WHAT? CRITICIZE Mother Teresa?

Who would be so base as to pick on a wizened old lady, well stricken in years, who has consecrated her entire life to the needy and destitute? On the other hand, who would be so incurious as to leave unexamined the influence and motives of a woman who once boasted of operating more than 500 convents in upwards of 105 countries. One self-sacrificing saint, or chair of a missionary multinational?

What, for example, was Mother Teresa doing in Port-au-Prince in January 1981, mingling with the Haitian oligarchy, a class justly renowned for its greed and pitiless use of force to keep the poor and the dispossessed in their place?

"Sixty Minutes" showed film footage of her on that occasion singing the praises of Michele Duvalier, the wife of Haitian dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier. Mother Teresa said that while she had met kings and presidents aplenty in her time, she had "never seen the poor people being so familiar with their head of state as they were with her. It was a beautiful lesson for me." Thereafter, Mother Teresa was awarded the Haitian Legion d'honneur.

No protest against the use of this footage is known to have been registered by Mother Teresa between the time of the award and the time in 1986 when the Haitian people became so "familiar" with Jean-Claude and Michele that the couple had barely enough time to stuff their luggage with the contents of the national treasury before fleeing forever to a villa in France.

And what are we to make of the photograph in which Mother Teresa appears in friendly propinquity with a man known as "John-Roger?"

As the leader of the cult known as MSIA ("Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness," pronounced "Messiah"), John-Roger is a charlatan of Chaucerian proportions. He is probably best known to the public for his lucrative role of spiritual adviser to Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington -- whose husband Michael Huffington, spent $42 million of his own inherited money on an unsuccessful bid for a Senate seat in California. MSIA has been described by the the Cult Awareness Network as "highly dangerous."

John-Roger, it should be noted, has repeatedly claimed to be, and to have, a spiritual consciousness that is superior to that of Jesus Christ. Such a claim is hard to adjudicate. One might think, all the same, that it would be blasphemous to the simple outlook of Mother Teresa. Yet there she is, in a photo published an expose of John-Roger's operation, keeping him company and lending him the luster of her name and image.

It turns out that this photograph records the momentous occasion of Mother Teresa's acceptance of a check for $10,000. It came in the form of an "Integrity Award" bestowed by John-Roger himself -- a man who realized his own divinity in the aftermath of a vision-inspiring kidney operation.

No doubt Mother Teresa's admirers will have their defense close at hand. Their heroine is too innocent to detect dishonesty in others. And $10,000 for good works is $10,000 for good works. So what is more natural than that she should quit Calcutta once more, journey to Tinseltown and share her aura with a guru claiming to outrank the Redeemer himself? But at what point -- her apologists might want to permit themselves this little tincture of skepticism -- does such association cease to be coincidental? Consider Mother Teresa's expenditure of energy and mercy on behalf of a wicked and greedy man named Charles Keating.

Keating is now serving a 10-year sentence for his part in the S&L scandal -- undoubtedly one of the greatest frauds in American history. In the early 1980s, during the booming, deregulated years of Ronald Reagan's first term, Keating, among other operators, mounted a sustained and criminal assault on the deposits of America's small investors. His methods were those of the false prospectus and the political bribe. Keating had political ambitions as well as financial ones: As a conservative Catholic fundamentalist, he had served Richard Nixon as a member of a much-mocked commission in the early '70s that investigated the ill effects of pornography.

At the height of his success as a thief, Keating made donations to Mother Teresa of $1 million dollars, according to the testimony of Arizona Sen. Dennis DeConcini. Keating also granted her the use of his private jet. In return, Mother Teresa allowed Keating to make use of her prestige on several important occasions and gave him a personalized crucifix that he took everywhere with him.

Keating was finally brought to trial in 1992 in the Superior Court in Los Angeles where he was heard by the later-notorious Judge Lance Ito. The trial could have only one outcome: the maximum sentence allowable under California law.

During the course of the trial, Mother Teresa wrote to Judge Ito seeking clemency for Keating. She gave no explanation of her original involvement with the defendant and offered no direct testimony mitigating his looting of the thrift industry.

"I do not know anything about Mr. Charles Keating's work or his business or the matters you are dealing with," she stated. "I only know that he has always been kind and generous to God's poor and always ready to help whenever there was a need. It is for this reason that I do not want to forget him now while he and his family are suffering. Jesus has told us Whatever you do to the least of my brethren YOU DID IT TO ME.'" The letter prompted Paul Turley, the deputy district attorney for Los Angeles and co-prosecutor of Keating, to compose a careful reply that he sent to Mother Teresa in early 1992.

"Mr. Keating was convicted of defrauding 17 individuals of more than $900,000," he explained to her. "These 17 persons were representative of 17,000 individuals from whom Mr. Keating stole $252,000,000 . \. \. \. The victims of Mr. Keating's fraud come from a wide spectrum of society. Some were wealthy and well-educated. Most were people of modest means and unfamiliar with high finance. One was, indeed, a poor carpenter who did not speak English and had his life savings stolen by Mr. Keating's fraud."

Turley, writing at his own initiative and solely in his capacity as a private citizen, did something rare and brave: he took Mother Teresa's words seriously, not sentimentally.

"The biblical slogan of your organization is As long as you did it to one of these My least brethren, you did it to Me,' " Turley noted. "The least' of the brethren are among those whom Mr. Keating fleeced without flinching. As you well know, divine forgiveness is available to all, but forgiveness must be preceded by admission of sin. Not only has Mr. Keating failed to admit his sins and his crimes, he persists in self-righteously blaming others for his own misdeeds."

Turley was so audacious as to suggest that Mother Teresa try to honor her own credo.

"You urge Judge Ito to look into his heart -- as he sentences Charles Keating -- and do what Jesus would do. I submit the same challenge to you. Ask yourself what Jesus would do if he were given the fruits of a crime; what Jesus would do if he were in possession of money that had been stolen; what Jesus would do if he were being exploited by a thief to ease his conscience?

"I submit that Jesus would promptly and unhesitatingly return the stolen property to its rightful owners. You should do the same. You have been given money by Mr. Keating that he has been convicted of stealing by fraud. Do not permit him the indulgence' he desires. Do not keep the money. Return it to those who worked for it and earned it!

"If you contact me I will put you in direct contact with the rightful owners of the property now in your possession."

Three years later, Turley forwarded me his letter and says that he has never received any reply and that, to his knowledge, Mother Teresa has never returned the missing million. Nor has she responded to my requests for an interview. Saints, it seems, are immune to audit.

This is by no means the only example of Mother Teresa's surreptitious attitude to money, nor of what some might see as hypocritical protestations about the beauty of poverty, whether self-imposed or otherwise. But it is the clearest and best documented instance, and it is proof against the customary apologetics about her innocence and unworldliness. In her dealings with pelf, as in her transactions with power, Mother Teresa reigns in a kingdom that is very much of this world. Christopher Hitchens is the author of "The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice" (Verso) from which this article is adapted.