Cross-border church funding may well be a breach of law

Updated: 2011-10-20 07:43

By Li Likui(HK Edition)

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Retired cardinal comes under fire for meddling in mainland religious affairs

Cardinal Joseph Zen has come under fire after his admission on Wednesday that he provided financial support to the "underground church" on the mainland.

He made the disclosure at a news conference at which he admitted to having received donations from media tycoon Jimmy Lai in recent years.

The retired cleric denied that he put any of the money, some HK$20 million according to media reports, to political causes.

Ho Leong-leong, a commentator for Phoenix TV, however, countered that Zen's support for the "underground church" on the mainland may have been illegal and in breach of mainland laws.

"Zen's support to the 'underground church' may have driven apart the relationship between China and the Vatican," said Ho.

Echoing Ho's opinion, lawmaker Tam Yiu-chung, chairman of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, criticized Zen's support for the "underground church", saying the cardinal should not have interfered with mainland religious activities.

Tam also said for Zen, a single individual, to handle such a large amount of money alone is "inappropriate".

Zen had stressed that "the money was given to him, not to the diocese" and Lai set no conditions concerning how it should be used.

The cardinal, referring to himself as "spendthrift", said only a few hundred thousand dollars of the millions given to him remain.

"As a cardinal, I have a lot of expenditures that are not related to the diocese activities, but are relevant to my duty as a cardinal," said Zen.

Zen said that some of the expenditures, including donations to charity, airfares for his flights to Rome to attend meetings, scholarships for staff from mainland churches to study in Rome, support for the mainland "underground church", and purchase of statues as gifts to schools, cost him most of the donations Lai had given to him.

Zen said the airfares could have been paid by the church, but he didn't want to burden the church since it is not as wealthy as some outsiders may believe.

Ho rejected Zen's entire argument, charging that in addition to supporting the "underground church" on the mainland, the cardinal's activities may have involved "underhanded secret dealings". Ho called Zen's explanations "unreasonable".

"As we all know, the church is pretty rich. Therefore, as one of the highest ranking figures in the church, Zen doesn't need to pay for air tickets himself, to Rome," said Ho.

He called on the Independent Commission Against Corruption to begin an investigation into the donations.

Zen was reported to have received the donations from Lai since 2005.

Some of the documents pertaining to those donations were revealed on the Internet on Oct 17.

In response to the leaks, the Catholic Church in Hong Kong on Tuesday said it had neither knowledge about nor the record of these donation.

The documents released on line showed that Lai made donations involving about HK$50 million over the past seven years.

The leaks also exposed two main parties from the opposition camp as beneficiaries of Lai's generous "giveaways". The Civic Party, alone, received more than HK$14 million from Lai.

The local magazine, East Week, noted in its report published on Oct 19 that one source revealed that Lai's donation may have led to the Civic Party's support for a plan for five geographic constituency lawmakers to resign in 2010, in order to force a by-election.

The report noted that in the same year, Lai made a donation of HK$4 million to the party.

Zen's explanations to the press set off heated debate on the Internet.

A Yahoo user called Hn rejected the cardinal's explanations.

"No one will believe that Lai's donations to Zen didn't come with conditions, since everyone knows Lai's political stance," wrote Hn.

China Daily

(HK Edition 10/20/2011 page1)