State government acquits Indian cardinal over disputed property deals
MUMBAI, India — A cardinal who leads India’s Syro-Malabar Church has been cleared by his state government of wrongdoing charges related to property deals that allegedly resulted in losses of around $10 million. The financial controversy led to protests from some of his own clergy and laity, and his temporary loss of administrative authority by Vatican edict in 2018.
Government officials in the state of Kerala, home to Cardinal Mar George Alencherry’s Ernakulam-Angamaly Archdiocese, recently filed an affidavit with India’s Supreme Court claiming nothing illegal took place. regarding land transactions.
The Syro-Malabar Church is one of 22 Eastern churches in full communion with Rome, claiming around 2.5 million followers in Kerala and 4.25 million worldwide.
Last year, a state court in Kerala ruled that Alencherry and others involved in the land sales should face trial, a decision the 77-year-old prelate appealed to the Supreme Court. In its affidavit, the Kerala government said it incorporated the results of a police investigation.
The controversy dates back to 2016, when Alencherry decided to sell land to repay a bank loan, which had been taken out to finance the construction of a medical school.
Groups calling themselves the “Save the Archdiocese Campaign” and the “Archidiocesan Movement for Transparency,” which include both clergy and laity, have claimed that Alencherry circumvented the controls on such transactions established by canon law and , in doing so, sold land at well below its market value.
These protests led the Vatican to decide in June 2018 to withdraw administrative authority from Alencherry, appointing a temporary administrator to oversee the finances of the archdiocese. The cardinal’s authority was restored by the Vatican a year later.
Last year, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Oriental Churches approved a plan to sell other plots of land to recoup losses from the initial transactions. The move sparked further protests from local clergy and laity, who insisted the land was theirs.
In the new affidavit, Kerala officials said the decisions to buy and sell land were made after holding consultations outlined in the Catholic Church‘s own Code of Canon Law, as well as established rules. by the Archdiocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly.
Despite complaints that Alencherry acted without consultation, the affidavit says talks about the bank loan and land sales were held with three church governing bodies, including the archdiocese’s finance board.
The minutes of those discussions, according to the affidavit, were filed with the court.
Talk to NodeFather Paul Thelakat, a former spokesman for the Synod of Syro Malabar, the governing body of the Alencherry-led church, said the affidavit raises questions as to why India’s tax authority imposed a fine to the archdiocese, as well as why law enforcement authorities had complained.
“The Kerala police and government should have been a bit more careful lest some suspect an unholy connection,” Thelakat said.
However, one of the priests critical of Alencherry’s role in the deals, Father Jose Vailikodath, told local media that the affidavit is a “political ploy” by Kerala’s ruling party to garner Catholic votes.
“There are no two opinions that the affidavit submitted by the government is false and worthless,” Vailikodath said.
A lay activist from the Archdiocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly agreed.
“If the government thinks it can garner votes based on this action, it needs to remember that times have changed,” said Binu John, a host of one of Alencherry’s critical secular groups.
Land deals were not the only controversies surrounding Alencherry’s tenure.
In 2019, Kerala police accused a Catholic bishop of repeatedly raping a nun, although the bishop denied the allegations. Church members have filed a petition against Alencherry accusing it of failing to follow up on the nun’s allegations.
Earlier this year, Alencherry was forced to lead Holy Week celebrations under police protection following a wave of protests over liturgical changes, including the decision to standardize the practice of the priest facing the faithful at the start of mass, then turn to the altar after the offertory.
Some priests in Ernakulam-Angamaly objected, insisting they had been celebrating Mass facing the people for half a century, prompting Pope Francis to send a letter ordering clergy to implement the changes .