ERNAKULAM, India (ChurchMilitant.com) - India's Catholic Church is facing an uprising by hundreds of angry priests against one of the country's four cardinals following his reinstatement by Pope Francis.
Cardinal George Alencherry was suspended by Francis in 2018 for accusations of misappropriation of funds related to Church land deals but was reinstated in June.
Hundreds of priests of the Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese have been publicly protesting the Vatican's decision to reinstate Cdl. Alencherry as major archbishop with all administrative powers.
It was reported that Alencherry sold land worth about Rs (₹) 275 million ($3,980,326.90 U.S.), but only realized about Rs 135 million. Alencherry has been accused of conspiring and cheating, thereby causing significant financial loss to the Church.
Alencherry alleged that his enemies in the Church had conspired against him, forging documents to make him look guilty. The cardinal's move to absolve himself while pinning the blame on priests created furor among a faction of protesting priests supported by Bp. Jacob Manathodath, the administrator of the Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese.
About 450 priests, including 70 from outside of India, launched a prayer vigil and hunger strike at the bishop's house in the city of Kochi to protest Alencherry's reinstatement.
The priests also demanded information about an investigation carried out by the Vatican that has not been made public, and two auxiliary bishops who were suspended along with Alencherry remain suspended.
In what has been described as unprecedented action, according to The Hindu, in the history of the Catholic Church in Kerala, one of the protesting priests, Fr. Joseph Parekkattil, started a fast unto death to highlight the demands raised by a vast majority of the priests.
More than 360 priests signed a petition that was sent to the Vatican asking for an investigation into the matter.
"We were expecting a positive note from Vatican, but unfortunately we got a shock that [the] Vatican terminated the apostolic administrator and brought back Cdl. Alencherry," said Fr. Kuriakose Mundadan, secretary of the presbyteral council and one of the protesting priests.
Priests of the archdiocese are also saying that the cardinal should not preside over the synod of bishops scheduled for early August. Alencherry's name remains listed on the website of the Syro-Malabar Church — the Eastern Catholic Church in union with Rome that Alencherry heads.
In addition, what has been seen as yet another unprecedented move, the Ernakulam-Angamaly Syro-Malabar Church read out a circular at all churches under its fold last May criticizing Alencherry and the Kerala police.
The land scam scandal fell on the heels of the cardinal's alleged cover-up of Bp. Franco Mulakkal of Jalandhar's repeated rape of a nun, a case that had generated global headlines.
The nun alleged the initial incident took place during the bishop's visit to her convent in Kerala in May 2014. In a 72-page complaint to police, she alleged that the bishop sexually abused her over a dozen times over two years.
The nun is a member of the Missionaries of Jesus and part of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church.
The 54-year-old bishop has denied the allegations. Earlier this year, police in Kerala charged him with repeatedly raping the nun.
Cardinal Alencherry claimed not to know about the nun's complaint or the allegations against the bishop. But in an audio recording, broadcast after the cardinal denied receiving the sexual assault complaint, Alencherry appears to tell the nun that he will deny knowing anything about the complaint if the police ask about it and that she should instead deal with the apostolic nuncio.
A spokesman for the Syro-Malabar Church acknowledged the existence of the conversation but said that the tape had been heavily edited to portray the cardinal in a bad light.
Church members registered a case against Alencherry with local police in Kochi in April. One complainant pointed out that there was alleged cheating and financial loss to the Church in the sale of Church land measuring about three acres. Local police refused to accept his complaint, so the complainants approached the court to register the case.
The Vatican Press Office reports that Cdl. Alencherry participated in the conclave of March 2013, which elected Pope Francis.
Father Mundadan said the hunger strike had ended after priests met with members of the synod and presented their demands.
"They gave us assurance that our demands will be put forward in the coming synod in August," he said.