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Indian Catholics accuse bishop of selling church land

Prelate in Karnataka state denies claims after lay people complain to papal nuncio

ucanews.com reporter, New Delhi

ucanews.com reporter, New Delhi

Updated: April 10, 2019 08:13 AM GMT
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Indian Catholics accuse bishop of selling church land

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

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A group of Catholics in a southern Indian diocese have accused their bishop and a priest of selling off prime church property, causing massive financial loss, but the bishop dismissed the claim as an attempt to tarnish him.

Bishop Anthony Swamy Thomasappa of Chikmagalur and his former vicar general, Father Shantha Raj, teamed up to take ownership of two plots of land worth 180 million rupees (US$2.4 million) at a cheaper value, lay leaders told media on April 6.

Lay representatives from several parishes have met at Chikkamangaluru (formerly Chikmagalur), a town in Karnataka state, to decide on their course of action, Stanley D’Silva, a Catholic who spearheads the protest, told ucanews.com.

D’Silva said they have documented proof to show that the bishop and priest sold off a plot of prime land of St. Joseph Education Society for 21 million rupees. The land is worth 90 million rupees at market rates, he said.

They also accused the bishop of misusing the income from another piece of land and taking ownership of it from the diocese.

They complained to the papal nuncio to India, Archbishop Giambattista Diquattro, on April 4, said Michael Sadanda Baptist, a member of St. Joseph Education Society, which functions under the diocese.

“If the nuncio fails to act as per canon law, we will be forced to take recourse in Indian law to bring the accused to justice,” Baptist told ucanews.com.

He said the sale of the society’s property was carried out without even informing society members. Government registry documents show that the land was sold to a builder for just 21 million rupees, he said.

The ownership of another piece of land belonging to the church-run St. Joseph Boys High School also remains doubtful, Baptist said. They believe the prelate and the priest joined to “misappropriate” this property, also worth 90 million rupees, he said.

“We have given a fortnight for the bishop to come out with facts, failing which we will take appropriate legal action,” D’Silva told ucanews.com.

However, Bishop Thomasappa said the allegations are based on confusion and denied involvement in any sale deeds. However, he accused his former vicar general of “misdeeds that created the present impasse” in the diocese.

The bishop said he had authorized Father Raj to find a prospective buyer as there was an agreement in the diocese to sell the land and “utilize the funds for other developmental needs of the diocese,” he told ucanews.com.

The bishop said the priest made a verbal agreement with a prospective buyer to sell the land “but he was not authorized to do that.”

Some money was transferred to the society but the society returned the money to the prospective buyer and “unanimously decided not to sell the land at all,” the bishop said, reiterating that “no deal was executed.”

The bishop said he removed the priest from all official positions of the diocese soon after he came “to know about his misdeeds.”

Father Raj could not be contacted and has remained incommunicado since the allegations became public early this month.

The diocese’s legal adviser, V.T. Thomas, told ucanews.com that the land “is not sold. It is still in the name of the society, its rightful owner.”

Some church people link the allegations to ethnic factionalism that has been haunting Catholics for more than three decades in Karnataka state. 

The local Church has three main factions — migrant Tamil-speaking Catholics from neighboring Tamil Nadu, Kannada-speaking Catholics from Karnataka and Konkani-speaking Catholics from the southwestern coast of the state.

Bishop Thomasappa and Father Raj are said to be Kannada-speaking Catholics, while most others in the diocese, including those spearheading the protests, are Konkani-speaking Catholics.

The allegation comes more than a year after similar charges were leveled against Cardinal George Alencherry of Ernakulam-Angamaly in neighboring Kerala state by his own priests and lay leaders. The Vatican intervened last June to remove the cardinal from his administrative roles and appoint Bishop Jacob Manathodath as administrator.

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