Kulshekar Church Fund Scam: Mysterious serial deposits hint at a cover up
Mangaluru: The Holy Cross Church at Kulshekar in Mangaluru is in the news for mismanagement of finances. Several parish council members of the Church have made serious allegations against the erstwhile Parish Priest Fr. Valerian Pinto of misappropriation of funds meant for developmental projects in the Church over the past few years.
These allegations have three dimensions – mysterious transfers of funds from Church accounts to individuals, projects that overran their budgets, and withdrawal and deposits of huge sums of money in cash in the church’s bank account, all certainly raising several questions in the minds of the parishioners.
Mysterious transactions :
Documents available with Newskarnataka relating to the Parish’s Bank account xxx628, show that large sums of money were transferred to mysterious individuals just before its closure. The Account, which was opened on 01/04/2003 shows transfers by NEFT of Rs. 2,72,506 to one Fredrick Mendonca and Rs 2,50,000 to a Raymond Daniel Mendonca on 15-12-2010, 22-01-2011 and 05-02-2011. Interestingly the account shows a cash deposit of Rs. 2 lakhs on 22-01-2011 and Rs 1, 22,500 on 05-02-2011. The account was closed on 29-03-2011. Both these gentlemen are brothers of Jacintha Mendonca, said to be known to the parish priest.
The account also shows huge cash withdrawals via self cheques from time to time.
The Holy Cross Parish situated at Kulshekar in the city is one of the biggest parishes in the diocese, and reports state that in the recent years it has undertaken more than 10 major civil projects to beautify its premises, at an estimated cost of Rs. 1 Crore.
Some of the allegations of misappropriation stem from the fact that the actual payouts for the projects went beyond Rs2 crores, double the estimates. All the projects that overran their budget had one common thread – a contractor named Walter Pinto. Ironically, only one project, the Vailankani chapel, which was completed within its budget estimate of Rs. 30 Lakhs, had a different contractor.
Projects that over ran their budgets include: Holy Rosary Park – estimate: Rs 30 lakh, actual cost Rs 60 lakh; Mount Sinai project – estimate: Rs 15 lakh, actual cost Rs 30 lakh; Frad Saib hall – estimate: Rs 25 lakh, actual Rs 40 lakh; Open Air Auditorium – estimate Rs 25 lakh, actual cost- Rs 45 lakh; Adoration chapel – estimate – Rs 20 lakh, actual cost – Rs 30 lakh, refurbishing stages: estimate -Rs. 6 lakh, actual cost -Rs. 13 Lakhs.
Who is the real beneficiary?
Stake holders of the parish allege that the contractor Walter Pinto is at the root of the scandal. However, Walter Pinto, speaking to Newskarnataka.com denied all such allegations. According to him he merely supplied labor, for which he was paid according to his bills via uncrossed cheques, while the rest of the components of the projects, Material, electrical, painting etc were overseen entirely by the church through an engineer and other contractors.
Pinto supported his claims by furnishing bills he submitted to the Parish Priest. Speaking to Newskarnataka.com, he said that he had provided an average 40+ labor per day. He said that the bills were settled promptly on a weekly basis as were the payments to the employed labor. He clarified that there was no nexus or undue dealings with the Parish Priest and expressed surprise over the allegations that have surfaced. Interestingly his bills generally match the church’s own statement of labor supply, a copy of which is in possession of Newskarnataka.com. The question, as to who was the beneficiary of these over billed projects remains unanswered.
Mysterious deposits –a cover up bid?
The allegations have a third dimension – that of huge cash withdrawals and deposits, in the Church’s account No. xx14 with the MCC Bank. Documents available with Newskarnataka.com, show that during the period 1/2/2014 to 12/01/2015, Rs. 46 lakhs was withdrawn via self cheques. While this itself is an unusual and inappropriate method of handling public funds, more interestingly soon after the allegations surfaced in December-January, an amount of Rs. 12 lakhs, was deposited in cash in the same account during the period from February 13th to 18th March 2015 in almost daily installments of Rs. 49000, which is just below the RBI threshold of fifty thousand for reportage.
