Catholic officials in Asia and beyond should pay attention to the court case against Cardinal George Alencherry in Kerala, a tiny state in southern India.
Early in August, while upholding the verdicts of two lower courts, the Kerala High Court ordered Cardinal Alencherry to face trial for the sale of various holdings of Ernakulam-Angamaly Archdiocese four years ago.
If Cardinal Alencherry faces trial, he will be the first cardinal to do so in an Asian civil court. Even if that does not happen, the case will still be a landmark, as the cardinal becomes the first Catholic bishop to face criminal charges for selling church properties in India. If convicted of all the charges, he may face more than 30 years in jail.
The court refused to accept that bishops have independent and exclusive right to own and alienate church properties, even if such acts are done according to internal laws of the Church. The ownership and rights depend on civil laws, the court affirmed.
A Catholic layman in the archdiocese had filed cases, slapping at least nine criminal charges on the cardinal, including conspiracy, breach of trust, fraud and forgery.
The cardinal’s lawyers have decided to appeal to the Supreme Court against the order. But legal experts say the chances of the charges being dropped are thin because the principle of law demands that a person accused and charged in a court of law prove his innocence through trial.
The cardinal may be a victim of the Indian church's history of negligent attitudes toward lay peoples rights and being blind to people’s growing awareness of their entitlements. The superiority Indian clerics ascribe to themselves has kept them blind to the fast-developing sense of human equality in civil society.
The court refused to accept the cardinal’s Canon Law-based argument that he is the “corporation sole” for the church properties and that the laws give him the power to alienate properties at his will. The court said an emphatic no and stressed such actions amount to a criminal breach of trust.
The court’s order, which indirectly says every member of the Church has an equal right to its properties, will have far-reaching consequences on the way the Church understands and operates its assets.
The bishop's temporal right may include acquiring or alienating properties that are directly connected with the spiritual affairs of the Church. In all other matters, particularly in the alienation of immovable property, civil laws will apply, the court said.
The lands Cardinal Alencherry sold were “not the subject of any religious observances or places of worship based on the theory of apostolic succession” and it “must be understood that the possession, right, title over the properties would stand governed by the general law and not by the canon law”.
The court concluded that Cardinal Alencherry, who became Archbishop of Ernakulam-Angamaly ten years ago, has no valid possession, right or title over the archdiocesan properties that he sold.
The sale deeds were executed ostensibly for establishing a medical college with the objective of charitable intent. Besides, there was no written trust deed either appointing or authorising any particular person to do so.
The deeds were executed by the petitioner (Cardinal Alencherry) based on a self-declared title under a settlement deed without disclosing how right, title or interest over the property had been acquired, the court noted. The deeds were executed without a public auction or public sale with notice to all concerned, including the parishioners and those intending to purchase the property.
Such an action curtailed the right to derive maximum consideration for the coffers of the church and resulted in giving the property to certain selected persons at “a throwaway price capriciously and at the whims and fancies of the petitioner (cardinal),” the court said.
The court's observations have wider implications. Civil society now understands that bishops have no absolute right over diocesan properties. This could change the way the Church operates.
Can a diocese sell church property to meet court expenses for the sex abuse crimes of its clergy and pay compensation? Can a religious congregation expel a member, who has contributed to its wealth, without paying compensation?
The Church’s concept of its resources should evolve to understand the rights of its members over it. Cardinal Alencherry’s case is just a fact of history.
Christopher Joseph is editorial coordinator for ucanews.com. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.