CHENNAI, India: Corruption Stalks Church of South India
Fifteen out of 21 Anglican bishops said to be corrupt according to Central Intelligence Authorities
Nearly two million dollars given for Tsunami victims by The Episcopal Church that were siphoned off reveal tip of financial corruption
By David W. Virtue in Chennai
March 27, 2013
Nearly two million dollars given by Episcopal Relief and Development (ERD), the social service arm of The Episcopal Church, for victims of the 2004 Tsunami never got to those for whom it was intended. A Church of South India General Secretary diverted a third of the money to a private clinic run by her medical daughter, a Dr. Beneta.
The money was supposed to have gone to fishermen who lost their boats following giant earthquake driven Tsunami waves that killed 155,000 people and decimated the fishing industry. Money was given to rebuild their homes and to buy new fishing boats destroyed by the 50 foot waves. They received minimal sums of money for boats but nothing for reconstructing their lives and homes.
This is just one of numerous stories of a decades-long history of corruption in the Church of South India that has left Christians cynical that change is possible and good order can ever be restored to the biggest Protestant Church in India. One Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) detective (the equivalent of the FBI) says that the problem remains so widespread in the Church of South India that as many as 15 of the church's 21 bishops have been tainted by corruption over the years.
Major J. Victor, an Anglican lay activist, General Secretary, Laity Association of CSI and whistle blower who has railed against corruption of the Church of South India for years, sat down with VIRTUEONLINE in Chennai. He told the story of corruption that has riddled his Church, resulting not only in fines and jail time for crooked bishops, but a weakened witness for the gospel while bishops grew fat on money from Anglican agencies abroad including The Episcopal Church.
"What has been going on here for at least a decade is unconscionable, unbiblical and has undermined the gospel enterprise. The Anglican Church has not grown because of the corruption, while Assemblies of God, Pentecostal churches and other denominations have flourished." According to Victor, many members of CSI pay a nominal sum to keep their membership in the church for the sake of baptism, marriages and burial while they attend other churches on a weekly basis and give their tithing to them.
Corruption has emanated from the highest levels of the church - its bishops - with charges of tax fraud, cronyism, nepotism, money hijacked from land deals, hospital fraud, stolen Tsunami funds, vote buying, and much more.
Despite new and ongoing revelations, corruption remains endemic in the Indian church, Victor charges. One state investigator alleges that 15 of the CSI's 21 bishops are tainted by corruption. "At one point in 2010, I told Suzanne Parks, an assistant to Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, about the corruption in the CSI but nothing was done. This was a shocking abdication of responsibility," added Victor.
The whistle blower showed VOL hundreds of pages of documents and files detailing decades of corruption. Some of it led to legal action with charges and arrests brought against bishops resulting in protracted law suits, court battles with the bishops slipping through the legal system owing to corrupt judges bribed by the bishops. "There is not one case the bishops have won in the law courts, what they have succeeded in doing is delaying the legal process by years to prevent final judgment," said Victor.
"Over the years, I estimate that as much as $4 million dollars has been stolen by bishops who then purchased expensive new foreign cars, built multi-level homes and lined their own pockets," Victor told VOL.
Most of the bishops come from the despised Dalit classes, India's poorest who suffer from poor self esteem. Christianity has brought them wealth from old colonial British days via money left in properties that the bishops now hold in trust and can dispose of without any accountability. It is their ticket out of poverty. Psychologically, many are still trapped in deep feelings of inferiority. For the Dalit class, money is a way to climb out of the deep personal self-judgment they feel. Dalits are not respected like Brahmins, India's ruling class. When judgment in the courts or by police looks like it is going against them, they play the Dalit card, said Victor.
"That is no excuse for taking money and misusing it for personal reasons. It goes against the gospel and it results in widening ripples of corruption that never gets fully resolved and only weakens evangelistic efforts of the church," said Victor.
BISHOP DEVERAJ BANGERA
As recently as March 20, The Times of India reported that a former Karnataka Southern (CSI-KSD) Diocesan Bishop Devaraj Bangera was sentenced to three years simple imprisonment and fined $275.00 in a case relating to forgery and cheating on his birth certificate. Bangera was given bail.
The case pertained to the former Bishop allegedly forging his birth certificate in order to secure an additional year's tenure as bishop. Bangera was the CSI Bishop from 2005 to 2009. He retired after reaching 65, the superannuation age in the church. Bangera filed a suit in the civil court contending that he was born a year later (1945) and therefore had one more year of tenure as CSI Bishop, but the fifth additional civil court (junior division) dismissed it.
A private complaint was filed by advocate Chandrahas K at the Second CJM court based on the initiative of Udayaraj Kaunds, now the treasurer of CSI-KSD - after they found out that Bangera had allegedly indulged in financial irregularities.
