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Kerala High Court Order and Lessons for Catholic Church



Paulose Vareed


‘Be ye never so high, the law is above you’! A law student learns this famous quote by Lord

Denning on her first day at college. The Catholic Church in Kerala and the Major Archbishop

of the Syro Malabar Church Cardinal George Alenchery learnt it the hard way recently.

Readers are well acquainted with the shady land dealings by the Cardinal and the subsequent

attempts by the Syro-Malabar Synod to deflect attention from it by raking up the contentious

liturgy issue. It may be recalled that when some faithful approached the Cardinal to find out

the veracity of the allegations against him, an arrogant Cardinal refused to discuss the matter

with them and challenged them to initiate legal proceedings against him. He might have been

very confident that the Kerala Police controlled by the politicians would not dare to take any

action against him. However, some persons in their individual capacity approached the

Courts in Kerala by way of private complaints against the Cardinal. In one such complaint the

Magistrate Court, Kakkanad issued summons to the Cardinal to appear before it for initiation

of the proceedings. As per the provisions of the Code of Criminal Procedure, the Court can

issue summons only after being prima facie satisfied that there are sufficient grounds to

proceed against the accused. The offences alleged to have been committed by the Cardinal

are under Sections 409 (Criminal breach of trust – maximum punishment life imprisonment),

420 (Cheating and dishonestly inducing delivery of property - maximum punishment seven

years), 467 (Forgery of valuable security, will, etc.-maximum punishment life imprisonment),

423 (Dishonest or fraudulent execution of deed of transfer containing false statement of

consideration – maximum punishment two years imprisonment), 120B (Criminal conspiracy

– same punishment as the offence for which conspiracy was hatched).


The moment the summons was issued for personal appearance, any religious leader with an

iota of self-respect would have resigned or at least temporarily stepped down from the office.

However, the Cardinal decided to continue in his office and use the exalted position of his

office to avoid personal appearance. As personal appearance of the accused is mandated by

the Indian law, the Magistrate after repeated adjournments instructed the Cardinal to appear

in person. Instead of complying with the order, the Cardinal appealed against the decision

before the High Court of Kerala. It is worthwhile to reproduce the reasons cited by the

Cardinal to seek exemption from personal appearance:


“The petitioner is a senior citizen aged 77 years. The petitioner is the head of Syro Malabar

Church spread over whole world, having a membership of 55 lakhs. The petitioner bestowed

with the duty of performing religious ceremonies, rituals, including ordination of Bishops,

priests, consecration of churches, etc. The petitioner also had to render supervisory

administrative functions over 35 dioceses out of which 4 are out of India and 18 are outside

Kerala. The petitioner is also the head of the Kerala Catholic Bishop’s Council and he has to

attend meetings as well as perform duties as the President of KCBC. The petitioner is also the

member of College of Cardinals and also has to attend meetings in Rome.”


High Court Order


The High Court rejected the petition by a well-reasoned order on 9 November 2022. The

relevant portions of the judgement are reproduced below:


[I]t can be seen that he (Cardinal) is admittedly attending meetings worldwide as part of

administrative functions. This would indicate that he is not under any physical difficulty,

which prevents him from appearing before the court at least on one occasion to take bail and

execute the bond…..The crucial aspect to note in this regard is that the petitioner ordinarily

resides within the territorial jurisdiction of the Judicial First-Class Magistrate Court,

Kakkanad, where the cases are pending. It is reported that the distance between the place

of the residence of the petitioner and the court is just about 3 Kms. Therefore, under any

circumstances, it cannot be concluded that there exist exceptional circumstances which

prevent the petitioner from attending the court in person, at least for the first time and

executing bonds…”


“Moreover, granting an exemption to the petitioner for the first appearance in this case,

would send a wrong message to the Society as well. According to the petitioner, he is a

religious head required to carry out several functions in various capacities and seeks

exemption on that ground. In my view, the position that he holds would not make him

entitled to any special privileges when he is brought before a court of law as an accused. The

statutory mandate is over and above all the superiority the accused possesses or claims

to have, by virtue of his position. Irrespective of his position, he is just an accused before

the court of law, who is not entitled to claim any special privilege and is required to face the

proceedings just like any other citizen. The provisions of Cr.P.C does not distinguish


between ordinary citizens and persons holding superior positions in their religious,

political, social, or other institutions. Equality before the law, the laudable principle

enshrined in Article 14 of the Constitution of India, is not confined in its application only

in cases where one seeks to enforce his rights. It is equally applicable when a person is

proceeded against for violating the law or for committing an offence, and no preferential

treatment can be claimed by anyone for any reason whatsoever, unless the statute

contemplates such privilege. … if such a privilege is given to the accused, people will lose

their confidence in the administration of justice.”


Lessons that the Vatican should learn


Vatican and the Nuncio to India can learn many a valuable lesson from this order. It is

a known fact that the accused Cardinal enjoys the solid support of Dicastery of Oriental

Churches. Reports by two Vatican-appointed committees have found that in the land dealings

the Cardinal had violated the civil law of India as well as the Canon Law. Even after that

Vatican instead of taking action against him, has allowed him to continue in office. The

Dicastery of Oriental Churches went a step further and directed Archbishop Kariyil (the then

Metropolitan Vicar of the Archdiocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly) even to circumvent the

Canon Law to complete the land transactions initiated by the Cardinal (in the pretext of

making restitution for the losses incurred by the Archdiocese). The priests and faithful of the

Archdiocese learnt a valuable lesson that day (June 21, 2020) that in the Catholic Church

certain people are above the law and the law would be changed to suit the interests of the

powerful. But at least before the Courts of ordinary mortals, as shown by the Kerala High

Court, law is above everyone including the Cardinals of Catholic Church.

Another lesson that the Church can learn is the message that its actions can send to the

ordinary people. One ground for turning down the appeal was that it would send a wrong

message to the society and the people would lose faith in the institution. It is time for serious

introspection by Vatican and the Syro_Malabar Church. Open your eyes and see how many

people you have chased away from the Church by supporting the Cardinal and raking up the

liturgy issue to divert attention from the land scandal.



The Nuncio to India can also learn a lesson or two if he has the humility to accept

India as a ‘civilised nation’. His recent actions reminded one of the colonial masters in the past and ‘white man’s burden’. The forceful resignation of Archbishop Kariyil and his

banishment from the territorial limits of Ernakulam – Angamaly Archdiocese is fresh in the minds of many. He had complete disregard for the Indian Constitution and Indian laws. His actions in punishing Archbishop Kariyil left many wondering whether he doubted that Indians were entitled to human rights. The High Court judgement proudly speaks about the

concept of equality enshrined in Article 14 of the Constitution. It is a pity that the Catholic

Church that claims to follow Jesus Christ who taught about universal love and brotherhood is

yet to learn lessons on equality.

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1 Comment


cneduvalil
Apr 21, 2023

Hardly 5% of clergy ignore the rest of the faithfuls in the day to day affairs of the church especially in financial matters and leadership roles. Instead of their assigned responsibility of service to God and men, they serve themselves and their sycophants and are after gathering wealth chasing positions and prestige. Laity want to stop all these and want auditing of churche's funds and real estate.

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