Prominent figures at the Sacred Heart Cathedral, the biggest Catholic parish in the Upper East region, have blown the cover off what has been described as the biggest financial scandal to have rocked the Seat of the Bishop in decades.
The leading parishioners, looking very furious in open protests in Bolgatanga, the regional capital where the cathedral is located, are bashing the authorities of the holy place very hard for “looting God’s money” and for “abuse of the altar”.
Their anger, a loud reflection of deep-seated bile which thousands of flocks are said to have harboured against the church leaders for years over perceived financial mismanagement, centres on some cash donations said to be in several thousands of cedis unaccounted for and some huge funds belonging to the parish thrown too far away to be reclaimed after they were allegedly invested at DKM, a microfinance company once loaded but bleeding dry of cash at present following a sudden shutdown in May, 2015.
“They have damaged the image of the church by taking over Gh¢50,000 to DKM. Is it not embarrassing? The church’s money. And two individuals did that. Father Ezekiel, the parish priest, and Abraham Timbil, a charismatic leader. The church has an account with Gold Coast Security and that was about GHC22, 220. They went and withdrew that money and sent it to DKM,” Fred Apana, Secretary to the Estate and Development Sub-committee of the parish’s Pastoral Council, told Starr News in Bolgatanga.
Another GHC40,000 stashed at DKM
Mr. Apana, who is also the Secretary to the Atulbabiisi Christian Community, an old organisation at the core of the cathedral, added: “That was the first chunk of money they took to DKM. Then, later on, they picked additional GHC40,000 from a different account belonging to the church to DKM. They have wasted the money! It’s locked up with DKM as you are aware. DKM is now bankrupt when we need money, serious money, to complete the new church! If it were a private company, those two people would have been arrested!”
The protesters are all the more fuming because the ‘DKM investments’ reportedly were made without due consultations with the Parish Pastoral Council, a central arm of the cathedral said to be more like the ‘parliament’ of the church.
Church blows GhC9,000 on four-seater toilet
The church leaders are also facing strong accusations for having blown GHC9,000 to renovate a water-closet toilet facility the protesters say should have taken not more than GHC3,000 to refurbish.
The facility is among a number of facelift projects being done reportedly on the orders of the church leaders without rendering any account to the members of the church. The other projects include gravelling of the churchyard, re-fencing of the church premises, remodeling of priests’ residences and revamp of the church’s mission gardens.
Scores of members, unenthused and flaming with rage, only find those developments as questionable surprises as they wait unyieldingly for answers as to how much so far has been sunk into the projects.
“You can’t just spread money anyhow. Can you imagine, renovating a toilet, a four-seater WC toilet, costing GHC9,000? It is uncalled for. The most expensive water closet at the market will not cost up to GHC500. Even if it’s up to GHC500, four will be Gh¢2,000. A small structure with four WCs with painting, costing GHC9,000? We are only talking about accountability here!” Mr. Apana fumed.
A scheme to rob church of GHC21,000 uncovered
The dissatisfied members also uncovered what they said was a shocking scheme by the church leaders to blow another GHC21,000 on procuring some 300 seats for the church’s open-air old grotto.
“We have a grotto. We have a group of devotees who go there to pray. Those devotees brought their concern to increase the number of seats at the grotto. A committee was put in place to help come out with more seats at the grotto. They came out with 65 seats which cost about GHC7,000.
“Someone somewhere came, a parishioner of course, claiming to be a technical man, said the seats at the grotto would be about 300 costing about GHC21,000. Then, the priest said, ‘Yes, I will take your GHC21,000; so, go and get them ready’. Come on, it’s not done! You sideline a committee to deal with an individual. And we have documents to prove that, where the person has signed,” the Secretary affirmed.
Twin scandals at church’s private school
Concerns also came up strongly about alleged mismanagement of resources at the Sacred Heart International School, a private basic school run by the church. The school is located near a spot where an ageless cathedral, as old as Shakespeare’s Globe, once stood in ruins on the church’s vast land in the capital.
The church is said to have bought a motorcycle sometime ago for a priest who already owned a car. That motorcycle was later reported to have been stolen when the priest rode one night to Zaare, a community in the regional capital. According to the angry church members, the Chairperson of the church’s Pastoral Parish Council, Christie Abagre, did not hesitate for a moment to have the motor vehicle replaced in a “wasteful” manner.
