- 14 Jun 2013
- Hindustan Times (Mumbai)
- Manoj R Nair, Associate Editor
Can a 53-yr-old HC order solve church property scams?
Taken from Hindustan Times Page 6 Mumbai edition dated 14th June 2013
Last month, the office of the charity commissioner ordered one of its senior officials to inquire into complaints by a community group that Roman Catholic churches in Mumbai were not implementing a 1960 order of Bombay High Judgment which said that church properties should be managed like ‘public trusts’.
Groups like the Association of Concerned Catholics (AOCC) have been opposing the current system of estate administration at churches where the parish priest, as the ‘sole trustee’, enjoys unlimited powers in the management of church property.
Though property disputes in the Roman Catholic Church is not on the scale of the scam that has hit Protestant churches in Mumbai, there have allegations that priests have entered into illegal deals to sell church land. At least two churches — St Michael’s in Mahim and Our Lady of Egypt in Kalina — have figured in these allegations. In case of the Kalina church, a former parish priest was among three people named in an FIR about illegal sale of church property.
Community groups say that priests have unbridled powers. They have suggested that a larger group of trustees, including members of the community, elected under provisions of the Bombay Public Trust Act, could be a deterrent against such scams.
Arcanjo Sodder, an advocate and member of AOCC asks, “Priests are being allowed to function as sole trustees. Why do they not have community representatives in the trust?”
The 1960 judgment that these groups are talking about was given by the Bombay High Court in response to an appeal filed by the vicar of Sacred Heart Church, Worli, who opposed his church’s definition as a public trust under the Bombay Public Trusts Act.
The priest argued that they were governed by the Canon Law, their personal law, for appointment of religious officials and also for administration of church properties. So, the priest concluded, there was no need to register those churches as public trusts.
The priest’s arguments were first rejected by the Charity Commissioner and later by the City Civil Court, after which he had filed an appeal in the High Court. It was also pointed out that, while the act specifically mentioned a temple, Math and Wakf (Muslim religious property) as public trusts, the term ‘church’ was not included. Also, other characteristics of a trust — an author, beneficiary and an instrument or document of trust — was absent in case of church properties, it was claimed.
The judge relied on judgments from Madhya Pradesh, Wales and even the Magna Carta — the AD 1215 charter on political and civil rights drawn up in England — to say that a parish church was also a public trust. While the court agreed that the Canon Law was not an instrument of trust, it said that the churches are public religious trusts because an instrument of trust is not always required for the existence of a trust. The court said that the Canon Law is not the law of the land.
Another argument by the priest that the Bombay Public Trusts Act offends religious freedom was rejected by the court which said that the Constitution, while recognising religious groups’ rights to administer their property, says that administration of its property must be in accordance with the law of the land, in this case the Public Trusts Act.
It is not clear whether the Worli church appealed against the HC order, but community members say the judgment has been ignored by churches. The spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Bombay was not available for comment.