'Why HC ignored binding precedent in Cardinal Alencherry case?' SC reserves judgment in land scam case

Cardinal George Alencherry, the Major Archbishop of Syro-Malabar Church. Screengrab: Manorama News

New Delhi: The Supreme Court has asked the Kerala High Court why it ignored the binding precedent and held that bishops cannot alienate church assets while considering Cardinal Alencherry's plea.

The Catholic diocese had submitted that HC was contradicting its earlier judgement.

The apex court on Wednesday reserved its judgement in the Special Leave Petition filed by George Alencherry, the Major Archbishop of Syro-Malabar Church against the judgment delivered by the Kerala High Court in August 2021. The court had refused to quash the criminal cases over the irregularities in the sale of properties belonging to Ernakulam-Angamalay Archdiocese.

Apart from the Cardinal, the Eparchy of Bathery and the Catholic Diocese of Thamarassery had also filed SLPs challenging the observations made by the HC that bishops have no power to alienate church assets.

While reserving the judgment, the SC bench comprising Justices Dinesh Maheshwari and Bela Trivedi questioned the approach taken by the single bench of the High Court in continuing to issue further directions in the matter, after the dismissal of the Section 482 CrPC petition filed by the Cardinal. It may be recalled that last year, the High Court had issued follow-up directions to the State to identify public properties encroached by religious trusts. The High Court had also recommended that the Central government should bring a uniform law to regulate religious trusts.

During the hearing, Senior Advocates CU Singh, appearing for the Eparchy of Bathery, Sidharth Luthra, appearing for the Cardinal, Jayant Muthuraj appearing for the complainant, Joshy Varghese and Jaideep Gupta appearing for the State government made submissions. Senior Advocate V Giri and Advocate PV Dinesh also made arguments on behalf of third-party intervenors(organisations seeking church reforms). However, the bench said that it will not entertain the arguments of intervenors.

As the hearing progressed, Justice Trivedi asked, “What is the legal status of Episcopal Churches? It is a trust under which provision?”

“It is a Public Trust. Section 92 of CPC will be applicable”, Muthuraj replied.

“Is there any statutory cover over these activities?”, Justice Maheshwari asked, while adding that the SLP pending before the Supreme Court in the case of Lalan Tharakan(against the Kerala HC judgment of 2016 which held that Catholic church assets are not a public trust and that they vest with the Bishop) would be the appropriate plea in which all these questions would be discussed.

By virtue of the office, the Bishop is one to deal with properties and it has be as per the bye-laws of the church, Singh argued before the Court while stating that the properties of the church are vested with the Bishop, an officer of the church.

It does not require to be registered under any particular statute but that does not mean that the church does not have to comply with the laws of the land, he said.

“How do you make them accountable if they are not registered?’, the Bench asked.

Never said will not appear before Trial Court: Cardinal

Meanwhile, Eparchy of Bathery, Sidharth Luthra told the court that the decision to sell the church’s properties to pay off a loan was taken in a meeting by the financial council, an internal arrangement of the management of the church body. The Cardinal acted based on this. There was no objection from any of the members of the council, he added.

He also informed that the Trial Court had adjourned the matter and accommodated the Cardinal for not appearing in person. “I've never said that I'll not appear”, he clarified. He also apprised that an SLP had been moved against the Kerala High Court order which refused to grant the Cardinal exemption from personal appearance.

(With LiveLaw inputs.)

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