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Court asks Indian cardinal to face trial on criminal charges

The order comes after Cardinal Alencherry's archdiocese paid millions in fines for evading taxes in land deals
Court asks Indian cardinal to face trial on criminal charges

A visitor speaks to a guard outside the Archbishop's House of Ernakulam-Angamaly in Kerala's commercial capital Kochi. A financial controversy involving Cardinal George Alencherry of Ernakulam-Angamaly continues to rock the church. (Photo: Thomas Christopher)

Published: August 13, 2021 06:54 AM GMT
Updated: August 13, 2021 11:12 AM GMT

The top court in southern India’s Kerala state has ordered Cardinal George Alencherry to face trial over seven criminal charges registered against him in connection with controversial land deals he conducted four years ago.

The Aug. 12 order of Kerala High Court came as it dismissed his appeal to quash a similar order issued by a district court.

Catholic Church leaders said they plan to challenge the order in India's Supreme Court as early as possible after studying the judgment.

“We will appeal against the order before the Supreme Court,” said Father Abraham Kavilpurayidathil, spokesperson of the Eastern-rite Syro-Malabar Church.

Some church officials who did not want to be named claimed the allegations have been engineered to tarnish the cardinal, who heads the Syro-Malabar Church as its major archbishop.

The allegations hit the media in November 2017 after a group of priests in Ernakulam-Angamaly Archdiocese publicly accused Cardinal Alencherry of selling off several plots of land over a period of two years, incurring a loss of some US$10 million to the archdiocese.

The latest court order also asked the state government to probe the ownership of a piece of land Cardinal Alencherry sold

The cardinal has denied the allegations but reportedly admitted before the church’s synod that there were administrative lapses and a lack of oversight on his part.

The latest court order also asked the state government to probe the ownership of a piece of land Cardinal Alencherry sold.

The ownership of the land was disputed, said the 74-page order. The court dismissed the arguments of Cardinal Alencherry’s lawyer based on the church’s canon law that the cardinal can independently act in relation to archdiocesan properties.

The court dismissed the attempt, saying church laws govern the “administration and observance of spiritual, religious, ecclesiastical and temporal affairs” of the church and “cannot be applied to matters which stand outside its purview.”

The court said church properties are “not the subject of any religious observances or places of worship based on the theory of apostolic succession” but would be “governed by the general law” of India and not by canon law.

“If any property is subjected to a sale or transfer, it would stand outside the scope of religious or spiritual observances or a place of worship and the theory of apostolic succession and religious supremacy cannot be applied as such,” noted the court.

In 2019, Joshy Varghese, a member of the archdiocese, filed complaints against Cardinal Alencherry for alleged discrepancies in the land deals before a lower magistrate court close to the headquarters of the Syro-Malabar Church in Ernakulam district.

The magistrate court ordered the cardinal to face trial but he moved against it in the district court. The district court upheld the magistrate court's order, forcing the cardinal to appeal to the state court, which resulted in the latest order.

The normal next legal step would be to appeal before a higher bench of Kerala High Court and then move to the Supreme Court if needed. Independent Catholic observers told television discussions that a cardinal facing trial on criminal charges will make history in India and will be a painful experience for the entire Christian community.

The report, however, cleared Cardinal Alencherry of the allegation that he had siphoned off money from the proceeds of the deals

The trial order comes after Ernakulam-Angamaly Archdiocese paid millions in fines to the Income Tax Department.

The department in two separate moves imposed a total fine of some 60 million rupees ($860,000) on the archdiocese for evading taxes by showing lower prices in land documents than market rates.

The total fines include 35 million rupees imposed this month for the five-year period of 2013-18, local media reports said. A fine of 25 million rupees was imposed earlier.

A leaked report of a church-authorized probe, conducted by international professional service network KPMG, also found Cardinal Alencherry guilty of ignoring canonical bodies by going ahead with the land deals that led to huge losses for the archdiocese.

The report, however, cleared Cardinal Alencherry of the allegation that he had siphoned off money from the proceeds of the deals.

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