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'Elephant crushing' of Church of South India by the Government and Courts

'Elephant crushing' of Church of South India by the Government and Courts
A former Anglican diocese is now being administered by two Retired Judges
PHOTO: The Holy Trinity Cathedral, Palayamkottai, the CSI Tirunelveli Diocese)

By Dr. Joseph Muthuraj
A Virtueonline Exclusive
September 23, 2019

The tide of Court cases against the CSI/CSITA is on the rise

The Church of South India and its Trust Association CSITA are now caught up in a series of unprecedented legal measures which is slowly crushing them as they follow the rules and orders managing the affairs of the church. It is believed that they will eventually cleanse the system by controlling corruption and ultimately freeing the church from mismanagement and illegitimate activities. Natural justice has lost its voice in the Church! Appealing to Scripture and summoning theological reasoning has fallen on deaf ears!! An invitation to govern the CSITA, an incorporated body under the Indian Companies Act 1913, in prescribed ways of developing good corporate governance in handling the finance and other resources of the church is repeatedly sent to the courts without it being received!!!

A crude 'business-as-usual' attitude prevails so that normal circumstances are expected to continue unchanged unless the long arm of law discipline them.

Bishops are busy canvassing for the election of new office-bearers of the Synod in early next year

Bishops and their contingents are getting ready for elections in January 2020 for the posts of Moderator, Deputy-Moderator, Treasurer and the General Secretary and the spirit of competition is already reaching its peak.

More candidates, who have the most deforming sense of Christian ministry and the most degrading level of integrity, are equipping themselves with money to spend and lobby more than in previous years. Most of them have no ethical qualifications and moral standards to become leaders.

The next Moderator could be one who is currently living on anticipatory bail obtained from the court to prevent arrest over charges of forgery and theft. There will be three such candidates in the fray. And/or it could be someone who has caused enormous financial loss to his diocese amounting to millions of dollars through his irresponsible bad planning and maladministration. The next General Secretary could be one who is a close relative and a benami of the popular G. Dyvasirvadam who was, for some time, running away from the police to escape arrest on account of criminal charges. The next Deputy Moderator could be someone who is also spending time under an anticipatory bail on charges of physical assault. The next Treasurer could be one who has several complaints made on him for bribery and illegal sale of church lands in his own diocese and/or one who is blocking the Serious Fraud Investigation Office from conducting investigation into the account books of the CSITA. Not a single person is worthy to be recommended among the dozen aspirants who can deliver what the church is called upon to do in a country like India, let alone in the global context of CSI which prides itself on being part of three world communions.

What a great team it will be to witness for Christ! Corruption is tenacious and corrupt community has stronger political muscle. Anti-corruption voices calling for reformation are ignored constantly by the 300 odd members of the Synod who elect future leaders.

Here 'elephant crushing' (the hard and tough practice to train elephants in Thailand and India) is not a form of animal cruelty! The rogue animal, the CSI, resists and resists relentlessly!!

The CSI's legal expenses have escalated hundredfold in a decade

The CSI Synod and 24 dioceses are now spending huge amounts of money on legal professional expenses. The legal professional charges for the year 2015-16 amounted to Indian Rupees 11 crores which is about 1.5 million (US) [US$ 140,600 is equivalent to one crore] and it is roughly US$ 300,000 more than the previous financial year of 2014-15. Expenses are escalating each year. The financial statement of 2016-17 reveals spending Rs. 14 crores on legal expenses which is just north of $2 million US.

In the year 2008-2009, legal expenses were shown as Rs. 34 lakhs (50,000 USD). The year before (2007-2008) had a much less figure, some ten times lower. What was seen as Rs. 300,000 expense ($5,000 US) item in 2007-2008 now requires 14,00,000,00 (little over $2 million US). This figure does not include money spent by each of the 24 dioceses with 20,000 congregations where court-cases are piling up every month (adding to the above legal fees and professional charges) to find settlement to issues created by groups fighting each other for ascendency and power.

