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Tuesday 18 September 2018
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Church law forces Charles out

A Roman Catholic church law which forbids priests from taking public office yesterday forced Fr Henry Charles to resign as chairman of the Integrity Commission, leaving two women commissioners to stand alone.

Charles’ departure was the culmination of a week of controversy for the commission which has seen three of its original five members resign in the space of six days and left the body without the quorum it needs to function.

As of yesterday, the commission was left with retired Industrial Court judge Gladys Gafoor, and chartered accountant Lylla Rose Bada. But even so, there was a question mark looming over the future participation of Bada.

Charles yesterday returned his warrant of appointment and hand-delivered his resignation letter to the Acting President Danny Montano at President’s House in St Ann’s at about 10 am. He had drafted the letter on Wednesday evening in the wake of questions raised by Chaguanas West MP Jack Warner over whether canon (church) law allowed a sitting priest to sit on a body such as the commission.

Charles yesterday met with the two remaining commissioners at the commission’s office, UTC building, Independence Square, Port-of-Spain. He arrived at the building at 10.30 am and was not wearing his black and white cleric garb which he wore at the commission’s first meeting on Monday, opting instead for a navy blue shirt-jack suit.

“I done yes, that’s it!” Charles told Newsday in an interview hours after he handed out a press release to reporters after emerging from the meeting at about 12.40 pm. In the interview, Charles explained that Canon Law 285, section 3, prevented him from holding chairmanship of the commission, despite the common belief that priests are only forbidden from taking political office.

“The basic reason I resigned was because of canon law...I thought it was merely that priests were prevented from taking up a position derived from party politics but it is broader than that; it refers to the fact that clerics are forbidden from becoming public persons in areas where civil power is exercised,” Charles explained.

Canon Law 285 paragraph 3 reads: “Clerics are forbidden to assume public offices which entail a participation in the exercise of civil power.”

“When the canon refers to civil power it refers to either legal or judicial or administrative power,” Charles, a qualified lawyer, said. “But we (the commission) are a quasi-judicial body, so in effect I am a person in public life.”

Charles’ resignation raised questions about the future of the remaining women commissioners.

Asked yesterday if she would resign, Gafoor noted she had been chosen to serve by President George Maxwell Richards and said she had no intention of resigning unless the President asked her to.

“I was appointed to the commission to serve and I am very happy to do that,” Gafoor said. She said she regretted Charles’ departure. “I am sad to see him go, he is a very fine character. I am sure he would have brought a breath of fresh air into the commission and I would have been delighted to assist him,” she said.

However the other remaining commissioner, Bada, would not rule out resigning. Asked by Newsday if she was going to resign, Bada, a chartered accountant who worked as bursar at the University of the West Indies when Richards was principal, said, “No comment.”

Justice of Appeal Zainool Hosein quit as a member of the commission last Friday after Richards reportedly offered him the post of deputy chairman but instead appointed NIB executive director Jeffrey Mc Farlane. Mc Farlane resigned on Wednesday after the legality of his appointment was questioned.

Yesterday, as further questions over the vetting process by which the President appointed the commission were raised, Charles revealed that prior to accepting the post of chairman from Richards he consulted Archbishop Edward Gilbert in order to obtain his approval.

However Gilbert, who is himself an expert in canon law, did not alert Charles to the provisions of the church which would have barred him from serving on the commission. “I had the Archbishop’s approval,” Charles said. “But when questions began to be raised, I went into the matter and when I began to research the canon law, I saw that there was that restriction...It was a surprise to me.” Asked who alerted him to the issue of whether he had broken church law, he said simply, “It was brought to my attention.”

Archbishop Gilbert did not return messages yesterday. He had presided over a four-day retreat for all local priests in Mayaro, which Charles attended before returning to his St James parish on Wednesday evening.

Monsignor Cuthbert Alexander, when contacted hours before the closing of the retreat, said the church did not have a comment at this time.

Yesterday, the Office of the President issued an unsigned press release saying Charles’ resignation was accepted.

“It is with deep regret that the Office of the President advises that it is constrained to accept the resignation,” the release read.

“His Excellency unreservedly accepts the apology of Fr Charles that this prohibition was not earlier appreciated by him.” The release noted both Charles and Gilbert had ascertained that a cleric may not assume public office.

In his press release, which he crafted with the assistance of commissioners Gafoor and Bada as well as legal counsel and commission staff, Charles noted he had ruled out any question of his eligibility to serve in the post because of the independent nature of the commission.

“Though I knew that the church prohibited clerics from taking up appointments derived from party politics...I believed that the Integrity Commission, as an independent body under the Constitution, escaped that restriction.”

“I regret the fact that I was not aware of (the broader restriction in canon law) before I accepted the President’s offer. My omission was not deliberate. It stemmed from a conviction I’ve had in the area for many years, reinforced by the strictly independent nature of the commission.”

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