Advocate Indulekha Joseph, speaks with media at a protest venue seeking justice for a nun allegedly raped by a bishop. Joseph is part of group seeking to reform laws governing church property and finances. (Photo by Christopher Joseph/ucanews.com)
A campaign to reform laws governing church property and finances has gained momentum in India's southern Kerala state, where a rape case against a bishop has created a furore.
Church activists, including theologians, have for more than a decade sought greater lay participation in managing the temporal wealth of the Catholic Church, purportedly to check embezzlement.
A draft proposal called the 'Church Properties and Institutions Trust Bill' was prepared under the guidance of the late V. R. Krishna Iyer, a former judge of the Supreme Court, and was submitted for the consideration of the Kerala government in 2009.
"We are pressing for it, but the state may not enact it as a law in the near future," said advocate Indulekha Joseph, a Catholic lawyer connected with the movement.
Placards seeking the enactment of the draft proposal were raised at a street protest that began Sept. 8 in Kochi of Kerala state.
The protesters also demanded justice for a nun allegedly raped by Bishop Franco Mulakkal of Jalandhar.
A placard stating 'money is fuel for lust' implied that unaccounted for funds available to members of the Church hierarchy emboldened them to violate other people's rights.
The draft proposal, which activists now call the Kerala Church Act, proposes periodic audits of church properties and institutions such as schools. The bill also calls for an elected body to manage financial affairs of the Catholic Church and parishes.
Joseph said the state's successive coalition governments, led by both communists and the rival Congress party, have to date shown no interest in even discussing the draft proposal as they feared it would antagonize the politically influential church leadership.
Christians comprise some 19 percent of Kerala's 33 million population and their votes are decisive in some areas.
However, Joseph said that a rising demand for the arrest of Bishop Mulakkal could be enough to convince the government that lay people would not be angered by the introduction of new laws applying to church affairs.
George Joseph, chairman of the Kerala Church Act Action Council, told ucanews.com that church funds are used to defend bishops and priests facing criminal cases.
"The church's money should not be used for supporting and abetting criminal activities of priests and bishops," he said.
Some 5,600 priests and 40 bishops across the Catholic Church's 32 dioceses managed the entire wealth of the Kerala Church, with little accountability or lay participation, he said.
"We need a law to make this management more participatory," George Joseph added.
C. Devasia, chairman of the Kerala Catholic Reform Movement, backed the demand for a new law to ensure lay participation in decision-making.
The hierarchy is said to be opposing the bill on the ground that the Catholic Church's structure would be weakened by interference of the state.
Father Varghese Vallikatt, spokesperson for the Kerala Catholic Bishops' Conference, said that the state legislature had not shown an interest in the proposed act.
He added that the government had not sought the church hierarchy's views on the proposal since it was submitted nine years ago.