STOLEN TSUNAMI FUNDS
Perhaps the most egregious of corrupt acts and the rip off of the decade occurred in 2009 when detectives from the Central Crime Branch of the Madras police arrested the former General Secretary of the Church of South India (CSI), Dr. Pauline Sathiamurthy, on charges of stealing almost $1.5 million of the $3,340,000 million donated by Episcopal Relief & Development (ERD) to the CSI to help in relief efforts following the 2004 tsunami.
Dr. Sathiamurthy is the daughter of the former moderator of the CSI and Bishop in Tiruchi-Thanjavur, Dr. Solomon Doraisawmy. Sathiamurthy, her husband, daughter and nephew were arrested on October 13, 2009 following a 10-month investigation by police. The thefts came to light in 2007 when the Rev. Moses Jayakumar was appointed General Secretary of the CSI succeeding Dr. Sathiamurthy. After assuming office, the Rev. Jayakumar found that Dr. Sathiamurthy had ignored a request for an accounting for the funds from ERD and that ERD had cut off further funding pending an audit.
Ironically, Victor told VOL that he himself travelled to New York in 2009-2010 and confronted Robert W. Radtke, ERD President. Victor berated him for blithely handing over millions of dollars instead of giving it in smaller sums with frequent accountability of how it was being spent. "I told him that he was an absolutely irresponsible man. The Episcopal Church lost millions in this Tsunami crime."
(This is not the first time The Episcopal Church has lost millions of dollars. VOL documented the loss of over $1.5 million to the Anglican Church of Mexico in 2004 when an archbishop and bishop absconded with TEC funds never to be heard from again.)
The CSI asked retired Madras High Court Judge J. Kanagaraj to head the committee charged with investigating the theft. Mrs. Sathiamurthy declined to cooperate, but Judge Kanagaraj found that she had appointed her husband to oversee the construction of houses built for survivors of the tsunami, with her daughter (Dr. Benita) to head up medical relief efforts, and her nephew to serve as a liaison officer for tsunami rehabilitation work - all at inflated salaries running into the tens of thousands of rupees over and above their regular salaries. An estimated $1.4 million was spent on air conditioned cars and computers that went to the bishops along with medical equipment for her private clinic.
In December 2008, the Rev. Jayakumar was forced to turn Judge Kanagaraj's report over to the police. The Synod appointed Mr. Rozario to serve as the church's attorney in the affair. The police began a criminal investigation and arrested Dr. Sathiamurthy. She was subsequently released on bail and has since disappeared.
Following the election of the Bishop in Karnataka Central Diocese, S. Vasanthakumar became the Moderator of the CSI in January 2010 and promptly replaced Mr. Rozario as the church's attorney.
Bishop Vasanthakumar, who was the subject of corruption and abuse of office claims and whose election as moderator was marred by accusations of vote buying, was serving as Deputy Moderator of the CSI when the Tsunami funds were stolen.
Under Bishop Vasanthakumar, the CSI declined to press the police to track down Dr. Sathiamurthy and recover the stolen funds. With Mr. Rozario's return to office, anti-corruption activists hope new interest will be shown by the church in resolving the scandal. [Partial source for this section comes from CEN]
At a Church of South India hospital, an audit revealed financial misappropriation of hospital funds, cash, medical equipment, and unpaid drug bills all running into the hundreds of thousands of dollars (millions of rupees) by the Nursing Superintendent. Among the charges are fraudulent bills submitted for baby packs with bills in the name of the superintendent's husband, submitted and paid "to keep her happy." Funds for the CSI's polio center were given to repay personal loans along with bogus bills. Vital documents that would have revealed even more corruption have been destroyed by fire. VOL has seen the audited statement prepared and submitted by the audit company, Messrs R. Krishnakumar and Associates, running to 200 pages. This audited report was hushed up and was never given to the Synod or Income Tax department.
BISHOP CHRISTOPHER ASIR
Corruption charges against Bishop Christopher Asir of Madurai-Ramnad were brought by the Indian government for tax fraud. The District Revenue Collector of Madurai charged the bishop with being part of a criminal ring that defrauded the diocese of $1,400,000 by selling college land and pocketing the proceeds. The bishop died in February 2012 before he could be indicted.
As part of the same charges, an Indian court in October of 2012 overturned the appointment of the head of the Church of South India's American College, arguing that the now deceased bishop in Madurai-Ramnad had colluded with his son-in-law to engineer the younger man's appointment as principal.
As a result of a lawsuit brought by a member of the staff, Justice Vinod Kumar Sharma quashed the appointment of M. Davamani Christopher as principal of the church-owned college. The court accepted the petitioner's claim that the bishop and his son-in-law had created a search committee composed of their cronies and had participated in subsequent board meetings "without revealing the fact that Mr. Christopher had applied to the post of Principal as early as February 21, 2011. It is clear proof of collusion between the two."
