal conspiracy, breach of trust and misappropriation of money in the land deals carried out by the archdiocese.

The Cardinal has been maintaining that he had used the powers vested in him to enter into the land deals but has been put on the defensive, with a report by a committee of experts appointed by the archdiocese faulting him and senior functionaries for violation of Canon and civil laws. Internally, the Church Synod has appointed a five-member committee of bishops to study the land deals, but that has only angered the priests more. The formation of the committee of bishops is being seen by the priests as a ploy to give a quiet burial to the entire issue.

The present crisis had its origins in the Archdiocese buying over 23 acres at Mattoor, near Kochi at the end of May 2015 to set up a medical college with a bank loan of ₹60 crore with a plan to repay the loan from the proceeds of the sale of land owned by the archdiocese at Varantharappilly, near Thrissur.

But the land sale fell through and the archdiocese was not in a position to repay the bank loan. So it was decided that a little more than three acres owned by the archdiocese near Kochi would be sold to repay the loan.

Money did not come

The archdiocese entered into an agreement with its agent for the land sale and it should have received ₹27.30 crore within a month as the plots were to be sold during the period. The amount thus received was to be deposited in the bank to reduce the archdiocese’s loan liability to ₹32 crore.

The plan derailed as the archdiocese did not receive the full amount from the sale of the plots even a year-and-a-half later, in violation of the sale agreement with its agent in June 2016.

The archdiocese received only ₹9.13 crore. The money received from the sale of the plots did not go into repaying the ₹60-crore loan. And an additional bank loan of ₹10 crore was availed without the permission of archdiocesan forums like the Consultative Committee and the Curia for purchase of two plots at a total cost of ₹16.59 crore.

The archdiocese has a total loan liability of ₹84 crore in place of the original liability of ₹60 crore.

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