“The Parish Council Chairperson went into Sacred Heart International School’s account; picked GHC2,000; went into Social Centre’s account; picked GHC1,000; and gave it to the priest to buy his motorbike. For us, this is uncalled for because the school management uses the school’s account to run the school. The Social Centre management also uses the Social Centre’s account to run the centre. And they all account to all of us as parishioners,” Mr. Apana, who is a former Vice Chairman of the cathedral’s Youth Council, stated.
The church leaders are also under severe pressure to explain how a bus purchased by the church at Gh¢50,000 for its own school was given away at GHC14, 000 to another private school in the capital.
“A bus that old ladies, old men, young men contributed to buy, we bought it at the cost of GHC50,000 on hire purchase, only for them to give it out at Gh¢14, 000 to Nadeng Zeng Academy, a private international school somewhere, when we equally have a private school.
“And we don’t know what has become of the money they took after selling out the bus. Now, when our children are going for excursions we pay more than we can bear to hire a bus for them. If that bus was not sold, even though we would pay to have it take our children for excursions, what we would pay would be something little for fuel,” Mr. Apana added.
Basilica abandoned over missing harvest cash
The church has a basilica under construction and still far from complete since the foundation blocks were laid in 2003. A football field, once called St. John’s Park, later renamed Ramsey Sports Stadium, but still popular as St. John’s Park, is the only gap between the congested cathedral and the half-done basilica within the mission’s land.
The structure is the creation of Monsignor Roger Aboteyuure, a household name widely known for his difficult-to-match zeal for Roman Catholicism. It came about when the plight of a cathedral, so outsized by flocks that the building was constrained to hold three separate masses every Sunday, became an unbearable sight for him.
To double the pace of work on the basilica, it was arranged in 2010 that all proceeds realised from the church’s annual harvest should go into the basilica project to support the funds Monsignor Aboteyuure had already raised on his own.
According to the protesters, a committee was set up to receive the harvest funds for the project but that team only got post-harvest feedbacks from the church from 2010 to 2013. The church leaders, they claim, are yet to account for about Gh¢200, 000 of the harvest proceeds gathered since 2014.
The angry members also asserted that the church and its private school entered into a mutual agreement with the uniBank branch in Bolgatanga in 2013. It was agreed that the church and the school would open separate accounts at the bank who, six months after the opening of the accounts, would in return support the construction of the basilica and put up a classroom complex for the school.
The angry members say at least Gh¢4, 000 is realised from the offerings members contribute every Sunday alone but the church is in the dark regarding the progress of the agreement as it stands today. What can be told is: there is no development at both the basilica and the school. And nothing, they also claim, shows the bank has received any deposit yet from the church.
Defections rock cathedral as priest calls members “dog-eater Catholics”
The church, at present, is putting on a new look with physical projects mushrooming at an uninterrupted pace on the premises.
But in what appears as an irony, a worrying number of flocks, according to the protesters, have walked out on the parish, with more planning to quit, to worship elsewhere.
The mass walkout, they say, is rocking the church because the church is ‘deaf’ to calls for transparency and ‘blind’ to the needs of the flocks.
“All the parishes and outstations around us put a premium on accountability. Go to the Seven Sorrows Basilica at Navrongo or the St. Joseph Cathedral at Soe. Their finance statements are always pasted on the boards. Ever since Father Moses was transferred from here (Sacred Heart Cathedral) and Father Ezekiel took over, there has been no accountability. He is the priest and at the same time chairing Pastoral Parish Council meetings and acting as the Cathedral Administrator when the Pastoral Parish Council Chairperson is around. The Cathedral Administrator was away and has come back but the priest has refused to hand over to him.
“You have a priest who insults members of the church as dog-eater Catholics, armed-robber Catholics because they don’t pay tithes, and calling them sorghum Catholics because missionaries used sorghum to convert their great grandparents. You are insulting professors and doctors in the church. Meanwhile, some of the priests throw food away when the indigenous Roman Catholic Sisters, the SMI, are starving. Even when members are sick and ask for help, they don’t support.
“Now, many of our members who are peeved about everything that is happening have left and are now at St. Joseph at Soe, St. Kizito at Zaare, Ola Parish, Zuarungu Parish. Go and see how those parishes and outstations are flooded with our members, with cars packed on their premises. Outstations and parishes, which used to have only one mass, now have two masses because our members are leaving,” Mr. Apana said as some members ranted in the background.
