By Andre Bagoo
Friday, May 21 2010 – newsday.co.tt
ROMAN CATHOLIC Archbishop Edward Gilbert yesterday said Kennedy Swaratsingh, the PNM candidate for St Joseph in Monday’s General Election, is still a priest of the RC Church. It was widely thought that Swaratsingh was an ex-priest since he entered public life three years ago.
In an interview with Newsday, the head of the local Catholic Church further revealed that Swaratsingh was suspended under Church law after he got married in a civil ceremony.
“Technically he is still a priest but he is not authorised to conduct any services or perform any functions in relation to the church, hold any office or ministry,” the Archbishop said. Asked if Swaratsingh had ever lodged an application to resign as a priest, Gilbert said, “No. He officially has a leave of absence. He never applied for a dispensation. However he is suspended because of the civil marriage ceremony he went through.” Swaratsingh married Denise Oliver after leaving the Church in 2003.
At a press briefing held in his constituency office at 106 Eastern Main Road, Petit Bourg, Swaratsingh dismissed concerns over whether or not he remains a priest. Referring to several allegations, including those on questionable financial transactions during his past tenure at the St Patrick’s RC Church, Newton, he addressed the issue of his place in the clergy. He said that he made a deliberate choice not to fill out a form that is required for an application to be dispensed from the clergy and argued that he has done nothing wrong.
“If it is a crime, then let the Vatican police come and arrest me. But I will tell you this, once a priest, always a priest,” he said at the press conference which was held at a small room packed with noisy PNM supporters who crowded the back of the room.
“Of all the allegations, this one (about being a priest) tickles me the most. As you may know, I resigned from the priesthood on or around October or November 2003. And the only person who I had discussions with about me leaving the priesthood would be the Archbishop and myself. We are the only ones who had that conversation,” he revealed.
Gilbert yesterday said Swaratsingh was suspended under the Church’s Canon Law 1394. That provision reads, “A cleric who attempts marriage, even if only civilly, incurs a latae sententiae (automatic) suspension. If, after warning, he has not reformed and continues to give scandal, he can be progressively punished by deprivations or even by dismissal from the clerical state.”
Gilbert also confirmed that Swaratsingh, who was formerly parish priest of the St Patrick’s RC Church, was investigated by the church over allegations of financial impropriety at that parish.
In a statement issued on April 15, 2003, eight months before Swaratsingh left the parish, Gilbert had said, “There were questions about the financial administration of the parish. In fairness to all parties, I have ordered an audit of the financial records of the parish. Once the audit is complete, I shall personally chair a meeting with the financial committee of the parish with representatives of the Archdiocesan Financial Council (AFC).”
Asked yesterday what was the finding of the AFC, Gilbert said, “there was insufficient evidence to proceed.” The Archbishop had, in 2003, also announced a similar finding in relation to allegations of sexual misconduct made against Swaratsingh in 2003. He said at the time that, “While allegations of sexual misconduct have been made, the allegations have not been substantiated. Consequently, the presumption of innocence must be respected.”
Of the process involved in resigning as a priest, Swaratsingh said yesterday, “The process is when you leave the priesthood, you go to a Canon lawyer and you fill out a form that you send to Rome, asking for what you call laitisation or commonly referred to as to being dispensed from your vows.
“I was (in 2003) asked to go to a local priest, Father Joe Harris (the church’s main expert on Canon law) and I chose not to go. I chose not to fill out the form and I am not the only one. In my own recollection, there were four priests who left the priesthood….Of the four of us, only one person filled out that form.”
He argued that his status as a priest was irrelevant to his candidacy, even as questions over his competence and his background have emerged because of the issue.
“The only person who is affected by me not doing that (filling in the form) is me. Because the consequence of me not doing that is that I, as a Catholic, cannot have access to the Church. In other words I can’t get married in the Church, I can’t have communion. But to say that because of that I am ineligible to be a candidate for the elections, I do not know of any part of our Constitution that says so,” he said.
Swaratsingh was asked for clarification on his status in terms of whether or0 not he remains a priest. He said, “I am Kennedy Swaratsingh, member of Parliament for St Joseph and Minister of Public Administration!” Swaratsingh is no longer MP for St Joseph, as the Parliament was dissolved on April 8. He is only a candidate. However, his response drew applause and cheers from the supporters assembled in his office.
