Scandal rocks Trinity College & Anglican Church


Trinity College Hall

A massive scandal within Trinity College, Kandy, and the Anglican church which was nearly a decade in the making finally hit the fan last week with the former Anglican Bishop of Kurunegala, Kumara Illangasinghe, accusing the incumbent Bishop Shantha Francis in a signed affidavit, of having drawn his mother in law’s pension after she had died as reported in this newspaper last Sunday. That accusation is just the tip of the iceberg. The entire story reads like a film script, with fraud, conspiracy, murder and what the authorities believed to be a terrorist plot to assassinate President Mahinda Rajapaksa himself. Much of this remained largely under wraps all these years. But the whole sordid episode is now coming out into the open.

Nearly a decade ago in January 2004, a person named Rod Gilbert, a British national who most people assumed was an Englishman, was appointed principal of Trinity College. In the aftermath of the tsunami, Gilbert received funds from somewhere and he commenced relief work in the east. One Nishantha Alwis, an old Trinitian and the son of a former Navy officer, was a construction contractor doing construction work on a Red Cross project in Karaitivu. Alwis had seen Gilbert near the Karaitivu kovil one day and had seen him in the area on several occasions after that. Alwis’s suspicions had been aroused at the company that Gilbert seemed to be keeping and the apparent ease with which he seemed to be able to move in and out of the East despite the various restrictions that the LTTE had imposed especially on night travel. Gilbert seemed to have the ability to be in Karaitivu in the night and at Trinity College by the following morning.

Alwis had confided his suspicions in another old boy of Trinity College, Lionel Munaweera, a planter by profession who in turn put him into contact with Brigadier Abhaya Hulangamuwa who immediately saw the danger in the possibility of the Principal being on good terms with the LTTE because Trinity College was just adjacent to the President’s House in Kandy.  Hulangamuwa instructed Alwis to keep in contact but never to call him on his mobile phone and to always use call boxes as the LTTE can trace mobile phone calls. This advice would later save Alwis’s life.

 Brigadier Hulangamuwa had given him three army intelligence operatives to employ as lorry assistants on his worksites. They were betel chewing, hard drinking untidy looking individuals who lived like genuine labourers.  One of them was assigned to a worksite in Kokadicholai. For some time, reports were sent by these operatives to the Brigadier through Alwis. In the meantime, Gilbert had selected five boys from the east who were ostensibly tsunami orphans and given them scholarships to study at Trinity College, Kandy. Three of them were in the senior classes and two in the middle school.  These orphans had been bragging to other boys in the hostel that they could use guns and that they had been fighting in the LTTE’s baby brigade. The parents who had heard these stories from their sons had begun complaining to the staff, and also to Fr. Shantha Francis who was then the Trinity College chaplain.


Terrorists in Trinity!

These boys from the east had also been in the habit of singing Tamil war songs taught to them by the LTTE with phrases like ‘we will live independently one day’ and ‘we will kill and get killed for our nation’. Songs which Chaplain Francis found ‘fearful’. He had advised the boys not to sing such songs but they had said this was the only songs they would sing. The boys had then gone to Gilbert and complained that the Chaplain was not allowing them to sing their songs and the principal had told Fr Francis that these boys should be allowed to express their feelings. Trinity College being an elite school, some parents had been beside themselves to think that their sons were living in the hostel together with suspected baby brigade terrorists.

In the meantime, one day in August 2006, one of Nishantha de Alwis’s army intelligence lorry assistants told him that he had heard from the Tamil people they kept company with, that the Trinity College bus will be coming to Karaitivu next day to take some people out on a trip.  Alwis alerted  Brigadier Hulangamuwa from a phone booth in Ampara.  This bus went to Kandy with 55 teenagers and seven adults who were supposed to be their guardians. Chaplain Shantha Francis was at Trinity College when the bus and another vehicle arrived and the police stopped them just as they entered the school premises.  The youngsters in the bus oblivious to what was going on outside,  were singing Tamil war songs just like the five ‘orphans’ in the hostel. Chaplain Francis had gone up to the bus and told them to be quiet in Tamil.  But the search of the vehicles by the police revealed nothing. In any event this party was not allowed to stay at Trinity College.  

