Kerala’s powerful Syro-Malabar Church could be heading for a split

The Syro-Malabar Church, which is embroiled in a series of unsavoury controversies of illegal land deals and sex and sleaze stories of priests and nuns, could be heading for a split if the damage is not arrested by Papal intervention.

Cardinal George Alancherry

A group of priests who claim support of over 450 peers want Cardinal George Alancherry to step aside after the police, ordered by the Kerala High Court, registered a case against him on an illegal land deal. Hearing the case, the High Court had observed that there was prima facie evidence to suspect a criminal conspiracy, breach of trust and misappropriation of money in the land deals carried out by the archdiocese led by Alancherry. Reports suggest the group has plans to escalate the matter to the Pope.

When asked about their future course of action, Father Kuriakose Mundadan, secretary of the council of priests, said, “The community of priests has been forced to raise this demand (Cardinal’s stepping aside) because we have the feeling that our voice is not being heard.” According to the anti-Cardinal group, Alancherry and his collaborators have shaken the 25-lakh strong Syro-Malabar community of Catholics.

The highly influential Church, which is governed by the Papal authority, runs hundreds of educational and social service institutions.

However, the pro-Cardinal group is also not in a mood to give up. The group alleged that the rivals were indulging in a conspiracy to defame and divide the community. Father Antony Poothavelil said this was nothing but a conspiracy by a group to remove the Cardinal from his position. According to him, the Cardinal had used the powers vested in him to enter into the land deals.

However, a committee of experts appointed by the Archdiocese has found senior functionaries of the Church guilty of the violation of Canon and civil laws. Following this, the Church Synod appointed a five-member committee of bishops to study the land deals, but that has only angered the priests more. They alleged that the committee has been set up to buy time and give a quiet burial to the scam.

The genesis of the controversy

The present crisis had its origins in the Archdiocese buying over 23 acres at Mattoor, near Kochi in May 2015, to set up a medical college with a bank loan of Rs 60 crore. To repay the loan, the Archdiocese had mulled selling a plot of land it owned at Varantharappilly, near Thrissur.

However, it didn’t work out. So the authorities decided to sell another 3-acre plot in Kochi to repay the loan. The Archdiocese entered into an agreement with its agent for the land sale and it should have received Rs 27.30 crore within a month as the plots were to be sold during the period. The amount thus received was to be deposited in the bank to reduce the Archdiocese’s loan liability to Rs 32 crore.

The whole plan collapsed as the Archdiocese did not receive the full amount from the sale of the plots even a year-and-a-half later, in violation of the sale agreement with its agent in June 2016. The Archdiocese received only Rs 9.13 crore. The money received from the sale of the plots did not go into repaying the Rs 60-crore loan. Meanwhile, another bank loan of Rs 10 crore was raised without the permission of Archdiocesan forums like the Consultative Committee and the Curia for the purchase of two plots at a total cost of Rs 16.59 crore. Thus, the total loan liability of the Church went up to Rs 84 crore in place of the original liability of Rs 60 crore.

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