One of the untold sad stories of recent times in India is the corruption within churches who distributed aid following the pogrom against Christians in Orissa in 2007 and 2008. Some took cash from donors and walked away with it; others diverted funds to unrelated projects, splashed out on new SUVs or refurbished their own houses with money “saved” from rebuilding the devastated huts of the Dalits and the Tribals
No police complaints have been registered, and it remains something confined to the rumor mill. Since it was not government money, official agencies cannot confront the allegations unless someone files a complaint. But it highlights a pervasive problem in India that doesn’t spare the Catholic Church. Pope Francis is strong and unceasing in his demands that corruption must be stamped out, and has taken several major steps to cleanse the Augean stables of the Vatican.
“Judas [was the first]: from a greedy sinner, he ended in corruption. The road of autonomy is a dangerous road: the corrupt are very forgetful, have forgotten this love, with which the Lord made the vineyard, has made them! They severed the relationship with this love! And they become worshipers of themselves. How bad are the corrupt in the Christian community! May the Lord deliver us from sliding down this road of corruption.”
Corruption, mismanagement of lands, buildings and institutions, and the integrity of church personnel handling money at all levels have become a major issue in a growing section of the Protestant and Independent churches across India. Several Protestant bishops and senior members of the clergy in various states have gone to jail – and were released on bail pending further inquiry – and many others are on the verge of arrest following complaints of alienation of property or defalcation of funds.
Many major denominations are mired in court cases trying to retrieve their lands and buildings from errant pastors and bishops. Even some senior Catholic bishops have had cases filed against them for selling off prime property in some states. Such charges have not done their ecclesiastical and temporal reputations any good.
While the Catholic Church in India and its NGOs do not rate as high on the corruption scales as do others, casting the net wider in defining corruption could land it in hot water. If the definition were to cover, as it should, bribes given by Church functionaries and religious persons to gain government permission for projects, the figures could really shoot up.
Understandably there has been no unified movement against corruption in the Church in India even though there is a national campaign against both opacity and corruption. The grumblings remain localized and denominational. It’s not clear if the apex organizations of various denominations have ever prioritised an anti-corruption agenda.
A movement initiated by a group of Christian businessmen from various cities in the state may offer a ray of hope. Disgusted with what they have seen, the group four years ago began Operation Nehemiah, which seeks to awaken the Church to the rot that is slowly setting in. Three major consultations have taken place to develop a code of conduct and transparency, both personal and corporate, to check, control and eventually weed out every shadow of doubt in the handling of money and property. The Catholic Church was not officially present, although two retired archbishops and several lay persons have been a part of the process.
Operation Nehemiah believes that the corrupt can come back from the brink. Central to this thinking are the tenets of confession and contribution. The ethical code being devised differs from the criminal law of the land on two critical issues. One is the important fact of reparation, making good the loss caused to the Church. Second, instead of sending the pastor to jail, the code, in the shape of a document, banks on the redemptive quality of God’s mercy to ensure that the guilty can be encouraged to once again become honest members of society.
It is still too early to assess if such initiatives are mere pipe dreams of a few honest men and women, or whether they can become the sinew of a larger movement. But it is quite clear that if the Church does not cleanse itself of corruption, the government’s agencies may enter the scene. And that will not do anyone any good.
John Dayal is the general secretary of the All India Christian Council and a member of the Indian government’s National Integration Council.