New law sought for Kerala church properties

Campaign launched as Indian state's top court considers a land deal case involving a cardinal and two priests
New law sought for Kerala church properties

Activists of the Kerala Church Reformation Movement march through the streets of Pala town in the Christian-stronghold district of Kottayam on Jan. 27. They were demanding a state law to govern church properties. (Photo provided)

Catholic reformists have launched a campaign for a new law to govern church properties in southern Kerala as the Indian state's top court studies land deals involving Cardinal George Alencherry, the major archbishop of the eastern rite Syro-Malabar Church.

The High Court of Kerala continues to discuss if there was a "breach of trust" in land deals executed by the cardinal after he was accused of incurring liabilities of nearly US$13 million from deals in his Ernakulam-Angamaly Archdiocese.

"What is continuing in the court is an intellectual exercise. Technically, there is no case against the cardinal in the court now," Litto Palathinkal, legal consultant for the archdiocese, told on Feb. 28.

Three lay people have filed independent police complaints seeking criminal proceedings against the cardinal for disposing of several plots of lands in and around Kochi, the commercial capital of the state, incurring losses to the archdiocese.

"The issue before the court is a technical one: is there a crime in the alleged violations?" said Palathinkal, asserting that the court has already dismissed two of the three petitions that sought criminal proceedings against the cardinal.

The court is studying the merit of a third petition that also complained that police were not acting against the cardinal, Palathinkal said.

At a hearing on Feb. 26, the cardinal's counsel submitted that the properties in question were not "public" but "private" in nature and church laws authorized the cardinal to deal with them.

Indian civil laws honor the ownership of a bishop over diocesan properties, said Palathinkal, adding that the court was seeking to know if there was any criminal violation in executing the land deals such as tax evasion or fudged documents.

"There was no criminal intention and unlawful gain" on the part of the cardinal, he said. However, he agreed "a mismanagement and imprudent approach is evident" in the deals as some money is missing. "But it must be seen as an error of judgment," Palathinkal said.

However, senior churchmen in the archdiocese disagree.

"We, the priests of the archdiocese, are not concerned about the hair-splitting discussion on the civil-criminal difference. The issue is morality," said a senior priest.

He said priests are convinced there was a culpable offense committed by the cardinal and two other priests who executed the deals and disregarded the canons of the church and hid facts from consultative bodies. "It is a moral issue when money is received but not accounted," he said.

"This moral issue cannot be dismissed as a technical error. It is a terrible agony for us when they are not ready to accept their culpability," he said.

Demand for a new law

Several Catholic leaders who are working to reform the church say the core issue of corruption rests with canon law, which allows concentration of all powers — judicial, legislative and executive — with the bishops, giving them absolute powers even in temporal matters.

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"This needs to change. The government should enact a new law bringing all Christian properties under a representative body of the church, which will administer and manage them for the benefit of Christian communities," said Reji Njallani, a leader of the Open Church Movement, a group working for the reformation of the church.

Njallani and others say a larger issue is the danger of a corrupt church official selling off the church's wealth just because canon law allows it without lay people having any power to stop such malpractice.

Some 70 lay leaders from more than 10 groups working for reformation of the church in Kerala met on Feb. 24 in Kochi to seek ways to push the state to proceed with a draft bill prepared nine years ago to help Christians manage their properties.

The Kerala Christian Church Properties and Institutions Trust Bill was drafted in 2009 by the Kerala Law Reforms Committee but no government has presented it to the state legislative house or the parliament.

Other religious minorities in India have particular laws to manage their properties and assets, said George Moolechalil, one of the organizers of the meeting.

Christians in Kerala used to have a tradition of lay representatives managing the church's temporal wealth but that has been suppressed to impose Roman systems and canon laws, said Moolechalil of the Kerala Catholic Church Reformation Movement.

The church lacks financial transparency, said Dominic Savio, another reformist leader based in Kottayam. "There is no law to manage temporal assets of the church. Fights, disputes and tension are common in several dioceses across India," he said.

Moolechalil said the All Kerala Church Act Action Council has been launched to lobby for the draft bill to become law. They also plan marches to the state secretariat and to present memoranda to the government.

Palathinkal, the church's legal consultant, suspects a "vicious move" in the new demand for a law. "It is only natural to suspect this move aims to control the church's wealth independently of the hierarchy," he said.

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