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Above: Sister Lucy Kalappura has allegedly been dismissed for speaking out against the church/twitter.com/ANI

Financial frauds and amorous adventures of Kerala leaders have left the church in Kerala a divided house, its moral authority weakened

By NV Ravindranathan Nair in Thiruvananthapuram

Earlier this year, following stories of sex scandals rocking the church emerging from several parts of the world including India, Pope Francis convened an extraordinary summit of bishops in Rome. The meeting was to discuss foolproof mechanisms to check the growing number of such incidents.

It was in the light of this that at least some in the Franciscan Clarist Congregation (FCC) in Kerala were hopeful of a fair deal for a whistleblower amongst them, Sister Lucy Kalappura, who has been in the forefront of the struggle to get justice for a fellow nun, a survivor in a rape case in which a bishop is the accused. What they got instead was a shock when the congregation served Sister Lucy the marching orders.

An abundance of money, a lavish lifestyle and a life filled with lust is a deadly cocktail that can ruin the best of them. Priests are no exception, going by the developments that have plagued the Syro-Malabar church in Kerala for the last few years relating either to the amorous adventures of a handful of priests or financial frauds on a vast scale. In both cases, there has not been a single instance of the church leadership admitting its folly. On the contrary, it has always chosen to target the victim. Sister Lucy Kalappura, who protested against rape accused and former Jalandhar Bishop, Franco Mulakkal, is only the latest case.

On August 5, she was dismissed from her congregation of FCC for not adhering to its lifestyle norms and breaking the vows of poverty. Sister Ann Joseph, Mother Superior General of the Congregation, issued the order based on the decision by its General Council on May 11. Sister Ann’s letter to Sister Lucy Kalappura said: “You were given the required canonical warnings. However, you did not show the needed remorse and you failed to give a satisfactory explanation for your lifestyle in violation of the proper law of the Franciscan Clarist Congregation (FCC)”. Sister Ann also cited the part of the decree from the Vatican granting endorsement to Sister Lucy’s dismissal.

Sister Lucy, who stays at Karakkamala convent of Mananthavady diocese in Wayanad, has been given an option to take recourse against the decree within 10 days from August 7. Failing to do so would mean immediate eviction.

The Mother Superior General has listed her “crimes” as obtaining a driving licence without the permission of the Mother Superior, disobedience and breaking the vow of poverty, publishing a book, Snehamazhayil, participating in discussions on TV channels, buying a car in her name, taking a loan without seeking permission, publishing articles in non-Christian journals and wearing a churidar.

The real reason, though, is that she was dismissed for participating in a protest meeting in front of the High Court demanding the arrest of Bishop Franco Mulakkal in a rape case. As the rape survivor was a fellow nun, she was leading the fight to bring justice for her colleague. “I would remain a nun as I haven’t committed any wrong. It is a revenge for my strong stand against Bishop Franco Mulakkal,” she said.

However, there are mixed responses to the church’s action. Though there are over 7,300 sisters in the congregation, many have chosen not to speak up. While a section of the laity believes that it is a warning for all those who try to unite against the church, those who blindly support the church say that Sister Lucy and the other nuns should have been aware of the consequences of annoying the church leadership.

Reacting to the decision, Advocate Indulekha Joseph, an activist working for reforms in the Catholic Church, said it was an unfortunate development. “Being a nun she cannot express her views. But as a citizen of India, she has been deprived of her rights. She protested and demanded the arrest of Franco. They (church leaders) won’t tolerate any protests against their vices. They are terrorising the nuns,” she opined. The church is following the policy of throwing out nuns from the convent in case they don’t fall in line. They are not entitled to get any compensation even though they have dedicated their entire lives for the benefit of the church.

The development comes just a month after a number of priests refused to accept the clean chit granted by the Vatican to Cardinal Mar George Alencherry, the Major Archbishop of Ernakulam Angamali diocese of the Syro-Malabar church, in a controversial land deal case and staged a massive protest inside the Bishop House. A resolution approved by more than 400 priests at a meeting held in Aluva, on the outskirts of Kochi, also denounced the suspension of Auxiliary Bishops Mar Sebastian Adayanthrath and Mar Jose Puthenveetil.

