Can financial fraud be ignored in the name of forgiveness and reconciliation?

An Open Letter to Rt Rev P. K. Samuel, Bishop, Karnataka Central Diocese of the CSI, on his Christmas Eve Homily at St. Mark's Cathedral, Bengaluru, 24th December 2018.

Dear  Bishop,

Greetings to you in the name of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

I was in the congregation at St. Mark’s Cathedral  during the Christmas eve late night service this week and listened with great interest to your homily. The theme of peace and reconciliation you chose was very much in keeping with both the Christmas spirit and the need of the challenging times we live in. You also made a passing reference to the “serious difficulties” being encountered by the church and mentioned unnamed people creating “divisions” within the church.

This piece is an attempt to provide some reasoned feedback on your sermon  with the hope that  it will lead to reflection and positive action by you and your peers to rescue the CSI from the dire situation it finds itself in.

As you are aware, two recent developments have greatly impacted the reputation of the CSI negatively. First  the arrest and jailing of the former moderator two weeks ago (he remains in jail at the time of writing with his  bail plea having been rejected) on serious charges of corruption and alleged looting of over Rs 500 crore worth of church property. The second is the dismissal last week by the Madras High Court of the revision petition that sought to set aside the order of the National Company Law Tribunal (NCLT) that divested the office bearers of the CSITA of their powers to manage the vast wealth  of the CSI and appointed a retired judge (since deceased) in its place. No doubt the “serious difficulties" you mentioned in passing, without elaborating, had to do with both these developments, particularly the latter.

In your sermon you repeatedly made the case for striving  for peace and reconciliation, both as individuals and as a society. But, with due respect, you failed to mention two important conditions that are sine qua non for bringing about peace and reconciliation, whether within  the church or in the wider world outslde it. And that is the requirement for justice and forgiveness.  This is so important that it needs to be stated in capital letters. THERE CAN BE NO PEACE AND RECONCILIATION WITHOUT JUSTICE AND FORGIVENESS.

In your sermon you made a reference to Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa and how as a child he was greatly moved by the gesture of a white man in racist South Africa stepping aside for him and his mother to pass on the  road when the prevailing rule was that it was the blacks who were to step aside for the white man.  Well, you must know that Bishop Tutu is a good example of someone who helped successfully advance the cause of peace and reconciliation in an entire country by ensuring restorative (as distinct from retributive) justice. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission heheaded at the request of Nelson Mandela helped heal the wounds of apartheid through  open hearings which saw Bishop Tutu himself overcome with emotion and crying openly; The net effect of this cathartic process was that the ends of justice were served (as many as 5392 amnesty applications were rejected by the Commission which had the power to grant amnesty) even as thousands of victims were able to accept the forgiveness openly sought in public by their tormentors and achieve peace both for themselves as well as the society at large.

What the CSI needs to achieve is peace and reconciliation, and save itself from the dire predicament it finds itself in. My humble views are the following:

1) An acknowledgement by the powers that be in the CSI that serious crimes have been committed against God and His church by those in power. If you have any doubt as to the widespread nature of just the financial crimes then this link will provide some striking and shocking examples. And this piece does not even refer to the depredations of the former Moderator who is currently behind bars.

2) An acknowledgement that  not every CSI member who has  gone legal against the Church is its enemy. It is precisely because the church ignored appeals to rein in the rampant corruption that many were forced to go to the courts seeking justice for the church. More importantly the time has come to recognise that the dissenters are achieving  significant legal success as illustrated by the  NCLT order. It is not longer wise to dismiss them  as inconsequential beings working against the interest of the church. Rather, the very survival of the church would require that the CSI at the highest level enter into a dialogue with the dissenters, something successive moderators have failed to do. Such a reaching out is important to  prevent the very real possibility that continued legal battles could eventually force the courts to put the church’s vast wealth in government hands as has already been partially  done by the NCLT order.

3) An acknowledgement that those mandated to protect the church have failed to discharge their fiduciary duties to the church’s 4 million strong membership. Despite hundreds of crores worth of church property having been looted over decades (as illustrated in the link cited above), the complaints to the authorities have always emanated from individual CSI members. The closest any CSITA authority came to act in this regard was when former CSI general secretary and CSITA secretary Rev Moses Jayakumar filed a police complaint against this predecessor for swindling Tsunami funds.

No senior functionary of the CSITA (which technically holds all property of the CSI) has thought it fit all these years to complain to the authorities against a bishop, whether serving or retired,  for recovery of the looted property. Even in the latest case involving the jailed former Moderator, it is distressing that the  no official complaint has been filed by the Church leadership seeking recovery of the stolen properties. This is a stark example of denying God’s church the very basic element  of justice due to it.

In my view, if the bishops of the CSI want genuine peace and reconciliation within the church they need to, at a minimum, acknowledge the three “wrongs” listed above. I am confident that if this is done, the right atmosphere will be created to wind down the court cases and for the CSI to have its own Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The focus, as in South Africa, should be on restorative (not retributive) justice where restitution (even partially) of what has been illegally taken away goes hand in hand with forgiveness of those who have wronged the church and now show repentance.

I have no illusions this will be an easy task. But if we fervently pray for it, God will provide the right person. The CSI would need its own Bishop Desmond Tutu to pilot the entire process starting with the most difficult bit – the acknowledgement of the three wrongs. But till the right person emerges all talk of peace and reconciliation within the church will, I am afraid, remain just that: talk.

Here's wishing you all the very best for the New Year and for your ministry.

Yours in Christ

Binu Samuel Thomas
26th December 2018


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