Astonishingly, around five days before the Kulshekar parish council met to finalize the accounts of the parish, on the 19th of May 2015, Rs. 15 lakhs was reportedly transferred to Kulshekar church’s account number xx62 held at Corporation Bank Padavu branch. The transfer was made vide instrument number 22006 drawn on Federal Bank and debited to the parish union account which is said to belong to the Diocese office.
The timing and methodology of the deposits is suspicious in so far as the allegations of misappropriation are concerned. Was there an attempt at a cover up that includes the Diocesan office? These questions are being raised now.
Parish Priest goes ‘missing’!
News of these alleged irregularities was circulating among parish council members for some time, and when members of the Parish Council met on May 24th, they demanded an explanation from the Parish Priest, sources told Newskarnataka.com. According to them the Parish Priest denied all allegations of misappropriation. This enraged a few members who later approached the Bishop demanding action against the Parish Priest. However,the Bishop had reportedly tried to pacify them stating that the priest has already been transferred to Fajir. Not satisfied with the Bishop’s reply, the members then went public with information available to them.
As the Information went viral on WhatsApp, Fr.Valerian Pinto, went missing from the parish, the same day. No one had a clue as to his whereabouts adding fuel to the fire of the allegations. In fact, prior to these allegations surfacing in the media, the transfer of Fr. Valerian Pinto to Fajir Parish on the outskirts of the city was announced on May 5 this year.The Bishop of Mangaluru told an English daily that Fr. Pinto was undergoing treatment with Dr. Deepak Rai, Orthopedist at a hospital in the city, and would report to Fajir Parish on June 4th. But Fr. Pinto took charge of the Fajir Parish on June 3rd itself.
Newskarnataka also found that he was not under the treatment of Dr. Rai during the time he went missing. When NewsKarnataka contacted Fr Muller Hospital at Deralakatte to confirm if Fr Valerian Pinto was under treatment of Dr. Rai, the hospital staff denied it, as did Dr. Rai’s clinic at Falnir, and Dr. Rai himself.
Fr. Pinto reappears in public
Meanwhile, Fr. Pinto, took charge of the Fajir Parish at a grand ceremony at Fajir church among a posse of priests, a delegation from Holy Cross Church and the Parish Council of the Fajir Parish. There were many curious onlookers who left soon after a glimpse of Fr. Pinto.
When Newskarntaka.com questioned Fr. Pinto about the allegations on the sidelines of the ceremony, Fr. Pinto said “These are all only allegations, including the news that I was missing. I have submitted all the accounts details to the concerned authorities”.
Meanwhile, the Bishop’s office too, responding to questions put across by Newskarnataka.com said that “there has been no misappropriation, and no recoveries have been made from anybody so far”. However, following the surfacing of allegations, the Diocese confirmed that it will constitute a committee to look into the accounts.
Transparency needed in management of Church finances
Whatever may be the truth in these allegations, the question is whether the church finances are being managed with honesty, integrity, good stewardship, and transparency. Similar allegations have surfaced from time to time and the answer has to be currently somewhere between yes and no.
Church funds are public funds, often contributed through the blood sweat and toil of parishioners. There is a need for accountability through regular internal and external audits and transparency in award of contracts for engineering, procurement and construction.
Ultimately, a congregation should be able to have utmost confidence in their leaders’ abilities to steward the church’s finances wisely. The qualifications of “not a lover of money” and “manages his own household well” (1 Timothy 3:3-5) should definitely apply.
The Mangalore Diocese headed by Bishop Dr. Aloysius Paul D’ Souza as well as the Holy Cross Church which until recently was headed by Parish Priest Fr. Valerian Pinto are answerable to the Parishioners with regard to the allegations of misappropriation of church funds.