The most serious factor is that the administrators in all levels, Synod, diocese and micro-congregations utilise the church's money to cover the legal expenses for cases which challenge their abuses of power and mismanagement. The church treasury has to respond for the wrongdoings committed by those occupying positions either small or big. There are no restrictive guidelines over the amount of church money to be spent, if it needs to be spent, over legal battles which are basically for settling personal scores between individuals and groups. Even a case of objecting a pastor serving in a congregation is taken to court these days and the pastor is made to function by hanging on to a temporary stay order granted by the court.

Should all these changes be considered as marks of progress that the people of the CSI have now learnt seeking for justice and truth by breaking the shell of implicit obedience to church authorities? Or, is it that the church is degrading itself by turning to non-Christians by straying from the life of Christian mission and witness? Or, is it that the people are now reposing their trust on the national Judiciary rather than on the Ecclesiastical Courts? What this changing situation makes clear is that the ecclesiastical courts are not dependable any more having lost their credibility as they are led by corrupt bishops and their supporters. The people have begun to point their fingers on those who sit in those courts. The so-called courts largely serve the interests of the ruling authorities.

Government statutory measures to curb fraud are challenged in the courts by the CSI

Adding to the story is that the Church of South India is facing increasing litigation and investigations from the government regulatory and statutory bodies. It is now become a difficult task not only to present a full picture of the lawsuits and investigations the CSI is currently faced with. It is even more difficult to predict the outcome of all these pleasant/unpleasant developments.

The Government ordered a probe into the fraudulent activities of the CSITA in July 2016 based on a report submitted by the Registrar of Companies. It summoned the Serious Fraud Investigation Office which is the counterpart of Serious Fraud Office in the UK to do the task. This mandate from the Government is blocked by the CSI leaders in various courts and they were successful twice in blocking it entering into the church offices for examining the financial records and catching the offenders. The case is in the court for the third time. We hope to get a favourable decision to permit the SFIO to re-start its investigation of all the dioceses; identify the offenders, prosecute them and send many of them to prison.

The CSI's culture of non-compliance and corruption

Within the last ten years, the CSITA was inspected and found the Company had 27 types of violation of the various provisions of the Companies Act 1956. The Company was subsequently prosecuted by the Register of Companies in 43 cases. The cases against the directors and the ex-directors of the CSITA are now pending in the Economics Court in Egmore, Chennai. To our knowledge, just two of the cases were so far disposed of by levying a fine of Rs. 1,000 on the CSITA directors including a former Moderator. According to the information available, 27 of the rest of the cases are 'stayed' by the court as an interim measure at the end of 2017. Further progress on these cases are not known and is kept as secret by the CSI leaders. This has lowered the credibility of the Christian religious company, the CSITA, and it has added to the swelling court cases.

The Tribunal dismissed all the directors of the CSITA

On 11 November, 2016, the Judge of National Company Law Tribunal (NCLT) said, "...in the given circumstances (of inefficiency and mismanagement) there is an urgent need to regulate the affairs of the company. Thus, I proceed to remove all the directors and managing committee including office bearers by appointing Hon'ble Justice Shri K. Sampath (Retd) as the Chairman who is authorised to nominate four suitable persons to be chosen from the sub-units/Dioceses of Churches and three office bearers. The Chairman will recommend the names of the persons to this Tribunal (National Company Law Tribunal) for appointment as Director and office bearers respectively." The Judge expressed the view that the above action was taken for the cause of justice.

This decision unfortunately could not be implemented as the retired judge appointed as the new administrator died before he could assume office and subsequent NCLT proceedings on the case went back on its earlier verdict issued by a different Judge. A final verdict now is awaited and the Tribunal is keeping it reserved since April 2019. We do not know what is holding the final judgement from being proclaimed!