Bishop Asir was elected bishop in Madurai-Ramnad in 2003. He was also elected deputy moderator of the CSI in 2008. In 2010, he stood for election as Moderator, but lost by 8 votes.
TAX AUTHORITIES RAID CSI CHURCH
Recently, Income Tax authorities raided a CSI church in Coumbatore following a complaint by a member from that diocese saying that a church member had sold the church property and received a kick back for the sale. The sale money was not accounted for properly. A complaint was sent to the Moderator regarding the sale requesting that action be taken against the church member. The complainant also warned the Moderator that if he failed to take action, the Income Tax Authorities would be informed. It is not unusual for Moderators not to take action. It was later learned that the Moderator was hand in glove with the sale.
THE MADRAS DIOCESAN TRUST ASSOCIATION SCANDAL (MDTA)
For 200 years, the St. Georges Cathedral Trust functioned under the Madras High Court by established law. The properties in and around St. Georges Cathedral are also vested in their Custody. They have proof of ownership (patta) in their name. They produced the encumbrance certificate for a period of 100 years. Bishop Devasahayam, using dubious methods, obtained proof of ownership (patta) for four properties in the name of MDTA. The cathedral trustees to the Collector (head of revenue) of Chennai challenged this. After a prolonged and thorough Official Commission of enquiry, an order by the revenue division (DRO) was issued blaming MDTA for resorting to unfair means in order to obtain these pattas illegally and they cancelled them. "This is a serious crime and can be charged under the Land Grabbing Act punishable by imprisonment and a criminal case can also be filed in the Madras High Court. The Bishop tried to shift the blame on a diocesan Property officer who has since died," said Victor.
The question arises, how is it possible that a low level official in the diocese without the approval of the property committee for which the bishop himself is the chairman could have done this. When it came to the notice of the bishop, the question was why did he not rectify the mistake immediately. Instead, he argued at the Enquiry commission that he was right. However, the collector said what he did was wrong and illegal.
THE CSI NAGARI HOSPITAL SCANDAL
The importation of medical equipment worth $1.2 million from Dr. William Thomas Haywood, an American for the CSI Nagari Hospital, resulted in a huge scandal when it was learned that the equipment was undervalued at the time it was imported.
In order not to pay taxes on the full $1.2 million, the equipment was declared to be worth only $1,800.00. The CSI Laity Association made a formal complaint to the commissioner of Customs who did not take action for over two years. Subsequently, under pressure, through the CBI, he was forced to act. At the end of a through inquiry lasting six months, the final order was issued resulting in the CSI having to pay $555,000 to compensate for tax evasion. For the personal involvement in this criminal act, Bishop Devasagayam and the Medical Superintendent Dr. Sundar both had to pay personal fines of nearly $100,000 each. It is still pending in the courts.
CSI TRUST ASSOCIATION CONFRONTED BY REGISTRAR OF COMPANIES
A 19-page report by the Registrar of Companies (ROC) of the CSI Trust in Chennai revealed multiple lapses in poor administration practices and corruption of land dealings.
No satisfactory response was given to the allegations so the ROC issued 19 show cause notices to all the trustees of the CSITA prior to filing criminal prosecution charges.
Hundreds of complaints with documentary evidence were presented to the Officers of the Synod that included complaints against Bishop Devakadasham, the moderator from Kaniakumari, some 500 miles south of Chennai. Bishop Devasirvatham was also involved in shady land sales and is in deep trouble himself.
THE MEDAK HOSPITAL SCANDAL
An ex treasurer of the synod and a retired deputy secretary to the Govt. of Tamilnadu was authorized by the CSI to study and give a report on the feasibility of starting a medical college in Dichpally in the state Andhra Pradesh about 30 miles from Hyderabad.
The project was deemed unwise and not in the church's best interest. However, then Bishop of Medak and Moderator CSI Bishop Suganthar forced it through using his position and money. Bishop Devasagaym, MDTA chairman, went along with the project and gave written authorization for 450 acres of land in Dichpally to be registered under the MDTA so that Suganthar could use it for the project. He gave no reasons. People said his motives were to start a medical college to help the poor, but to start it he collected capitation fees from each student ranging from $80,000 to $90,000.
To have a medical college, he needed a training hospital attached to it, so he constructed one with a loan of $700,000 from the banks. He got the loan and constructed the hospital building.
He then got permission to start the college from the Medical Council of India. When a special MCI team was sent on a surprise check of the hospital and college, they found they did not have qualified staff. They were cheating the MCI by having a few medical college students around pretending to be the paid doctors of the hospital. Some pastors and teachers were forced to fill the hospital beds by granting them three days leave. When the MCI discovered this, they canceled their permission to run the college. On appeal, the students were accommodated in different government run medical colleges. The government also froze a deficit of $700,000.
