Christopher Joseph, Kochi
Updated: March 07, 2018 10:58 AM GMT
Cardinal George Alencherry and two senior priests are being investigated by police over land deals in Kerala. (Photo by Vincenzo Pinto/AFP)
The top court in southern India's Kerala state has asked police to investigate allegations of breach of trust involving Cardinal George Alencherry.
The High Court's move on March 6 allows criminal proceedings to be taken against the major archbishop and head of the Eastern rite Syro-Malabar Church.
The cardinal is accused along with two senior priests and a real estate agent of selling several plots of lands belonging to the cardinal's Ernakulam-Angamaly Archdiocese, incurring a loss of more than US$10 million.
"The police are to investigate if there was a breach of trust. They need to ascertain if the accused have disposed of the property entrusted to them dishonestly or misappropriated it for their own use," Litto Palathinkal, the archdiocese's legal consultant, told ucanews.com.
If a criminal breach of trust is proved, the accused face jail terms of up to three years and fines, the lawyer said.
Palathinkal said arrest and detention are warranted only if police need the accused in custody for interrogation to prove a crime or to prevent the accused from absconding.
"That is not the case here. We do not expect any arrest," he said on March 7.
The scandal hit the headlines six months ago after the archdiocesan presbyteral council — a canonical representative body of priests — claimed two priests and Cardinal Alencherry sold off prime land in the state's commercial capital Kochi at undervalued prices and bypassed canonical bodies and financial advisors in the archdiocese.
Three Catholic lay people, at various times in the past three months, have filed police complaints seeking investigation. They later complained of police inaction. The court had dismissed two other petitions on the grounds that the cardinal owned the archdiocesan properties and was free to dispose of them as he wished.
"The cardinal has violated no laws of the country and kept all the laws of the church" in the land deals, said an official statement from the office of the cardinal.
Cardinal Alencherry signed the sale deeds as head of the archdiocese to generate funds to pay off an accumulating bank loan. However, it is true that the buyers did not remit the entire amount in the archdiocesan accounts, the statement said.
"The accusations that the deals were done while hiding facts from canonical bodies and financial advisors are against fact," it said.
"We are very sorry that we have this situation," said Father Paul Thelekat, former spokesman of the Syro-Malabar Church and a senior priest under the cardinal.
"The issue was well within the church for the past 18 months. The priests have informed all church bodies, including the Vatican, of the situation. Unfortunately, civil courts and police are now managing it.
"Had the church systems been activated to restore truth and justice, and the church's leadership acted with integrity, we could have avoided this regrettable situation."
Cardinal Alencherry, 72, was appointed a member of the International Council for Catechesis in 2012. He is also a member of the Congregations for the Doctrine of Faith and Congregation for Oriental Churches. He became a cardinal in 2012.