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November 19 1997

A court directive to a Protestant Church to follow democracy in administering a trust has encouraged some Catholic lay groups in Bombay archdiocese fighting an alleged clerical monopoly in Church property management.

The Mumbai High Court stayed a lower court ruling that the Nashik bishop of the Church of North India (CNI) should become the ex-officio chairperson of a trust in the western Indian diocese.

An ex-officio chairman for Church trusts is "an outdated idea," ruled the High Court, asking the Church to adopt democracy as India did 50 years ago.

The court said an elected chairperson is more responsible and accountable to the trustees who elected him than an ex-officio against whom they cannot act. "Hence, to make the chairman responsible and accountable to the board of trustees, it is desirable that he should be an elected chairman," it added.

Nashik diocese had registered the trust in 1967 under the Bombay Public Trust Act of 1950, making the bishop the ex-officio chairperson. However, some trustees sought the court´s help to revise the system, alleging that it had been abused and that Church funds had been diverted.

CNI Bishop S.B. Joshua of Bombay hailed the Aug. 21 decision and said he was eager to follow the court order. He said confusion in the act´s interpretation prevailed as many trusts were registered before Indian independence in 1947.

In its decision the high court disposed 10 appeals against the Nashik court order. Trustee Avinash Balkundi said the diocesan trust is a registered body, whereas the CNI is not.

V.N. Gangal, the petitioner´s counsel, told UCA News that an unnamed Catholic group has sought his help in getting the ruling extended to the sale of property, management of schools and other temporal matters of the Church.

Some Catholic laypeople have questioned priests´ sole trusteeship over parish property following allegations of shady land deals. The Catholic lay group Forum Against Christian Exploitation (FACE) has said it will seek an extension of the high court´s ruling on CNI to Catholics.

Bennett Castelino of FACE, whose petition against alleged mismanagement in seven parishes is pending before the city civil court, said democracy should prevail in Church administration.

Castelino warned of the potential abuse of sole trusteeship. He cited as an example Nashik Catholic diocese, where a priest allegedly swindled church funds before leaving the priesthood.

However, Father Stanislaus Lobo, Bombay Catholic archdiocese´s estate manager, said the High Court ruling would not affect the Catholic archdiocese´s administration as more than 70 percent of its parishes are registered trusts with priests as sole trustees.

The archbishop is the ex-officio chairperson of many Catholic institutions.