The bishop then tried to bring in his family members to sell both properties to another medical group. The buyers of the property were dissuaded from buying the properties after the fact that they would lose their complete investment was pointed out to them. Today, the property lies fallow. The bank that advanced the loan is pressuring for an auction so they can recover their money.
The bishop was never brought up on any charges by CSI. He has been given his pension.
BISHOP MEDAK SUSPENDED FOR CORRUPTION
The Church of South India's Bishop in Medak, the Rt. Rev. T. Samuel Kanaka Prasad, was suspended for corruption by the Synod Executive Committee nine months ago in June of 2012.
In a letter to the bishop dated 9 June 2012, the Moderator of the CSI, Bishop G. Devakadasham, stated the Synod Executive Committee had voted on 24 April for suspension in the face of prima facie evidence of corruption, but had been unable to enforce the decision due to a court order blocking the decision secured by Bishop Prasad. However, when the order lapsed on 5 June, the Executive Committee was free to enforce its decision, and ordered Bishop Prasad to step aside, the moderator said.
Bishop Prasad is the second bishop this year to be disciplined by the CSI. On 9 January 2012, the moderator announced that the trial court for bishops had deposed the Bishop in Coimbatore, the Rt. Rev. Manickam Dorai, for corruption. His properties have since been frozen and seized by the government.
One of India's wealthiest dioceses, the Hyderabad-based Medak diocese, has witnessed legal and physical fights between the bishop and his opponents. On 10 June 2012, the Deccan Chronicle reported that police were called out to separate the bishop's men from anti-corruption activists who rallied for Bishop Prasad to go.
In his letter to Bishop Prasad, the Moderator accused him of "not functioning and discharging the responsibilities of Bishop of CSI Medak Diocese in accordance with the provisions of the constitution of the CSI, the directions of the Synod or its Executive Committee and the Council of Bishops.
"In particular it was brought to the notice of the Executive Committee that you are misusing your position as Bishop, acting as attorney of the CSITA even after the lapse of the power of attorney and committing various illegalities in the administration, supervision and preservation of the properties of the Church. The members expressed shock and anxiety over the same and demanded immediate action against you by the Synod."
Following Bishop Prasad's suspension, the Executive Committee appointed CSI Deputy Moderator Bishop G. Dyvasirvadam of Krishna Godavari as Moderator's Commissary for Medak. A nine-member administrative committee, led by a retired Director General of Police, has been charged with auditing the diocese's books.
In addition to accusations of financial malfeasance, Bishop Prasad has been charged with violating canon and civil corporate law. In 2011 Bishop Prasad banned his opponents from standing for election to the diocesan council and waived rules that forbade sitting council members from serving more than two consecutive terms - subsequently producing a council composed of the bishop's cronies.
The CSI General Synod refused to recognize the election and attempted to block the seating of the diocese's delegates at its January meeting to elect a new primate. However, Bishop Prasad was able to secure a court order allowing his men to be seated at the 33rd meeting of Synod.
The anti-corruption pressure group, the CCC [Christ-Centered Coalition] based in Bangalore, applauded the Synod's decision to suspend Bishop Prasad, but asked whether its decision was influenced by Bishop Prasad's support for the losing candidate in the election for moderator this year.
"What is disconcerting is the double standards being applied by the current synod administration in handling cases of Episcopal corruption," the CCC said. The CSI Moderator allowed the Bishops in Rayalaseema and Dornakal to retire rather than face corruption investigations. "Is it only a coincidence that both the Rayalseema and Dornakal bishops who supported Moderator Devakadasham and his deputy Dyvasirvadam at the Synod polls in January have got away with their crimes while Bishop Kanaka Prasad who supported their opponents (the Bishops in Madras and Karimnagar) has had punitive action taken against him," the CCC asked. [This section provided by CEN]
Major Victor has been leading the charge against corruption in the CSI for over a decade. "Our job is to purify the church and to redeem the respectability of Christians in the eyes of the public. Towards this end we have to do whatever is within our powers instead of being silent spectators listening only to interesting stories.
"The integrity of the gospel is at stake here. 98% of India is non-Christian and these stories only highlight the hypocrisy of a church that claims to speak for God and His Gospel. It brings terrible retribution by the secular courts which in turn brings discredit on the nation's few Christians who struggle to maintain a Christian testimony in the face of so much paganism.
"We as the Laity Association of CSI feel deeply ashamed at what is going on among our bishops and leaders. We believe we can change this if we stand united against them and expose their follies. We cry out to God for repentance by our bishops and a return to seeking the truth wherever it might be found and to once again restore the integrity of the gospel in a land that still only has 2% of its people calling themselves Christian. We desperately need a visit of the Holy Spirit and a revival among Indian Christians if we are to have a valid witness to the new and emerging post-modern India."
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