In India, Cardinal Alencherry again rejects allegations of illegal land deals

Card Alencherry Cardinal George Alencherry, Major Archbishop of the Syro-Malabar Archdiocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly | Emmanuel Parekkattu via Wikimedia (CC BY SA 4.0)

Cardinal George Alencherry and his spokesman continue to reject claims of illegality in controversial land deals in the Syro-Malabar Archdiocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly. They say Indian federal officials’ new money laundering investigation is revisiting claims that previous investigations have found baseless.   

Father Abraham Kavilpurayidam, the spokesperson of the Syro-Malabar Church, said the probe of the cardinal “is no doubt an attempt to target him and tarnish the image of the church.” A local court has exonerated the cardinal and a special Kerala police team found the accusations were baseless.

“Cardinal Alencherry is being persecuted through no fault of his own. The cardinal surely will come out of it clean,” he said, according to UCA News.

The spokesman cited an October 2020 report in which “a special team of Kerala police’s Crime Branch probed all the allegations thoroughly and gave him a clean chit.” The police investigation into allegations of misappropriated funds resulted in a court report recommending the dismissal of the case. It was based on “a mistake of the facts.”

However, the Indian government’s financial crimes investigator, the enforcement directorate, is now looking into these deals, and India’s high court has thrown out the cardinal’s petition to dismiss other charges.

In late 2019 Alencherry, along with the former financial officer of the archdiocese and a real estate agent, had faced charges in Ernakulam District Court that the cardinal sold archdiocesan land at undervalued prices, for a loss of $10 million.

In August, this district court dismissed the charges, saying there were no prima facie grounds to proceed.

Kavlilpurayidam characterized the new probe as “part of a conspiracy to tarnish the image of the cardinal and the church he heads.” According to the spokesman, the probe is based on the allegation that Alencherry received money that was not accounted for.

Though the district court dismissed one case, the cardinal faces a trial on seven similar charges alleging conspiracy, breach of trust, fraud, and other charges related to the land deals. Alencherry had petitioned the Kerala High Court to throw out the cases, but the court dismissed his petition.

Kavlilpurayidam said the charges aim “to discredit the cardinal before the public and also the vibrant church he heads.”

Alencherry is the major archbishop of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, which has a synod of bishops as its governing body. The Church, based in the southern India state of Kerala, is an Eastern Catholic Church. There are some 2.3 million Syro-Malabar Catholics in India.

The cardinal’s archdiocese had sought to settle a major loan from South Indian Bank by selling three acres it owned in Kochi. However, it has only received a third of the sale value of the property.

Tax authorities levied a fine of over $1 million against the archdiocese because the documented sale price was far lower than the market rate, The Hindu, an Indian daily, reports. This adds to a previous fine for alleged financial discrepancies.

In July 2019, another Church spokesman said that Alencherry acted in good faith in the land deals and had the support of the Vatican.

Father Abraham Kavilpurayidathil, then-press officer for the Syro-Malabar Church in Kerala, told CNA that in his view, the land deal was more complicated than is usually reported, and that Alencherry's actions were an effort to make the best decisions in an unexpected situation.

When the broker did not receive the money the diocese expected in the deal, the cardinal asked the broker to register in the archdiocese’s name two of the broker’s own plots of land, as security for the money owed the archdiocese.

“By doing so, in fact, Cardinal Alencherry tried his best to save the archeparchy from the loss in the land sale deed,” the spokesman told CNA in 2019. He characterized any failings as “technicalities” that could be internally remedied.

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The archdiocese’s financial council gave permission for the sale, though not the synod of bishops which would usually need to approve a sale of this size.

In November 2017 the Archdiocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly’s canonical presbyteral council had 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 his place, while the cardinal formally remained the archbishop. The apostolic administrator sent reports back to the Vatican about diocesan finances.

In June 2019, the Vatican restored the cardinal to his administrative duties, ordering him to submit monthly budget reports and other relevant documents to the Syro-Malabar permanent synod and to comply with all civil laws.

The reinstatement drew some protests, but the scope of these protests was disputed. The Associated Press reported that several hundred priests protested the Vatican's decision. 

Kavilpurayidathil, however, told CNA that only one priest took on a hunger strike in protest of the cardinal. This priest was supported by some priests, but not hundreds.

The Church spokesman had claimed that the allegations against Alencherry are part of a coordinated attack against the cardinal. He said these were attempts at defamation of the cardinal by “a small group who constantly demands that he should resign.”

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“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,” Kavilpurayidathil told CNA.

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