Roman Catholic Church sources yesterday noted that the form applying for dispensation under Canon Law requires the applicant to disclose the circumstances that led to the priest’s desire to resign.
Swaratsingh was said to have resigned as a priest of the St Patrick’s RC Church in December 2003. He was replaced by Fr Henry Charles, who last year attracted controversy after he was forced to resign his post as Chairman of the Integrity Commission due to Canon Law and amidst a plagiarism controversy.
Yesterday, Swaratsingh was asked whether or not he fathered a child when he was a priest, prior to his attempted resignation. He declined to answer, moving towards the group of rowdy PNM supporters in his office, saying, “Folks! Folks! I just want you to hear this. He is asking me if I fathered a child. You see where they are going?” Members of the crowd responded, “What?”
Swaratsingh replied, “If I fathered a child! You hear where they are going?” When pressed on the question on whether he had fathered a child while he was still a ‘priest’, Swaratsingh said,
“If they say I am still a priest, I have many children.” Once more, the crowd assembled in the cramped constituency office erupted in cheers. Swaratsingh then walked off, leaving the media behind and embarking on a walkabout starting along the Eastern Main Road, his red PNM shirt emblazoned in the sun.
Questioned earlier at the press conference about allegations – made by UNC chairman Jack Warner this month – that he has exorbitant spending habits and that he has a “black credit card” entitling him to large spending limits, paid for by a “third party”, Swaratsingh said, “Today I call on First Citizens Bank to clear the air. It really says to me that our systems cannot be trusted. I ask FCB to investigate how my credit card information could come out to the public,” he said.
At the same time, Swaratsingh added, “but the allegations are false and I categorically refute them. I don’t spend $25,000 a month and I’ve had the credit card since September of last year. I’ve used the card for a number of things. One of the last things I used the card for was when my family was going to St Lucia, we took a trip. And so I find it really baseless and frivolous that it was raised on the platform.”
Pressed for details on the alleged “black credit card” Swaratsingh said he had only one credit card. An attorney present, Faris Al-Rawi, who oversaw Swaratsingh’s press conference, intervened, blocking further queries saying Swaratsingh was already giving out private information, which he did not have to. At times during yesterday’s press briefing, Al-Rawi also answered questions on Swaratsingh’s behalf.
Asked if he could explain who were the owners of a holding company which bought a $5.3 million property in Moka, Maraval where he now resides, Swaratsingh said, “I am not party to that transaction. I have no investments in the house…I have nothing to hide.” He said the house was bought by a “family company” but did not name the owners. He said he would declare his assets to the Integrity Commission today and noted that as a person in public life he is only obliged to declare his, his wife’s and children’s interests.
Later asked if he holds any beneficial interest in the $5.3 million property bought by a company which lists his mother as a director, Swaratsingh said, “no”. Asked if the property was being held on trust for him, he said, “no”.
At this point in the press briefing, his attorney Al-Rawi, son of former PNM minister Diane Seukaran, once more intervened, blocking follow-up questions and saying, “those are matters that will have to be declared to the Integrity Commission. He has made his full declaration in full compliance with the law.” Al-Rawi also noted that the purchase of a house using a holding company was a “perfectly well organised” and common transaction designed to incur lower stamp duties. He denied any wrong-doing on Swaratsingh’s part.
The Indo-Trinbago Council has referred the real-estate transaction to the Integrity Commission.
In relation to Warner’s allegation that he has had questionable dealings with a foundation called the St Joseph Foundation, Swaratsingh said, “I am not in any way a director of the foundation…we had in fact a group going around calling themselves Friends of St Joseph. They have now formed a foundation and money which the Ministry of Community Develop-ment, Culture and Gender Affairs has raised, we’ve given that to the foundation for programmes in the community. To say that monies came into the account, that too I categorically deny.”
Swaratsingh cut the press conference short, saying he had to go out “on the field”. In an interview with Newsday published on October 25, 2007, on the eve of his election as an MP, Swaratsingh had said, “my job as a politician is basically the same as my job as a priest.”