Father Suresh Mathew
“The next wave of attacks on the Church could be for financial irregularities,” Cardinal George Pell, Vatican’s Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy, had said a couple of years back. As one pores over the mountain of material flooding the media (specially in social media) on the ‘land deal scandal’ and the subsequent questionable financial transactions in the Archdiocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly in Kerala, one gets the feeling that Cardinal Pell’s prediction is coming true. The Archdiocese, faced with a serious debt crisis because of the land it bought for its proposed medical college, decided to cut down on its debt by selling some of its properties in and around Ernakulam. The Diocesan Council empowered to take such decisions zeroed in on five plots. A business deal was struck with a realtor. To cut a long story short, the Archdiocese ended up burdened with more debts and unrecovered crores of rupees. It has left a trail of allegations and counter-allegations; it has also given a long stick to the opponents of the Church to beat it with.
The Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese, Mar Sebastian Adayanthrath, in a revealing circular issued to the clergy of the Diocese, says: “Canonical laws have not been followed and there has been no transparency in the deal. Hence, it has landed the Archdiocese not just in financial crisis but in a serious ethical crisis as well.” The Bishop’s frank confession that he and the other Auxiliary Bishop were not taken into confidence in some of the deals and discussions adds to the mystery of the unsavory developments. In the thick of the happenings, the name of Cardinal Mar George Alencherry, the Major Archbishop of Syro-Malabar Church, crops up off and on, but he keeps a studied silence.
The official circular reveals certain truths, though it may not be the whole truth. One can ignore the gossips and allegations flying thick and thin. But what about the facts contained in the official circular? Bishop Adayanthrath categorically states that some of the deals were contrary to the decisions taken by the canonical councils of the Archdiocese. Going a step further, he discloses that the councils concerned were kept in the dark on the developments. Though the Auxiliary Bishop is the head of the Archdiocesan Institutions Central Office (AICO), which is the body that conducts the businesses relating to all institutions in the Diocese, he had no knowledge of many happenings. This adds to the strength of the allegations floating around.
Here it is pertinent to raise a few questions. How can a few individual priests in a Diocese sidestep the official councils and committees and take decisions of far-reaching importance? Who authorized them to flout not one but several conditions laid down by the official Archdiocesan Forums with regard to the land sale? How could the decision-makers bypass even the two Auxiliary Bishops? Why is Cardinal Alencherry keeping a studied silence over the whole episode when he is the signatory in all the documents related to the sale of the properties? Why did he not heed to the reported warnings given by several senior priests and diocesan forums not to play into the hands of a realtor with apparently dubious credentials? Who are the ultimate beneficiaries in the various deals which brought immense disrepute to the Archdiocese and the Church?
In the end, even if the monetary aspects are settled and money is recovered, it will only find a solution for the financial issues, but the moral problems will remain. “What has happened is not merely a serious financial crisis. It involves grave moral issues like lack of transparency and non-adherence to the Canon Law. Hence, even if the Archdiocese is able to recover the balance amount due to it, it will only help to tide over the financial crisis; the moral issues will remain,” states Mar Adayanthrath.
As the Kerala church, specially the Archdiocese, is caught in the eye of a storm, the authorities have taken the right step to appoint an expert committee consisting of priests and lay people to study the issue threadbare and submit a report. But it should not be the end in itself; the commission’s recommendations should be taken to its logical conclusion. If need be, the Vatican should be kept in the loop. Pope Francis’s commitment to take the Church on a new path of financial honesty and moral uprightness is known to the world.
A few months into his papacy, Pope Francis had made a fire-and-brimstone sermon stating that the corrupt should be tied to a stone and thrown into sea. It is no secret that the Pope assumed the office at a time when the Vatican was caught in ‘financial scandals’ reportedly involving senior functionaries. He had invited international financial watchdog, Moneyval, to check the accounts. He had the Vatican’s Financial Information Authority (AIF) to have a look at the Holy See’s finances. Finding several cases of suspected financial irregularity, it had sent these cases to the Promoter of Justice, which is the Vatican’s prosecutor.
The Vatican recently confirmed that the Pope has ordered an investigation into the alleged financial and other irregularities in the Diocese of one of his top advisers, Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga. Italian newsweekly L’Espresso says that the investigation was initiated in May following allegations of failed investments, questionable expenses by one of Maradiaga’s deputies, and the ultimate destination of 35,000 euro a month paid to the Cardinal by the Catholic University of Honduras.
On the issue of financial accountability and transparency of Dioceses, it is worth to recall an initiative by Voice of the Faithful (VOTF), a worldwide movement of faithful Roman Catholics. Last year, it undertook a review of the websites of several Archdioceses and Dioceses that constitute the majority of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). It found that some Dioceses and Archdioceses were posting their financial audits regularly, but some were not doing so. Patting the back of those who post their financial reports, the VOTF raised a valid point: What prevents the ‘erring Dioceses’ from posting their financial reports while others were doing so? The organization further observed: “Transparency (on the part of Dioceses and Archdiocese) gives the laity a level of confidence that their financial support of the Bishop and the good works of the Arch/Diocese are accomplishing their intended goal.”
The ongoing controversies in the Kerala Church have got it on a slippery land. It should take immediate corrective measures to stop the rot. There is more to the episode than meets the eye. The shepherds are duty-bound to make sure that activities of a few ‘black sheep’ do not take the sheen out of a vibrant Church in Kerala. Pope Francis should be their role model in this regard.