The Charges against Dyvasirvadam in the long-drawn-out ERD Case

Former Moderator Dyvasirvadam (2014-2017) is linked directly or indirectly to so many cases of corruption and fraud which earned the title, 'father of corruption in the CSI'. The name Dyvasirvadam means 'blessing of God'. The classic case of the misuse of funds was to help and support the Tsunami victims of the year 2014. The Episcopal Relief and Development (ERD) of The Episcopal Church represented by its President in New York filed a case (CS 950/2009) against Dyvasirvadam, the then General Secretary of the Church of South India, his daughter-in-law, his son's parent-in-law, his nephew and his most loyal Treasurer and of the CSI Trust Association demanding repayment of the Tsunami grants worth rupees 19 crores ($266,000 US) with an additional 24% interest from the year of making the complaint, i.e. from 2009 till the date of payment but no one knows when.

The Indian amount at that time of filing the civil lawsuit was equivalent to a sum of USD 3.9 million. The ERD prays to the court to direct Dyvasirvadam and also the CSITA to pay the cost of the legal proceedings to the ERD which should also amount to a huge sum.

The major complaint is that the auditors appointed to audit the financial statement of the ERD funds to the CSITA highlighted the lack of transparency in the CSI/CSITA's utilization of them. It was hidden from the knowledge of the ERD that Dyvasirvadam and Co. were known for making an unauthorised application for securing funds from other donors and that they had already committed statutory violations through maladministration of funds secured from overseas. These violations were not known to the ERD committee, the petition reports.

The ERD petition further stated that the office-bearers of the CSI failed in their obligations towards 'ensuring the immediate, regular and uninterrupted disbursement of finances towards the relief and rehabilitation.' The ERD did not receive any cooperation from Dyvasirvadam as he refused to participate in any audit of the accounts as per the petition. The CSI hierarchy at the time hid the accounting information and bank statements from the auditing. In the suit the ERD holds the CSITA as jointly responsible along with Dyvasirvadam for the failure to honour the Memorandum of Understanding and thereby failure to return the money.

From the CSI side, the enormous amount of money needed to run this case is being spent not from the pockets of Dyvasirvadam and his colleagues/relatives but from the Synod or the CSITA treasury. Before the admission of the ERD case, the annual legal expenses were one tenth of a crore and now it is 110 times more. Finally, should the ERD win the case, who will pay back the enormous amount? It will be the CSITA, not Dyvasirvadam! Looting money in the church is a safe affair since the accused bishops and other administrators do not have to bear the cost of the legal expenses and even when they are convicted it will not be counted against their names!! It is expected that the church will take care of the repayment of millions of dollars!!

The case has been dragging on for over ten years, adding to the suspicion if the ERD is really keen on getting the money back and punishing the offenders. There is even a rumour of a compromise being struck between the ERD and the CSI not to carry on with the case proceedings. This is strongly denied by the ERD.

But the suspicion is based on strong grounds. Nobody is sure of the current stage of the case. The Madras High Court website unusually does not have the particulars over this particular case proceedings for the last five years. According to it, the case was first heard on 6 October 2010, almost after a year of filing the petition.

The last hearing was scheduled for 11 November 2014. Why did it take so long to start the hearing unless there are (illegal) forces causing unnecessary delays? After this date there are no more entries to inform the public. Why has no recording being done since 2014? Was the case practically not heard for the last five years? It is mentioned in the official website of the high court that the status of the case is in the very initial stage of 'Recording Evidence'. We are not sure whether the parties have submitted evidence so far so that the trial could start. There are still many phases before a judgement is issued. It looks as if the case will easily take another ten years or more! Justice delayed is justice denied!

The Indian Government tightens its grip on the Non-Governmental Organisations such as the CSITA

CSI Moderator TK Oommen has been disqualified from being a director of the CSITA by the Registrar of Companies The Moderator, who by virtue of holding the office of Moderator also acted as the President of the Church of South India Trust Association, was also disqualified by the Registrar of Companies for a period of five years to function as director for his company as it did not file the financial statement regularly for the last three years. The disqualification was a serious matter, which might send the disqualified director to jail as per the Companies Act 2013, but the Moderator continued to act as the Chairman of the Trust Association in board meetings and became part of the decisions made. He then sensed the danger of his actions and sent a letter resigning from his post of director at midnight and stepped out of the management of the CSITA. Questions have been rightly raised as to how he can still function as Moderator as positions held in the CSI and the CSITA are interlinked and cannot be separated.