Father Kuriakose Mundadan, secretary of the Presbyteral Council, told the media that the Vatican’s decision to suspend the Auxiliary Bishops was shocking. “There’s no relief to the ongoing issues in the Church. We doubt whether Pope Francis is aware of the developments here. If yes, the story wouldn’t have been the same,” said Father Kuriakose.

The Rome-based Oriental Congregation’s directive to restore the administrative duties of Cardinal Mar George Alencherry came after a detailed audit report of controversial land deals carried out by the church in Ernakulam. The report was submitted by Apostolic Administrator Bishop Mar Jacob Manathodath to the Vatican. “The decision to reinstate the Cardinal, who is an accused in the controversial land deal, cannot be accepted. We believe it is a biased decision on their part,” a senior priest of the church said.

Bishop Mar Joseph Pamplany, the official church spokesman, however, told mediapersons that the decisions were taken by the Pope and if the priests continued their protest against the pontiff, they would have to face canonical action. On the suspension of the Auxiliary Bishops who took a stand against the Cardinal, he said the suspension was not a punishment and their new duties would be decided in the forthcoming Synod meeting. “If they’re punished, they won’t be entitled to new duties,” added Pamplany.

In November 2017, the Presbyteral Council of the Ernakulam Angamaly archdiocese had publicly accused Alencherry of involvement in dubious land deals. The Council charged the Cardinal, two senior priests and a real estate agent of selling the church’s property at undervalued prices, resulting in a loss of over Rs 63 crore. They accused the Cardinal of bypassing the canonical body’s authority. Following this, the Vatican withdrew Alencherry’s administrative authority in June 2018 while he was allowed to continue as the major archbishop. Bishop Jacob Manathodath was appointed temporary administrator to lead the diocese in Alencherry’s place. The Kochi city police have registered as many as 13 cases against the church leaders in the Syro-Malabar church, involving cheating, theft and criminal conspiracy. The trials in the cases are in progress.

But the Vatican put Alencherry back in charge of the administrative duties of the archdiocese last month, even as the suspension of the Auxillary Bishops continued. The results of the Vatican’s investigation have not been made public yet but one senior priest said the Cardinal’s reinstatement illustrates the faith the Vatican has in his ability to lead the diocese.

The Syro-Malabar church is still denying reports of a revolt against the restoration of the administrative duties of Cardinal Alencherry. And though it is public knowledge, they refuse to acknowledge the fact that over 200 priests gathered inside Bishop House to register their protest against the Vatican’s decision. They term such reports “calculated propaganda”. According to Abraham Kavilpurayidathil, press officer of the Syro-Malabar church, only one priest had observed a protest fast and some priests supported it.

“There have been attempts to defame Mar Alencherry by a small group which constantly demands that he should resign. For this purpose, somebody forged a few documents that show the 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, etc,” Kavilpurayidathil told the media. According to him, the immediate cause for launching the hunger strike at Major Archbishop’s House in Ernakulam by one of the priests of the archdiocese is the continuing police investigation in the forged document case.

There has been a lull in the ongoing fight with the Cardinal and the protesting priests, following an assurance to the priests that all their concerns would be discussed in the Synod to be held later this month.

“If you want to be perfect, go sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me,” Jesus told a rich young man who asked him how he could attain a place in heaven. But when Cardinal Mar George Alencherry sold church property worth crores of rupees, it was apparently not to distribute wealth among the poor. Naturally, the land deal landed him and the church in an unenviable position.

Faced with allegations of financial fraud and cheating of the laity, the Cardinal’s stature has been maligned in the eyes of the laity and has caused a divide between the clergy and laity. While the issues involving financial fraud are usually forgotten with the passage of time and more funding by innocent believers, cases of sexual atrocities against nuns always end up with the victim paying a price for raising her voice against the injustice.

Never has the Catholic Church in Kerala found itself in such a grave predicament.

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