Cash, Corruption, Church, Clergy. This is no mere wordplay with the alphabet ‘C.’ Too much Cash -- or at least the latent power to realize it – appears to be what is Corrupting the Church of South India (CSI) and some of its senior Clergy. The CSI is not only the second biggest church in India (after the Catholic Church) with 14,000 parishes and roughly 4.5 million worshippers, but also among the top ten richest institutions in the country in terms of real estate value. Even Mukesh Ambani, the richest Indian, will likely feel a little jealous if he were to get the true picture of the extent of the CSI’s real estate assets.
Consider this: the CSI, according to information available on Wikipedia, runs 2000 schools, 130 colleges and 104 hospitals in South India. A substantial portion of this real estate, owned through the Church of South India Trust Association, is located in the most expensive areas of leading state capitals and other cities. Their ritzy location reflects the fact these were inherited by the CSI when it was created in September 1947 through the union of several colonial era churches. In addition, the CSI has some 50 rural development projects, over 50 training centers for young people and some 500 residential hostels. The value of all this real estate: well over Rs one lakh crore! Most calculators will have difficulty displaying all the zeros in that number!
In one city, Bangalore, alone the CSI has the best and the biggest real estate assets of any institution (except the government, the army and the catholic church). And most of it in the heart of the city. The 13 acres on which Bishop Cotton Boys School sits has a market value (at today’s prices) of Rs 1200 crore. Add to it schools like Bishop Cotton Girls, Cathedral, St.John’s, churches like St. Marks, St. Andrews, East Parade, Trinity, hospitals like CSI, commercial complexes like CSI Building on Lavelle Road, Unity Buildings on Mission Road and the acres surrounding it in CSI Compound and the value of these holdings will cross Rs 15,000 crore in one city alone.
In recent years as real estate values have soared, corrupt bishops within the CSI have been tempted to make money through real estate deals as this petition to the Hyderabad High Court reveals http://www.gopetition.com/petitions/church-of-south-india-properties.html Where the property itself is not alienated, parts of it are turned to commercial use as in the case of the Cottons Complex built on land that was once part of the Bishop Cottons Boys School in Bangalore. Such commercialization of CSI property helps earn massive illegal profits for corrupt bishops and their supporters both within and outside the church. It is an open secret that in the big cities the land mafia now plays a role in church elections, helping vote into positions of power the most corrupt and pliable among the senior clergy. Sometimes these land sharks foment trouble within parishes to clinch land development deals. This article of a few months ago on the feud over prime CSI property in Hyderabad’s 150-year old St. George’s Church suggests just such a scenario. http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/hyderabad/Ownership-row-hits-church-services/articleshow/5725382.cms
The sad truth is that some corrupt bishops within the CSI are more businessmen today than religious leaders, cutting shady deals on church property, taking donations for school admissions and the like. Dealing in the church’s finances was not what CSI bishops were mandated to do. Here’s what Rev. Jacob Belly, General Secretary, Presbyter Council for Church Reformation, wrote on 16th April 2010 in an internet comment on the recent scandal involving the arrest of the CSI Bishop of Coimbatore.
we want to recollect the message Printed in the Church of South India news magazine, South India Churchman, September 1954. Seven years after the formation of CSI.
‘Not Boss: a bishop of the CSI has very little administrative authority….neither as bishop nor as president of the Diocesan Council has he any controlling authority over the finance of the Diocese’
The present situations of the Bishops in CSI is exactly different from the principle of the formation of CSI. Therefore time has come for a great change in CSI.
Apart from real estate holdings, another big source of illegal funds for some corrupt CSI bishops has been donations taken from parents at the time of admissions to premium church-run schools. Had this problem been restricted only to the bishop concerned it would not have been so bad for the church as an institution. Unfortunately the cover up of the bishop’s illegal gains involves corrupting people lower down the church hierarchy, often by the bishop himself, perhaps to buy their silence. A recent expose by Bangalore Mirror which published a photocopy of the savings bank account of Bishop S. Vasantha Kumar of the Karnataka Central Diocese showed how exactly this is done. The Bishop was shown having illegally received Rs 4 lakhs directly from Bishop Cotton Boys School and then having issued modest cheque payments from it to various members of the clergy. Where the bishop is corrupt, management boards of premium CSI-run schools in his diocese tend to be packed with his supporters who collect the donations on his behalf and take their cut as well.
The financial situation of the CSI is now very different from what it was at the time of its founding. For many of its initial years the CSI had to depend on foreign funding to balance its books. Now the church gets sizeable contributions from its members who, at least in the big cities, hold good jobs by virtue of their relatively superior education (compared to the general population) and give generously to church causes.
Not so long ago many CSI churches were dirty and unkempt on the outside, but one could at least be sure that the hand that administered the holy communion inside was clean. Today most CSI churches look resplendent (as indeed they should) on the outside. But the hand that administers the communion and gives the benediction within, is often dirty and tainted with all forms of sleaze. And unless, as Rev Belly says, the CSI acts to restrict the involvement of its bishops in the financial affairs of the church, the hands of many more of the clergy will only get dirtier and the church will lose its very soul.
Many of those in power within the CSI have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo and will resist change. It is only the members, who constitute the main body of the church, that can pressure change in the role of bishops. At stake is the battle for the very soul of the church which today stands corrupted. If bishops continue to whittle away the CSI’s massive real estate assets, members stand to lose a lot. Every man, woman and child in the CSI can boast of having church assets worth over Rs two lakhs each, at least in notional terms. More than the money these assets represent a priceless heritage for all CSI members as this India Today article on the 200-year old St. Marks Cathedral in Bangalore shows http://www.indiatoday.intoday.in/site/story?sId=24820&secid=22
What will it take then to awake CSI’s sleeping membership and assert their rightful control over how the church is run? That remains the question.
(Kindly send your comments on this piece and your views on the subject to email@example.com )
This article was posted by Boycott Bishop Campaign (BBC); Please feel free to mail at firstname.lastname@example.org