The Indian Government keeps introducing stricter rules and provisions for Christian non-Governmental organisations with a view to stop conversion to Christianity.

The FCRA: the stone on which the CSITA always stumbles

The Government of India enacted the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA) in the year 1976 with an objective of regulating the acceptance and utilization of foreign contribution and foreign hospitality by persons and associations working in the important areas of national life which is applicable to the CSITA. The act was modified in 2010 with several amendments because many Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) including churches and Christian organisations were found using illegal use of foreign funding. In 2016 a license of about 20,000 NGOs was cancelled after reviewing their work.

The CSITA and the CSI are the culprits in not following the FCRA rule closely. The CSITA as an incorporated company is permitted to have one authorised bank account into which it receives all foreign donations. The funds then get distributed to other units/dioceses to spend on earmarked expenses for approved projects. But the CSITA broke this provision and allows every diocese to open its own FCRA account to receive foreign money directly and the diocese of Dyvasirvadam, the Krishna-Godavari diocese opened nine such accounts, according to an investigation official, which is against FCRA regulations.

The Ministry of Home Affairs recently notified new rules for those receiving foreign funding. The money is to be spent for the purpose it was received. Any violation of this rule will receive penal action. Foreign contributions are often misused for personal expenses by diocesan authorities.

It is now mandatory for the office bearers and key functionaries and members of the CSITA to certify that they have not been "prosecuted or convicted" for "conversion" from one faith to another and for creating "communal tension and disharmony". Programmes relating to Conversion is also rated as the equivalent of creating communal tension and disharmony as it disrupts and damages the bonds within the Hindu community.

Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) including the CSITA will be required to file an affidavit once in five years, at the time of renewal of licence under the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act, declaring that all their members, office-bearers and key functionaries have not violated 20 conditions, including involvement in religious conversion or prosecution in a communal riots case, said a Union home ministry official.

A good number of Christians of the CSI are engaged in evangelistic activities among the Hindus and each year an appreciable number of Hindus turn to accepting Christian faith. The CSI Synod journal reported that the commemoration service for the 70th year of the formation of the CSI held in 2017 was a memorable occasion as more than 700 new believers were baptised during the service that took place in Chennai (Madras). The new rule on conversion will be an impediment to the ongoing missionary efforts of some sections of the CSI.

Is the CSI willing to give up the Rs. 80 crores $11,200,000 (US) received annually as grants from several foreign countries, as it accepts the converts from other religions? Or, will it try to hide the reports of conversions from the attention of the Government?

The new RTI Act makes the CSITA institutions transparent to the public eye

Another new measure was introduced a few days ago, which will make various inner details regarding management of the educational CSITA institutions open and available to the Indian public who may want to get them through Government channels. This makes the CSITA management transparent and information about them accessible to the public. It will expose the CSI corrupt activities that silently go on behind the curtain particularly in rich CSITA educational institutions: 94 Colleges, 573 Secondary Schools, 1469 Elementary and Nursery Schools, 43 Technical Institutions, 17 Para Medical Institutions, 60 others continue to cater for the educational needs.

Under provisions of the Right to Information Act 2005, any citizen of India may request information from a body of Government or 'instrumentality of State' which is required to reply expeditiously or within thirty days. The Act also requires every public authority including those who receive substantial grants from the Government to computerise their records for wide dissemination and to proactively certain categories of information so that the citizens need minimum recourse to request information formally. The Right to Information Act would bring in transparency and eradicate corruption by civil society's direct involvement by getting vital information on perceived misdeeds.

The CSITA has received by way of Government Grants and subsidies Rs. 596 Crore in the Financial Year 2016-17 and it increased considerably to Rs. 684 Crore, in the year 2017-18. In the years 2015-16 it was Rs. 620 crore. and in 2014-15, it was Rs. 544 crore. One crore Indian money is equivalent to $140,600 (US).

