In the name of land Church becomes a bureaucratically complex corporation
Matters India reporter
The Kerala Syro-Malabar Church faces its worst crisis in recent history over a land row in the Archdiocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly. Cardinal Mar George Alencherry, the Major Archbishop of Syro-Malabar Church, and his two officers – Finance Officer and Director of Institutions are in the eye of a storm sending shockwaves to its faithful and supporters alike. The priests and faithful of the Archdiocese allege that there were serious violations of civil and canon laws, involvement of land mafia, lack of transparency, alienation of properties, and severe monetary loss in the recent series of land sale.
The Archdiocese landed in trouble by its attempt to start a medical college much against the collective opinion of the Presbyterium and the purchase of 23 acres of land towards this project at Mattoor, near Angamaly with a term loan of Rs 58 crores. The Medical College project hit a roadblock and the term loan rocketed to Rs 70 crores. Stung by the mounting liability, the Finance Council decided to restore parity by selling off some of the prime land of the Archdiocese in the middle of the city. Fr. Joshy Puthuva, the Finance Officer, and Msgr. Sebastian Vadakumpadan, Director of Institutions, were at the reins. With the consent of Mar Alencherry, the land sale was executed, but the Archdiocese plunged into dire straits at the hands of dubious realtors, who fleeced the Archdiocese. When the plans went haywire, remote plots of land were registered, that too far away, in the territory of Kothamangalam and Idukki. A loss of almost 30 crores of rupees was estimated in the deal and an enquiry commission of six experts comprising priests and lay experts was constituted by the Presbyteral Council to probe into the irregularities of the land deal.
According to the interim report of the enquiry commission tabled before the Presbyterium and Presbyteral Council, the 3.06 acres of land was to be sold for a base price of Rs. 9.05 lakhs per cent as per the contract signed on June 21, 2016, duly authorized by the Consulters’ Forum. It was also agreed that the deal should be done through Veekay Agencies; land should not be sold in pieces and the whole deal should be over within a month. Apparently, all these conditions were flouted. The Archdiocese received less than Rs 4.66 lakhs per cent, and the deal went through a single individual, Mr. Saju Varghese Kunnel, allegedly ushered into the fray by the Cardinal himself. The land was sold off in 36 small portions, and eventually, after one year, even the agreed amount has not found its way into the coffers of the Archdiocese. The properties that were sold include 60 cents near Thrikkakara Bharat Matha College, 69 cents on Seaport-Airport road near Naipunnya Public School, Kochi, one acre at Kollamkodimugal near Kakkanad, 20 cents at Nilampathinjamugal near Infopark, and 54 cents near Maradu all prime land to the naked eye. The revenue from the deal worked out to Rs 27 crores as per the understanding, but it garnered only Rs 9 crores. Rs. 18 crores, proceedings from the sale of the land, is still shrouded in mystery and is unaccounted for. Among the sold properties, there was also a plot of land gifted to the Archdiocese by the Congregation of Alexian Brothers exclusively for charitable purposes and not for sale.
There are also allegations that the land at Mattoor borders an industrial area, with companies like Shakthi Rock Products (high volume metal crusher), three rice mills (Keerthi, Malabar and Surabhi), a petrochemical thinner factory (Q7 thinner) and 2M Lifts and Escalator company. By any stretch of imagination, this property would not be ideal for a hospital, or for that matter a medical college, because of the high index of pollution. As regards the purchase of land at Devikulam in the district of Idukki, the entire process of transaction was very secretive. Surprisingly, both the auxiliary bishops and one of the syncelli were kept in the dark for obvious reasons. The priests maintain that this is a gross violation of collegiality and collective responsibility as cited in CCEO 215#3: The eparchial bishop in assessing matters of great importance, especially those of pastoral nature, is to consult auxiliary bishops in preference to others.
The official bodies of the Archdiocese such as Finance Council, Presbyteral Council and Presbyterium discussed the issues at length. The fiasco was unearthed by the priests in the diocese and they went to great lengths to unearth valid documents via RTI. As the report of the enquiry commission comes out, they plan to appeal to Rome for further action against individuals involved in the scam if actions are not initiated. The Major Archbishop admitted that technical and procedural errors have occurred in the whole deal and caution was thrown to the wind. Cardinal Alencherry himself has signed in all the 36 land sale documents.
The Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese, Mar Sebastian Adayanthrath, issued a circular upon the request of the Presbyterium, admitting that the land deal resulted in a huge financial burden to the Archdiocese. The circular observed that the overarching crisis was not the financial meltdown, rather the question of credibility and morality. Lack of transparency and ignorance or misinterpretations of Canon law, reckless circumvention of structures and policies raise serious moral concerns. Though the Archdiocese can recover from the financial crisis to a great extent, issues related to morality will prevail.
At the core of the fast-escalating controversy concerning the financial incongruity and misappropriation of assets within the church is a laity that has for eons looked up to and revered the clergy always respectful, always dutiful, always compliant.
With the latest land row, however, the church has run itself the risk of losing the trust of its congregations. In fact, a church that was build on the solid foundation of unity is today divided in opinion.
While a section of people have demanded the resignation of the Major Archbishop, others feel that open protests against church leadership needs to be avoided. A group of people have formed “Save Archdiocese Campaign” to create awareness among the believers about the whole situation. The war on the pages of social media has added steam and colour to the entire episode, with followers and detractors taking up cudgels to decimate each other using binaries. They demand that culprits surviving on blatant lies should be brought to the book, should be removed from their responsibilities and should be asked to restitute the loss. The Archdiocese should revise its particular laws so as to appoint people of moral integrity to responsible positions, timely auditing and presentation of accounts in public and uphold the reputation of the Archdiocese.
The Church should provide for the spiritual, moral and ethical needs of its people. But if there’s a controversy boiling in its own backyard, how can one expect the Church to comfort the ones who come calling to it for aid and succour. The last thing the Church can become is a bureaucratically complex corporation.
The current controversy has also amplified the distrust of authority that many laypeople possess. At a time when the Church should be a common, welcoming ground for its congregations, such incidents, much like cases of rogue priests who maltreat and molest, further distance the laity. Even a whiff of a scandal is oftentimes enough to impair the credibility of an institution. Here, there’s an open Pandora’s Box spewing out things more vile than the last and, as matters stand now, the key accused is the head of the institution itself.
It has been proclaimed in certain quarters that at the heart of the current land row is, in fact, a noble intention: to build a medical college. Then how did such a righteous idea get mired in controversy, corruption and scandal? In terms of sheer economics, if the plan of building a medical college ever succeeded, the approximate spending would have come up to around Rs. 300 crores. Simple math will tell students who would be enrolled in this institution, they may have to cough up an amount that will burn a hole in their pocket larger than the size of this country. Or, this college is meant only for financially well-endowed families. And that sure puts the nobility of thought to test.
What was the logic behind the several financial dealings? Was really the head of the Church and by extension the Church itself – duped by a sly realtor? What were the circumstances that led to the clergy washing dirty linen in public? Those are the questions that need to be answered and the Church is indeed answerable to the laypeople who have put their trust on her.
The head of the Church, Cardinal Alencherry, is yet to venture out of his stony silence to clear the air. However, restrictions have been placed on the powers of the syncellus Msgr. Sebastian Vadakumpadan and Fr. Joshy Puthuva. Further remedial actions are expected as the complete report of the commission finds light.