The ‘Lanka’ newspaper had a lengthy article about this whole episode in their 2006 August 6 Sunday issue. This bus load of people was to return to the East via Nuwara Eliya. Because of the suspicions the Army had about this busload of people, they had instructed the checkpoints on the provincial border to check the bus again when it returned to the east.  When it was checked in Ampara, there were only 45 youths and ten were missing.  Just a few weeks earlier, according to the Lanka newspaper,  a Tamil lady teacher at Trinity College whom we shall identify as ‘M’ had been questioned by the police on suspicion because she had transferred a sum of Rs. 9.5 million to a bank in Jaffna.  Apart from this, two other employees of Trinity, one Alagan (minor staff) and another person by the name of Joseph (peon) had been arrested on suspicion of having set a claymore mine to assassinate Keheliya Rambukwella. According to the Lanka newspaper, this Joseph, had been newly recruited by Rod Gilbert. All these arrests had taken place in 2006.

Soon afterwards, one morning, three of the ‘orphans’ who had been brought to Trinity by the principal went missing. To this day nobody knows where they are. Then Gilbert sent the two youngest ‘orphans’ in grade eight and nine back to the east.  By that time, parents had also been exerting pressure on the school to get rid of these suspicious characters. On top of all this, a former Army captain by the name of R.D. Wickremesinghe with whom Rod Gilbert often went about with, was also arrested on charges of assisting the LTTE. This too was reported in the Lanka newspaper in 2006. The previous year, Gilbert had admitted this former army Captain Wickremesinghe’s son to Trinity College. In the midst of all these suspicious happenings,  a two story structure purported to be a ‘scout room’ was constructed in the junior playground of Trinity College. The junior playground of Trinity is separated from the presidential residence in Kandy only by a barbed wire fence and the scout room thus directly overlooked president’s house. Alwis was alerted to this suspicious structure by some teachers and he informed Brig Hulangamuwa who intervened and within three weeks, the structure was demolished by the army.

Principal’s visa terminated

One day in 2006, Chaplain Shantha Francis had gone to the Trinity College chapel.  Only he and the Principal had the keys to the two small rooms in the open chapel. He saw the door open and someone talking in Tamil with a foreign accent. It turned out to be Rod Gilbert. All that while, Gilbert had given out that he did not know either Sinhala or Tamil and he used to always get Fr Shantha Francis to translate for him when speaking to a Tamil person.  But he could speak fluent Tamil.  Sri Lankan intelligence services had learnt that that even though his name is Rod Gilbert, he was not an Englishman but of South Indian probably Anglo-Indian extraction. After ten minutes, Gilbert had come out of the room and had seen Francis and probably knew that Francis had heard him speaking in Tamil.  Even after this episode, Gilbert used to pretend that he does not know Tamil and Chaplain Francis had to continue translating for him!

By this time the LTTE in the east had got to know that Nishantha Alwis was giving information to the Army.  He was summoned by the LTTE pistol group in Karatitivu and questioned as to the army and police officers he was in contact with. His phone number was taken by the LTTE who gave the number to an operative in Colombo and got details of the calls he had made.  Hulangamuwa’s advice not to use his phone to call anyone in the army or police, saved Alwis’s life that day.  After this brush with the LTTE, Alwis started operating from a safer location of Ampara. Later by May 2007, the LTTE had confirmed that Alwis was giving information to the Army.  One day, there was an attack in Kokadicholai  where his sub-contractor Sanjeewa Pushpakumara and two  others were killed by the LTTE in the house they lived in. Pushpakumara had on that day gone to Kokadicholai in the white van with Red Cross markings that Alwis usually used and the assassins may have believed that Alwis was also in the house which was only about 150 meters from the police station. The LTTE pistol gang are believed to have used silencers in the operation.

The last straw came when a teacher by the name of Shanmugaraja Sureshkumar who had been recruited to the Trinity staff by Rod Gilbert was arrested in March 2008 on suspicion of being an LTTE operative. After the arrest of this teacher, Rod Gilbert’s visa was terminated and he was in effect expelled from the country. What saved him from arrest was the frantic lobbying of several powerful old boys who were desperate to prevent the school getting a bad name. The teacher Sureshkumar who was arrested was later indicted before the High Courts Kandy. In 2011, he pleaded guilty and admitted that he had been trained by the LTTE for two and a half months where he was given training in handling T-56 assault rifles and explosives. Photographs of him in LTTE uniform were also presented to courts. (Kandy High Court case number 242/2008.)