These institutions have now been brought under the RTI Act so that those who are interested in knowing important details on how a particular institution is run and how the foreign money is being spent may approach the RTI office and apply for a specific piece of information/evidence that they can ask for. Previously, Non¬-Governmental organizations and colleges/institutions run by them were not covered under this Act. Now it exposes Christian institutions to the public enabling them to attain more knowledge about the inner workings of an institution. The citizens and particularly the CSI Christians can secure official information on issues over which they have doubts and grievances and they can address them in the appropriate courts of law. The institutions are expected to provide the necessary information requested by individuals under the amended RTI Act. The wild elephant will be thus tamed in the hardest possible manner!

Leaders over the last two decades have dragged the CSI and the CSITA into the gutter. In the book of The Revelation, St. John writes to the Church in Laodicea; "You say, 'I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.' But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see....So be earnest and repent." John Trapp comments, 'they (Laodiceans) undervalued the best things, but overvalued the worst'. This is true even today!

Former Anglican diocese is administered by two Retired Judges appointed by the High Court

A landmark verdict was delivered on the serious crisis in the management of the Tirunelveli diocese, an erstwhile Anglican territory where missionary work was carried out by the CMS and the SPG for over two hundred years. The diocese was marred by illegal transfers and appointments in educational institutions for an exchange of heavy sum as bribes allegedly collected by the bishop and the lay leaders of the diocese on separate occasions. The order was delivered on 5 August 2019 and this is the most punitive judgement the CSI has ever received at the hands of the courts in India.

The honourable Judge Mahadevan stated that "the court is not no longer interested in the aim and goal of the institutions and should not be allowed to be defeated. One thing is clear that the utmost interest of the institutions has been pushed back behind the rival claims over the administration and management of the Diocese of Tirunelveli as well as TDTA. This Court, while entertaining the present writ petitions, could not be a mere spectator to the happenings just opposite to the object with which the institutions have been originated and issue mere directions. At the present stage as projected by either side, the need of the hour is to oxygenate the total administration and management of the institutions."

The non-Christian Judge who, I am told, reads Thompson Chain Reference Bible (1977) regularly and has read it more than half a dozen times, issued a well-thought out judgement backed by a great vision to reform, or what he calls 'oxygenate' the administration and the management of the church and its institutions. The major features of the verdict:

(i) The Bishop/Chairman/concerned parties shall hand over all the records relating to the transfers, postings and appointments made on and from 23.04.2017, to the Administrators. The Administrators shall scrutinise these records, hear the parties affected by such transfers, postings and appointments and pass appropriate orders, within six weeks from the date of receipt of the records. Those orders shall be binding on the bishop, executive committee diocesan council and persons in-charge of postings and transfers.

(ii) All meetings of the Executive Committee shall be held henceforth, under the supervision and control of the Administrators. If there is any conflict of opinion between the Bishop/Chairman on the one hand and the elected Diocesan Council/Executive Committee on the other hand, the Administrators shall find out what is good for the institution and take appropriate decision. The decision of the Administrators shall be final and binding on the Executive Committee of the Diocesan Council and the Bishop/President.

This is a WARNING to other thick-skinned, disobedient and corrupt bishops and lay leaders in all dioceses and the directors/members of the CSITA. There is a strong likelihood that the honourable Judges who are now hearing the cases of fraud and forgery in the CSITA might appoint, in accordance with law, new administrators to the entire units of the CSITA. The bishops will have to work under their guidance and supervision and their independent powers will be limited to preaching and conducting worship.

BUT the court order on the appointment of administrators is challenged in the Madurai branch of Madras High Court on 4 September 2019 by a group which feels their activities will be brought under a scanner by the new administrators. Hope, the petition is dismissed.

As the Supreme Court in New Delhi has once proclaimed, 'We must not be content with the law in books but we must have law in action... it is necessary that law must not only speak justice but must also deliver justice.'

What is truly sad is that The Church of South India is on its way to being reformed by Judicial and Statutory Authorities and not by repentance and a renewed obedience to Christ.

The Rev. Dr. Joseph Muthuraj is former Professor of New Testament at United Theological College in Bangalore, India, He has been one of the strongest voices in the global theological communion appealing for a renewal of Episcopacy to bring an end to the corruption in the Church of South India. He is VOL's India correspondent

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