By Jonah McKeown
Denver, July 27, 2019: Following reports from the Associated Press that several hundred priests protested the Vatican’s recent decision to restore Cardinal George Alencherry to his administrative duties, a spokesman for the Syro-Malabar Church has disputed the report’s accuracy, and said that people wishing to see the Indian cardinal ousted from his position are publishing “calculated propaganda” against him.
The spokesman also told Catholic News Agency (CNA) that despite the cardinal’s involvement in land deals that some have characterized as dubious, Alencherry acted in good faith and has the support of the Vatican.
Father Abraham Kavilpurayidathil, press officer for the Syro-Malabar Church, told CNA that only one priest actually took on a hunger strike in protest of the cardinal, and was supported by some priests, but not by 450, he said, as the AP report suggested.
Alencherry heads the Archdiocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, an Eastern Catholic Church in union with Rome and one of the two main Eastern Catholic Churches in India.
In November 2017 the Archdiocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly’s canonical presbyteral council publicly accused Alencherry of involvement of dubious land deals. The council’s representatives charged that the cardinal, two senior priests and a real estate agent sold land at undervalued prices, for a loss of $10 million. They accused the cardinal of bypassing the canonical body’s authority.
The Vatican withdrew Alencherry’s administrative authority in June 2018, appointing a temporary administrator to lead the diocese in Alencherry’s place, while Alencherry formally remained the archbishop. The apostolic administrator sent reports back to the Vatican about diocesan finances.
“The cardinal always remained the archbishop of the diocese, but for administrative matters were entrusted to Bishop Jacob Manathodath,” Kavilpurayidathil explained.
The Vatican put Alencherry back in charge of the administrative duties of the archdiocese last month, but two auxiliaries remain suspended. The results of the Vatican’s investigation have not yet been made public, but Kavilpurayidathil said the cardinal’s reinstatement illustrates the faith the Vatican has in his ability to lead the diocese.
The Syro-Malabar permanent synod, the governing body of that church, was directed in June to assign the two former auxiliary bishops to different ministries during a planned August meeting.
A June 24 letter from the Apostolic Nunciature in India explained that after his reinstatement, Alencherry “is asked to deliver the monthly budget and submit the more relevant administrative documents concerning the temporal goods of the Archeparchy to the Permanent Synod, always complying the civil laws.”
The appointment of an administrator to oversee the diocese in place of the cardinal was related to the sale of land belonging to the archdiocese, also referred to as an archeparcy. The land appeared to have been sold at a significant loss. Kavilpurayidathil disputed the characterization of the sale as a “huge loss” for the diocese.
Kavilpurayidathil stated that the finance council for the archdiocese gave permission for the sale, but also said that normally the Syro-Malabar’s synod of bishops would be consulted before a land sale of this size, which was not done in this case.
Kavilpurayidathil said the sale was made in order to pay the debts of the archdiocese.
“It is not a unilateral decision of the cardinal. It is a collective decision taken by the ruling body of the archdiocese. It can never be a single decision of an archbishop to sell the land,” he said.
“Certain technical things were not completed. But it was done in good faith…and the land was sold in order to repay the debts of the archdiocese,” Kavilpurayidathil said.
“In the case of the sale of land exceeding a certain amount should have been consented with the synod of the Syro-Malabar Church before selling the land…that formality was not done. The bone of contention is not the omissions, or failure of fulfilling the technicalities….in the execution process [of the sale], some of the technicalities were not observed. Ok, there are problems which can be solved within the frame of the Church. And those omissions are those things which could be solved within the Church…the economic side of the archdiocese is being solved now.”
Kavilpurayidathil also said that the land deal was more complicated than is usually reported, and that said that Alencherry’s actions were an effort to make the best decisions in an unexpected situation.
“A few pieces of land under the possession of the Archdiocese were sold, as per the decision taken collectively in the canonical bodies of the Archdiocese to repay the debt of the Archdiocese,” the priest explained.
“But, the broker handed over only a part of the amount to the archdioceses in the stipulated time. When cardinal understood that the broker has not given the expected money, he prevailed on the broker to get two plots of land, which were under the possession of the broker, registered in the name of the archeparchy as security or pawn for the money due from him. By doing so, in fact, Cardinal Alencherry tried his best to save the archeparchy from the loss in the land sale deed. In fact, if the two lands registered in the name of the archeparchy are sold, the archeparchy would get financial profit and not loss.”
Kavilpurayidathil also emphasized that recent protests against Alencherry had nothing to do with the case of a nun who accused another Indian bishop, Bishop Franco Mulakkal of Jalandhar, of raping her in 2014.
The nun who made the accusation is originally from Kerala state, belongs to the Syro-Malabar Church, but is under the jurisdiction of a Latin bishop in the north of India, Kavilpurayidathil said.
The nun called Alencherry and complained, in the local language, of harassment within her congregation. The call was recorded and later broadcast on an Indian television station.
It was reported that Alencherry may have been made aware of the nun’s sexual assault allegation as a result of the call before she filed an official complaint, a report which Kavilpurayidathil says is false because the nun never specifically mentioned sexual assault during the phone call.
Moreover, Kavilpurayidathil said Alencherry would not have had the authority to investigate the nun’s complaints, as her congregation is part of the Latin Catholic Church. As a result, Alencherry referred her to the Archbishop of Bombay and to the apostolic nuncio.
“Cardinal Alencherry has nothing to do with the internal problems of the [nun’s] congregation,” he stated.
“If a nun calls a bishop, the head of the church to which she originally belonged, and tells him ‘I am raped,’ or ‘I am abused’ by a bishop, why didn’t the bishop take action?” Kavilpurayidathil said, posing a question.
“One has to clearly understand that in the telephone conversation…she never said [anything] about abuses, that she’s raped. She merely raises the internal problems of the congregation…internal, administrative problems,” Kavilpurayidathil said.
“Cardinal Alencherry, being the head of the Syro-Malabar Church, has no jurisdiction to look into that, so he rightly tells them to contact Cardinal Oswald Gracias, to contact the nuncio, because in the Latin jurisdiction they are the [correct] persons to take action.”
“We are facing some problems in the Church right now, and the nun’s rape case has nothing to do with these problems,” he added.
Indeed, the priest said that media reports criticizing the cardinal are part of a “calculated move to defame Cardinal within the Church and before the public. In social media, you see almost every day demands that Cardinal should resign and go away. We cannot take these expressions or demands as casual ones. They are part of a calculated move.”
“There have been attempts to defame Mar Alencherry by a small group who constantly demands that he should resign. For this purpose, somebody forged a few documents that show Cardinal transacted money to business firms, that he has membership in famous clubs, that he convened business meetings along with some other bishops of the Latin Church of Kerala in a commercial institution etc.,
Kavilpurayidathil said that the Syro-Malabar Church filed a police report about the alleged forgery, and that police have identified two priests and a few lay Catholics as possible suspects.
“The immediate cause for launching the hunger strike at Major Archbishop’s House in Ernakulam by one of the priests of the Archdiocese is continuing police investigation in the forged document case,” the priest told CNA.
“In the discussion, no decision was taken except the assurance given to the priests who represented the protesting group that all the concerns raised would be discussed in the Synod to be held in the month of August 2019.”