Gilbert had been of a boorish disposition when it came to local culture.  One day, in 2004, the Asgiriya Mahanayake Thera had come to Trinity College to get a boy admitted to the school.  Chaplain Francis had told Gilbert about the rank held by the monk and instructed him on how to stand up and greet the Mahanayake with joined palms and told him not to expect the Mahanayake to greet him back.  Even after all this coaching, Gilbert had greeted the Mahanayake Thera with a hearty "Hello pastor how are you!" with his hand extended for a handshake. He had addressed the Mahanayake Thera as Pastor!


The missing millions  

Trinity College did not get any respite even after the controversial Gilbert had been removed from the scene. Now Trinity needed a new principal and this was going to open up the second phase of this scandal. When Rod Gilbert’s tenure as principal came to an abrupt end, Bishop Kumara Illangasinghe was the Chairman of the Trinity College Board of Governors and it was his responsibility to look for another principal. According to Bishop Shantha Francis, (he was the Archdeacon at that time) Bishop Illangasinghe had met Udaya Ariyaratne in Colombo on two occasions in his (Bishop Francis’s) company to persuade him to apply for the position of principal. This story is disputed by Bishop Illangasinghe who had submitted an affidavit to the trinity Board of Governors saying that he never tried to persuade Ariyaratne to take up the position of principal. So now it is the word of one Bishop against that of the other.

Be that as it may, the fact is that the present principal Brigadier Udaya Ariyaratne, was recruited during Bishop Illangasinghe’s time and that could not have happened if he was not in favour of Ariyaratne.  When Ariyaratne was first appointed, one of the issues that had to be cleared up was that he did not have the mandatory ten years of teaching experience that one needed to become the principal of a school according to the stipulations set out by the Education Department.  On the advice of an official of the education ministry, the Trinity Board of Governors got around this problem by appointing him acting principal for three years with the intention of making him permanent after the mandatory period of ten years was completed in that manner.

But problems were to emerge soon after Ariyaratne took over as principal. At the first meeting the new principal had with the school accountant, he discovered that a large sum of money running into many, many millions was unaccounted for and due to the fear that he would have to answer for the missing millions, he formally informed the Trinity College Board of Governors of this situation. It was in fact through Ariyaratne that this matter became known.  That was the origin of the difference of opinion within the Trinity College Board of Governors which has continued to date.  In 2011, Bishop Kumara Illangasinghe retired and was succeeded as Bishop and Chairman of the Trinity College Board of Governors by Bishop Shantha Francis.  One of Bishop Francis’s first tasks was to confirm Brigadier Ariyaratne as the principal of Trinity College. By this time, three years had lapsed and Ariyaratne had completed his mandatory ten years experience in a teaching environment to be eligible to be appointed as principal of a school.

However due to the antipathy that Brigadier Ariyaratne had generated among some members of the Board of Governors, a long drawn out battle ensued over whether he should be made permanent or not, and even whether he was suitable to be the Principal at all. So now there were two parallel battles going on at Trinity College, The first was the controversy over the missing Rs. 202 million and now there was another battle over whether the principal should be allowed remain in his seat. Both battles were interconnected – those who wanted the missing Rs. 202 million investigated wanted Ariyaratne to remain as principal as it was he who had brought the matter to light and if there was a change of Principal, vital evidence may be lost.

In the meantime, Brigadier Ariyaratne had earned the support of both the Parent-Teacher Association of Trinity College and the Staff Guild for a different reason – he had during the short period that he had served as principal, effected palpable improvements in the school and both the staff and parents were anxious not to lose the ground gained. In fact when the Parent Teacher Association conducted a vote of confidence in Ariyaratne at the Annual General Meeting held on the 8th  June 2013, Everybody present except for a single individual had voted in Ariyaratne’s favour. One would think that with such overwhelming support coming from both the staff and the parents of the school, that the anti-Ariyaratne lobby would back off – but problems continued to rage in the board.

