ROME – Vatican documents obtained by Crux detail the concerns that led Pope Francis on Friday to name an Apostolic Administrator for the troubled mother diocese of the Eastern Rite Syro-Malabar Church.
Those documents show the Vatican is alarmed not only about financial scandals and mismanagement in the Archdiocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly, technically known as an “archeparchy,” but also divisions among the clergy, the auxiliary bishops of the diocese and Cardinal George Alencherry.
The Syro-Malabar Church is the largest Eastern Rite Catholic Church in India, and has over 30 dioceses in the country, and four others around the globe, with over five million members.
“What seriously preoccupies the Apostolic See is not only the financial situation, but the grave situation of ecclesiastical division which has been created,” said a set of instructions signed by Argentine Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, Prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for Oriental Churches.
The letter was addressed to Bishop Jacob Manathodath, tapped by Sandri in a separate decree signed by Sandri and issued June 22 as the Apostolic Administrator.
Though Sandri’s instructions to Manathodath credit Alencherry with having backed the idea of naming an administrator to attempt to solve the crisis, Sandri is also crystal clear that the 73-year-old cardinal, known in the Syro-Malabar tradition as the “Major Archbishop,” is being stripped of his decision-making authority, at least temporarily.
“The Major Archbishop should absolutely not be involved in the decisions regarding the Archeparchy of Ernakulam-Angamaly,” Sandri wrote, underlining the sentence for emphasis.
Sandri said that Manathodath may create a Synodal Committee to assist him if he wishes, but its role is to be consultative only and its decisions are non-binding.
The instructions direct Manathodath to “move toward settling the debts” of the archdiocese, “even through some opportune sales if necessary,” and recommends hiring an independent firm to conduct an audit of archdiocesan finances. The results of that audit, the decree says, should be presented “in a confidential manner” only to the Vatican.
The instructions further indicate that all offices within the archdiocese have been suspended, leaving Manathodath free to confirm the people who presently hold those jobs, replace them with someone else, or take over their functions himself.
Sandri’s marching orders for Manthodath also including tackling the deep fault lines that have opened up.
“Having ascertained the responsibility of individuals,” the decree says, “Your Excellency will need to proceed with regards to persons who have wounded Church unity with unfounded allegations, lacking the spirit of obedience and ecclesiastical sense, and which, in consequence, have contributed to public scandal damaging the Syro-Malabar Church.”
Sandri closes the instructions requesting monthly updates on progress.
Last year, Alencherry was accused along with two senior priests and a real estate agent of selling several plots of land illegally, leading to a loss of over $10 million.
Critics said the deal violated both canon and civil law, since the land was sold for well below market value – a case against the cardinal was dismissed by the High Court of India’s Kerala state last month.
The cardinal had appointed a six-member committee to probe the land deals conducted between April 1, 2015 and November 30, 2017. The committee found that Alencherry had “fully known” and was “involved” in the alienation of the property.