News Analysis

The cardinal struggling to quell a priestly rebellion

The Syro-Malabar Catholic Church is in fresh turmoil this week, after its leader faced protests over fraud allegations against him.

Cardinal George Alencherry (pictured with Pope Francis) met several priests after they went on a hunger strike in protest at his alleged mishandling of a land deal.

Cardinal Alencherry says he is innocent, and the Indian bishops have defended him. But he has avoided a direct public response to the allegations: according to recent reports, he says that a public response would only have added to the unseemly squabble which threatens to engulf the Syro-Malabar community.

“Since the issue was related to the archdiocese, it affected the Church as well. The methods adopted by those who raised the opposition were not befitting the Church,” he said, according to The Hindu newspaper.

Reports also said the cardinal told the protesters that he held no personal grudges against anyone, and if there were any other grievances they would be shared with the Church’s synod in a couple of months.

Only recently the Syro-Malabar Church, which has 3.7 million members, was embroiled in accusations, by nuns, of sexual abuse against one of its priests. So the current imbroglio involving Cardinal Alencherry comes just as the Church was out of the headlines for a short while.

And the troubles go beyond Kerala as Cardinal Alencherry is not just a Syro-Malabar major archbishop but also a member of the College of Cardinals, which will at some point elect the next pope.

Cardinal Alencherry claimed that the whole Church was being hurt by the public debate being conducted in the media: TV stations have given much publicity to the protests.

The controversy dates back to a 2016 land deal in the southern state of Kerala. The Archdicoese of Ernakulam, which Cardinal Alencherry leads, sold a three-acre piece of land in Kochi, the state capital, to repay a bank loan worth Rs 600 million (£7 million, $8.7 million).

The land, which was reportedly worth at least Rs 800 million (£9.3 million, $11.6 million), was sold at a mere Rs 273 million (£3.1 million, $4 million). The cardinal’s accusers said he had benefited personally.

A police case was registered – but with India’s notoriously slow and bureaucratic legal process, it will only take place later this year at the earliest.

After the controversy brought much unwanted attention to the diocese and Cardinal Alencherry, Bishop Jacob Manathodath was appointed as the apostolic administrator in June 2018. he was supposed to steady the ship. But the controversy has not gone away.

When Bishop Manathodath’s term ended in June this year, Alencherry’s powers were restored, to the dismay of many clergy. Cardinal Alencherry said there was a conspiracy against him from within the ranks of the Church. Shortly afterwards, two auxiliary bishops – Bishop Sebastian Adyanthrath and Bishop Jose Puthenveetil – were suspended by the Vatican, which is conducting its own investigation.

In May this year, a volunteer who worked in the IT section of the Church, was arrested for allegedly faking financial documents that implicated Cardinal Alencherry. Two priests were also named as co-accused for their alleged involvement.

The protesting priests and some lay people say the accused are being scapegoated in a false case.

Even the police have not been safe from criticism in this escalating controversy: the protesters say they do not trust the police, and have demanded that a federal agency, the Central Bureau of Intelligence, take over any inquiry.

However in his comments last weekend, Cardinal Alencherry said he did not expect such a protest from the part of the priests, “and the motive behind it is still unclear”.

The Malayalam-language newspaper Mathrubhimi reported his comments after a priest videoed the meeting on his phone and passed on the footage to a journalist.

“Those who lead the protests are fully aware that there was no lapse from my part,” Cardinal Alencherry said. He said he would not engage with their accusations: “I am not ready to respond to these statements and protests. If I had started responding to these kinds of statements, then the entire Church would have collapsed.”

The comments may not be enough to resolve the crisis, but they did persuade the priests to end their hunger strike.

But the Archdiocesan Movement for Transparency (AMT) accused Cardinal Alencherry of effectively rejecting an offer by other bishops to mediate.

The AMT also asked the cardinal to spell out everything relating to the case, as “the faithful do not want secrets at the top echelons of the Church”.

One priest, Fr Joseph Vailikodath, said that Cardinal Alencherry should not lead the next synod that will be held in August.

“Instead, synod should be held in the presence of the representatives of the Pope. Immediate actions should be taken to appoint an administrative archbishop, who will have independent powers,” he said.