Pressure is mounting on Cardinal George Alencherry, head of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church based in Kerala, to resign after allegations that church land had been sold below market value in a deal that he had approved.
Alencherry, 72, was ordained as a Cardinal, a priest of the highest rank in the Roman Catholic Church, by Pope Benedict XVI in February 2012. He is one of only five Cardinals in India.
The deal in question concerns the sale of three acres of land in Kochi by the Ernakulam archdiocese in 2016 to repay a Rs 60-crore bank loan it had taken to build a medical college. The agent appointed by the church to conduct the deal had estimated the value of the land at Rs 27.30 crore, but the church has so far received only Rs 9.13 crore of that amount.
However, priests and lay people critical of the action claim that the plot was actually worth at least Rs 80 crores.
Joseph Parecattil, a priest in the Ernakulam archdiocese, said that the Presbyteral Council of the Ernakulam archdiocese has decided to submit a formal request to the Pope to inquire into these financial dealings. The Presbyteral Council is a panel of 57 priests that looks after the archdiocese’s financial and administrative affairs.
“This is the first-ever complaint from a Presbyteral Council in Kerala to the Pope requesting him to investigate financial irregularities,” said Parecattil.
Another priest, who asked to remain anonymous, said Alencherry should step down if the Pope acts on the complaint. “He would have to quit to ensure free and fair investigation,” he added.
Separately, the charitable organisation Mother Teresa Global Foundation has also sent a complaint to the Pope, urging him to remove the Cardinal from his post. “We represent the laity,” said VJ Hycinth, chairman of the foundation. “We pray to the Pope to take our complaint seriously.”
The Cardinal may have to answer to the police as well. Polachan Puthuppara, president of the Kerala Catholic Association for Justice, filed a complaint with the police on January 3, asking that the Cardinal and two priests, Joshy Puthuva and Monsignor Sebastian Vadakkumpadan, be charged with corruption. They have committed a crime, he alleged, by selling church property without paying tax and stamp duty. No case has been registered so far.
“The land was sold under its market value,” alleged a priest named Augustine Vattoli. “It should have fetched at least Rs 80 crore. Who is responsible for this massive loss?”
The Permanent Synod of the Syro-Malabar Church, a council of five bishops entrusted with helping with the administrative affairs of the church, has also criticised the Cardinal for the deal, claiming that he had not been vigilant enough during the sale.
In a note to fellow priests on December 28, Auxiliary Bishop Sebastian Adayanthrath raised concerns about the sale. “Moreover, lack of transparency and ignorance of canon law raises serious moral concerns too,” the note read.
In his note, Adayanthrath also announced that a committee comprising three priests, a chartered accountant, a tehsildar and a lawyer would look into the deal. People familiar with the situation said that the committee submitted its report on Friday.
The Presbyteral Council was scheduled to convene on Thursday to draft the complaint to the Pope but the meeting was postponed. “Some members of the laity stopped me from attending the meeting,” Cardinal Alencherry wrote to the council a few minutes before the meeting was to begin. “I am forced to postpone the meeting.”
Since Alencherry is the president of the council, the meeting could not be held without him.
Some priests, however, said that this decision was suspect. “It was a planned move to thwart the submitting of the memorandum to the Pope,” said Parecattil. “If the Cardinal fails to convene the council meeting within a week, the council secretary Father Kuriakose Mundadan has the power to send the memorandum.”
Only the Pope has the authority to take action against a Cardinal. “That is why the council has decided to write to the Pope,” said Vattoli.
Will it counsel the Cardinal’s ouster? “No, we are not supposed to raise such a demand,” Vattoli said. “It is up to the Pope to take a decision. But we feel that Cardinal Alencherry should stay away from his office, taking moral responsibility.”
Adding fuel to the controversy, a magazine published by the church over the weekened was asked to withhold a report on the sale. The cover story of Indian Currents, titled Cardinal Sin, described how the land deal had landed the archdiocese in a “mess”, and had taken the credibility of the Catholic Church “on a slippery slope”, The Hindu reported.
The story was to have been published on the publication’s website on Saturday morning. Indian Currents Chief Editor Suresh Mathew told The Hindu that his superior had asked him to hold the story until the church’s internal investigation into the deal was over.
Scroll.in sent several text messages and phoned the Cardinal and the archdiocese’s spokesperson for their comments, but they were unavailable. This story will be updated as and when they respond.