On 3rd July 2013, the Trinity Board of Governors met to resolve this issue of the principal once and for all, and on a spur-of-the-moment suggestion by one member, the board came to the unanimous decision that Bishop Shantha Francis should take over the position of CEO of the school until a suitable replacement is found for Ariyaratne. Even though everybody voted for this decision, the Bishop soon began receiving letters from members of the Board of Governors who wanted another meeting of the board called to reconsider the unanimous decision taken earlier. Finally, there was a solid bloc of 7 members of the 14 member Board of Governors asking for another meeting. However Bishop Francis flatly refused to call another meeting saying that the Board had just taken a unanimous decision.  

Deceased person’s pension

Then on the 5th August 2013, one Chandana Munasinghe went before the District Court Colombo against Bishop Francis and the Trinity Board of Governors requesting that the latter be asked to call an emergency meeting of the board to reconsider the decision about the principal taken earlier. The Judge instructed the Bishop to call a meeting of the Board of Governors and to abide by the majority decision.  Accordingly, a meeting was called on the 18th September 2013 and at this meeting, eight members including Bishop Francis voted to retain Udaya Ariyaratne as the principal of Trinity College, while three voted against that decision and two abstained. Thus, Ariyaratne will now remain as principal. Parallel to this, there was a kind of resolution of the missing Rs. 202 million issue as well. Since 2011, Nishantha de Alwis, whom we spoke of in relation to the Rod Gilbert affair, had been trying to persuade the CID to initiate an investigation into the missing 202 million because he was convinced that at least a part of this money had found its way to the LTTE.

A letter sent to Alwis on 20 July 2011 by Asst Superintendant of Police P.Ampawela of the CID, says that according to the statements made to the CID by two firms of Chartered Accountants KPMG and SJMS, they had stated that a sum of nearly Rs. 202 million remain unaccounted for.  However, the CID officer then goes on to say that there is no evidence to say that this had occurred due to criminal activity and that if Alwis has any evidence to the effect that a crime had occurred, to provide him with a audit report to that effect, in the absence of which this matter could not be proceeded with.  Alwis even approached the IGP in his effort to get the police to initiate an inquiry but failed.  Finally, on the advice of a friend in the AG’s department he decided to move the Kandy magistrates court by raising his hand in open court and stating his case, which Alwis had done  on the 31st of January 2013. The judge then ordered that a statement be taken from Alwis.  Last Friday, the Kandy magistrate’s court ordered Bishop Shantha Francis to carry out a forensic audit and to report back by March next year.

It was with all these happenings in the background that on the 18th August 2013, Nimal Cooke brought to the Trinity Board of Governors an affidavit purportedly signed by Bishop Kumara Illangasinghe alleging that Bishop Francis had withdrawn his mother in law’s pension after she had died.  This was the affidavit referred to in the front page story in our newspaper last week. With regard to this, Bishop Francis states that his in-laws lived separately and at a distance from the various stations he served at, and his father in law would get several pension forms certified by him during his infrequent visits to see the old couple. As the pension became due, his father in law would give a signed form to his step -brother who lived in the Ibbagamuwa Buddhist temple, so that he could collect the pension on their behalf. When his mother-in-law was ailing Archdeacon Francis had got Lanka Gammudali, the property secretary of the diocese, to certify her thumb print on several forms which were given to the father in lawstep brother to be collected in the same manner. 

Thereafter he found that this person had been sent away from the Ibbagamuwa temple due to dishonesty and that it is possible that he may have drawn the pension with the left over signed forms even after his mother in law died. His father in law’s step-brother has since disappeared.   Bishop Illangasinghe has said in his affidavit that he does not remember when the signatures were obtained from Lanka Gammudali  - ie, whether it was before or after the death of Bishop Francis’s mother in law. Needless to say, Bishop Francis’s guilt on this score can be determined only if he had got pension forms signed by Gammudali after his mother in law died.  

When it came to the election as Bishop, Archdeacon Shantha Francis did not get the required two thirds of the votes from the 51 parishes of the Diocese so Bishop Illangasinghe had to recommend to the Archbishop of Canterbury that Shantha Francis be made Bishop.  If Bishop Illangasinghe genuinely thought Francis had drawn the pension of a deceased person, it seems unlikely that he would have made that recommendation to the Archbishop of Canterbury especially in the context where there were several other equally suitable contenders for the position of Bishop of Kurunegala.  Bishop Shantha Francis fully supports both the move to retain the present Principal of Trinity College and also to investigate the case of the allegedly unaccounted for Rs. 202 million.

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