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Indian cardinal cleared by bishops of land scam

Move to exonerate Cardinal Alencherry sparks claims of attempting to influence civil and Vatican probes

Indian cardinal cleared by bishops of land scam

Cardinal George Alencherry walks on St. Peter's Square in Rome after a pre-conclave meeting on March 6, 2013, at the Vatican. The Kerala Catholic Bishops’ Council has found no merit in corruption allegations against the cardinal. (AFP photo)

India’s Cardinal George Alencherry, who faces multiple probes for allegedly selling off land and incurring a loss of about US$10 million, has been cleared by his fellow bishops even though the Vatican has yet to rule on the findings of its administrator.

But the move has angered other figures within the Eastern-rite Syro-Malabar Church who have accused the bishops of attempting to influence civil and Vatican investigations.

The Kerala Catholic Bishops’ Council (KCBC), which met on June 4-5 at its headquarters in Kochi, found no merit in the allegations against the cardinal. The KCBC issued a circular on June 6 to inform Catholics about its decision.

Archbishop Soosa Pakiam, president of the KCBC, said in the circular that “our discussions have proved that the kind of corruption alleged in the land deal did not seem to have occurred.”

It further makes it clear that “fissures within the church have led to controversies and given rise to apprehensions among the faithful.”

“Measures have been taken to address the apprehensions and allegations pertaining to the land deals involving the Ernakulam-Angamaly Archdiocese within the church itself,” it noted.

The circular, which was due to be read out in churches on June 9, had to be put on hold following opposition from within the church leadership and from the public.

“There is no change in the circular — it still stands even though it will not be read out in churches,” said Father Varghese Vallikkatt, deputy secretary-general of the KCBC.

“Our stand is not to create any problem for anyone. We want to settle all issues amicably and grow as one church.

“We know there is no truth in the allegations against the cardinal. It might be possible there were some procedural errors but it was not a case of a big scam. Nobody has taken money from the church and we want to clear confusion among believers.”

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Father Vallikkatt said the KCBC had not constituted any committee to probe the allegations before exonerating Cardinal Alencherry.

“We held several rounds of discussions individually and in groups with all concerned parties and found that there is no merit in the allegations,” he said.

First information reports

Archdiocesan public relations officer Father Paul Karedan said in an official statement that the circular was “inappropriate and unfortunate.”

“The controversy about the land deal was mentioned at the KCBC meeting, but there was no discussion. The circular, issued with an instruction that it should be read at churches, went against the decision at the meeting,” he said.

Riju Kanookaran of the Archdiocese Movement for Transparency said it was “incorrect and illegal” for the KCBC to issue such a circular.

“Civil authorities are probing multiple cases against the cardinal and first information reports are registered against him in two cases,” he told ucanews.com.

“Canonically, the issue is with the Vatican and there is no role for the KCBC to issue a circular exonerating the cardinal.”

On April 5, Bishop Jacob Manathodath, who was appointed as apostolic administrator of the archdiocese last year, submitted to Rome his inquiry report on the controversial land sale, but the Vatican has yet to reveal its findings.

Kanookaran accused the KCBC of attempting to influence the civil and Vatican investigations.

Father Vallikkatt, however, denied the allegation, saying it had not opposed any probe. The KCBC, he added, “instead reaffirmed its position that a probe should be conducted into the allegations.”

In November 2017, a group of priests accused Cardinal Alencherry and two priests of selling off land and incurring a loss of about US$10 million for the archdiocese.

The Vatican last June removed the cardinal from administrative positions in the archdiocese, but he continues to be the major archbishop and heads its synod, based at the Church’s headquarters in Ernakulam.

In February, a priest who is a junior official of the synod filed a criminal complaint accusing Bishop Manathodath and senior priest Father Paul Thelakat of forging documents to defame the cardinal.

The complaint said Father Thelakat forged documents showing that the cardinal had transferred money from his private bank accounts to some corporate accounts. The bishop was accused of presenting the documents to the synod with the intention of tarnishing the cardinal.

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