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Indian bishop gets relief from summons in land case

Accused pair claim breach of trust allegations in Karnataka state are politically motivated

UCA News reporter

UCA News reporter

Published: September 03, 2021 05:56 AM GMT

Updated: September 03, 2021 09:30 AM GMT

Indian bishop gets relief from summons in land case

Bishop Anthony Swamy Thomasappa has denied involvement in any sale of church land in Chikmagalur Diocese in Karnataka state in southwest India. (Photo supplied)

A court in India's Karnataka state has given temporary relief to Bishop Anthony Swamy Thomasappa of Chikmagalur and his former vicar general from appearing in court in connection with an alleged breach of trust case.

The Court of the Second Additional District and Sessions Judge on Sept. 1 ordered to stay further proceedings in the case filed against the bishop and his former vicar general Father Shantha Raj.

The court of the Senior Civil Judge and Chief Judicial Magistrate on Aug. 16 ordered the registering of the case of breach of trust against the prelate and the priest for allegedly conspiring to sell off prime land belonging to the diocese.

The court also served a summons on the two and directed them to appear before it on Sept. 24 as per legal proceedings to initiate the trial.

Sadanda Baptist, a Catholic, moved the court demanding it initiate action against the duo after a police probe against them gave a clean chit.

The police did not find any merit in the complaint and refused to lodge a first information report against the accused.

Legally, the case will not stand against them — the alleged offense had not taken place

The court, however, dismissed the police report and said prima facie evidence was enough to proceed against them, but it maintained that it was not making any opinion on the merits.

Baptist said the accused conspired to take ownership of two church-owned plots of land worth 180 million rupees (US$2.4 million) belonging to St. Joseph’s Educational Society and attempted to sell them off at a cheaper value, incurring a huge loss to the diocese.

Bishop Thomasappa and Father Raj have denied the allegations and claimed the registration of the case is part of a politically motivated campaign to discredit them in public.

The judge also summoned the records pertaining to the case for examination and posted it for Oct. 1.

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“The petitioners reflect a prima facie case in their favor. Therefore, it is necessary to call for the records and to verify the correctness of the proceedings,” observed the court.

The diocese's legal adviser, V.T. Thomas, in his argument said the accused had not “misappropriated any amount or property” as was alleged.

The complainant was seeking to cause trouble for the accused and the chief judicial magistrate registered a criminal case against them without verifying the records and issued a summons, he sai.

“Legally, the case will not stand against them — the alleged offense had not taken place,” Thomas told UCA News on Sept. 1.

“When they were informed that the land deal they struck was much lower than the market value, they called off the deal and returned the advance collected to the prospective buyer.

“Holding negotiations and scrapping a deal that was not in favor of the diocese would not amount to any crime.”

The complainant was well aware of this legal position but was still using the platform of the court to register a false case misleading the court with fraudulent documents, Thomas added.

Eventually, he added, the truth will come out and the bishop and the priest will get a clean chit from the court like in the case of the police probe.

I have sufficient documented evidence against them to prove their guilt in the land deal and they will be exposed in the court

Baptist, however, insisted that he would move the court to vacate the stay on the proceedings in the Chief Judicial Magistrate’s Court.

“I will move an application for vacation of the stay as soon as possible,” Baptist told UCA News on Sept. 2. “I have sufficient documented evidence against them to prove their guilt in the land deal and they will be exposed in the court.”

Baptist and a small group of Catholics have protested against the bishop and the priest and even complained to India's papal nuncio demanding action against them.

Some local Catholics believe the fight has little to do with the land dispute but is an ethnic conflict between Kannada and Tamil Catholics.

The diocese has three main factions — migrant Tamil-speaking Catholics from neighboring Tamil Nadu, Catholics who speak Kannada, the state’s official language, and Konkani-speaking Catholics from the southwestern coast of the state.

Bishop Thomasappa and Father Raj come from the Kannada-speaking Catholic community while the rest of the governing council's members, including the five priests, are from the Konkani-speaking community.

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