Thamarassery diocese sets up tribunal to try dissident priest

Ajimon Puthiyaparambil of the Syro Malabar Catholic Church’s Thamarassery diocese had stepped down from priestly ministerial services earlier this year to pursue his ‘prophetic duty’ and called for reforms.
Ajimon Puthiyaparambil, a priest under the Syro Malabar Catholic Church’s Thamarassery diocese
Ajimon Puthiyaparambil, a priest under the Syro Malabar Catholic Church’s Thamarassery diocese
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The Thamarassery diocese of the Syro Malabar Catholic Church has initiated penal action against Ajimon (Thomas) Puthiyaparambil, a priest who had stepped down from priestly ministerial service recently. Bishop Remijios Inchananayil has constituted a tribunal to try Ajimon. The tribunal serves as an ecclesiastical court having jurisdiction over the Church and clergy.  The offences listed against him include “inciting sedition towards the Church hierarchy”, “causing public scandal” and “anti-ecclesial activities”.

Ajimon had stepped down from priestly ministerial services on May 13 this year in order to pursue his ‘prophetic duty’ of pointing out the ‘general decay in Church’ and calling for reform. Ajimon stepped down after he was appointed as the vicar of St Joseph’s Church in Nooramthode. He refused to accept the appointment and was subsequently suspended by the diocese.

During the months after stepping down, Ajimon wrote about the various areas needing reform in the Church, including influence of the Sangh Parivar on the Kerala Church, financial transparency within the Church administration, and adequate representation of women in administrative capacities, among other issues.

During the suspension period, he remained a priest under the Catholic order, but did not perform ministerial duties at the parishes under the diocese. 

The diocese’s letter intimating the “Decree of Constitution of the Tribunal for the Penal Judicial Procedure” of Ajimon accused him of “grave disobedience causing irreparable damage and public scandal”, when he “left suddenly” after refusing to take up the role of the vicar in Nooramthode. The letter also accused him of “publicly [taking] a stand against the decision of the Synod of Bishops of the Syro-Malabar Church and [inciting] sedition and hatred toward the hierarch, provoking the faithful to disobedience through your public speeches and messages on social media, causing scandal and violating ecclesiastical discipline”. 

Interestingly, the letter also revoked the earlier suspension order, and instructed him to cooperate with the judicial proceedings and reside at the diocese’s Good Shepherd Priest Home in Marikkunnu. The Collegiate Tribunal will be manned by four priests — George Mundanatte (Presiding Judge), James Kallingal VC (Collegiate Judge), Antony Varakil (Collegiate Judge) and John Pallikkavayalil (Notary).

Speaking to TNM, Ajimon said that the constitution of such a tribunal to initiate penal action against a priest was an “abnormal procedure”. According to him, the “Church is going back to the middle ages” with such actions.

“It was prevalent in the middle ages, but such an action is unprecedented in the Kerala Church. A canonist consulted also agreed that this was likely the first instant,” he said. 

All the same, Ajimon would cooperate with the Tribunal, but he clarified that he would not be staying at the priest home, “as I don't think it will be safe for me.” 

When asked what could have prompted the diocese to initiate such proceedings after several months of inaction, Ajimon said that it could be because the earlier suspension had been issued without following due procedure.

“When I was suspended earlier, I was not given a show-cause notice, and my arguments were not heard. I filed a strong appeal against it. My guess is that the diocese saw that the suspension couldn't be justified, and so chose to revoke it, only to potentially suspend me again at the end of the judicial procedure,” he speculated.

In an earlier conversation with TNM, Ajimon had said that he was not likely to be removed from priesthood as there was  no such precedent in the Kerala church. Now he argues, “I might be suspended, but no one can take away priesthood, it is eternal.”

About the allegations against him, including that of sedition, Ajimon said, “Provisions like sedition are used by autocrats. Using sedition laws in this modern age is against society's conscience, especially since the Church is expected to protect society's conscience.” 

He added that all of his words and actions are in the public domain. “I am for the Church, I want to renew it,” he said.

Ajimon added that he continued to receive covert support from within and outside the Church, including bishops, priests, nuns and lay persons.

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