Groundswell of pressure for probe
Whilst alleging that the church leaders were able to “loot” God’s money after they had managed to demonise the church’s mass servers sometime ago and dismissed over 500 of them from the altar to pave way for their ulterior agenda, the enraged members also strongly called for a probe into the alleged malfeasance they said had seen many gifted youths of the church, who needed money to further their education, turned away by the church on the excuses of financial constraints.
“We are calling for a forensic audit of all the accounts of the church. Be it the international school, Social Centre management, harvests, whatever accounts, whether our money is with whomever, they should call that person to account. Projects are springing up and we don’t know who is mandating them to carry out those projects. When you ask parish council members, they are not aware of what is going on. If there are projects that are going on, we should know whether they are our priorities. We are only talking about accountability.
“They are physical projects that we are all seeing. It’s not that someone is against the priest. Who doesn’t want development? But just go and see the graveling they are doing there, saying they are checking erosion. The priest has seen what Eastwood Anaba (renowned preacher and founder of the Eastwood Anaba Ministries) is doing at his church (in Bolgatanga) and thinks he can equally do same. Go and see the disaster the rain that fell recently has rather caused there. We have engineers in the church; they are not trying to use them. Go and see what they are doing there, saying they are checking erosion,” Mr. Apana hit the roof louder as he pointed at the church building with fury.
Bishop, priest ignore the press
The protesters say they have drawn the attention of the Bishop of all Catholics in the region, Most Rev. Alfred Agyenta, to the disturbing goings-on at the cathedral through a three-page petition presented to him about a month ago.
But for them, that step has been a pointless move. The petition paper appears to have been squashed into a rough-edged ball and tossed into a trashcan as the Office of the Bishop reportedly has remained mute on the allegations.
Starr News contacted each of the four focal figures mentioned in the reported rot. But only the Chairperson of the Parish Pastoral Council defended her own side among the issues raised.
“Somebody who is not a signatory to accounts, how can I dip my hand in their coffers? We don’t handle cash there. The fees are paid to the bank. And we have a school committee that manages the school. They are signatories. I am only a chairperson at the cathedral. I don’t have anything doing in the school there,” the chairperson, Christie Abagre, responded.
Asked twice in a recorded telephone interview if she took GHC2, 000 from the school’s account or not, the chairperson did not give a direct answer as she repeatedly only said she was not a signatory to the account.
The parish priest at the centre of the allegations, Rev. Father Ezekiel Sulley, declined to comment when contacted on the telephone for his defence, saying in a sharp tone: “I’m not in a position to talk about it. I’m not in a position to talk about it, okay?”
A charismatic leader, Abraham Timbil, who is alleged to have teamed up with the parish priest in withdrawing the church’s investments at Gold Coast Security and deposited them at DKM, at first begged off when contacted, saying he would not go against “structures” at the church to speak to the media.
Then, he scheduled a telephone interview for 4:00pm on Sunday August 7, 2016; but the talk did not take place as Starr News was engaged at the hour he had booked. Several calls placed to him on his mobile contact later in the day did not get through as his phone was “either switched off or out of coverage area” throughout that evening.
A message forwarded to the Bishop, requesting to have his comments on the allegations, did not yield any reply for days before this report was filed.
The altar at the parish caught fire under baffling circumstances in 2014. In the aftermath of the disaster that struck before dawn, the parish priest allegedly ordered the removal and disposal of the giant statue of Jesus Christ and that of Holy Mary hanging on the walls of the cathedral. And, following the riddance to those ‘sacred’ images, he was quoted to have openly declared at a charismatic crusade: “We are going back to our roots!”
The action struck Monsignor Roger Aboteyuure, a widely travelled disciple who is said to have purchased the high-priced statues in France and flew them through Burkina Faso to the region, a hammer blow as the “sacred heart” he used to know now appears to have left many, including him, with ‘bleeding hearts’.
The Bishop himself has come under ballooning, razor-sharp criticisms for being “easily led” and “only watching” as a titanic crack in a tense cathedral deepens between a cavalry of worshippers who hail the parish priest as an untouchable, anointed bearer of “the wind of change” and an army of flocks who affirm that he is leading the church in a direction they say is ‘uncatholic’.
And with the angry members, who want the Bishop to bring the priest to order but all they are getting back from everywhere is a hopeless disappointment, there is surely only one last place to turn to ‘retrieve’ from the “looters of God’s money” what they resolutely say belongs to the church – Rome.