Vatican fund for Ondoy victims diverted too

Aries C. Rufo
A former administrator tells Rappler that were it not for an investigation conducted, 'the trust fund would have remained a secret'

MANILA, Philippines – Even Rome’s intention was not honored.

A huge donation from the Vatican in the aftermath of typhoon Ondoy in 2009 failed to reach the intended beneficiaries, financial records from the diocese of Parañaque showed.

According to a ledger report, the Vatican’s Pontifical Council Cor Unum for Human and Christian Development gave a donation of P697,500 a few days after Ondoy struck.

The figure was about 10,000 euro, with the euro-peso exchange at that time pegged at one euro equivalent to P70.

The money was coursed through the “Apostolic Nuncia,” the ledger report – a copy of which was obtained by Rappler – showed.

But an analysis of the remittances to the typhoon victims revealed that only about 16% or P263,236.50 out of the total P1,631,473.05 donations has been disbursed.

The Cor Unum foundation was established in 1971 by Pope Paul VI. In the Vatican website, Cor Unum’s mission represents “the care of the Catholic Church for the needy, thereby encouraging human fellowship and making manifest the charity of Christ.”

Among its objectives is to “assist the Pope and be his instrument for carrying out special initiatives in the field of humanitarian actions when disaster occurs, or in the field of integral human promotion.”

Big donors

Members of the Parañaque clergy and lay leaders have accused Bishop Jesse Mercado of diverting millions of pesos in donations for disaster victims. Rappler first reported on this last June 18.

They want Rome to investigate the alleged misappropriation, which, they say, violates Church law on donations. On June 20, Mercado denied the allegations.

Based on the ledger we obtained, among the big donors to Ondoy victims are as follows:

  • Parishioners of the Presentation of the Child Jesus Parish, P123,037.95
  • Greenbelt Sto. Nino de Paz Foundation Inc, P100,000
  • Couples for Christ, P100,000
  • Okinawa International School, P70,500
  • Stigmatine Italian Friends, P64,595
  • Order of Malta, P50,000
  • Bukas Loob sa Diyos Covenant Community, P50,000

Denying the allegations, Mercado said “all donations are properly receipted and promptly turned over to their intended beneficiaries.”

He added, “In urgent cases,  e.g. (typhoons Ondoy and Sendong), the diocese even advanced the amounts even before the second collections were mandated.”

This is because “some parishes remit too late,” and the late donations are added to the calamity fund.

The prelate was, however, telling only part of the story.

Over a million unremitted

For donations on Ondoy, the ledger report showed that as of Dec 31, 2010, or more than a year since the typhoon dumped a month’s equivalent of rains and submerged many parts of Metro Manila, a balance of P1,368.236.55 of donations remained unremitted.

The balance, which included the donations from the Vatican’s Cor Unum, was “reclassified” to the Caritas account.

This means the remaining donations for Ondoy were transferred to the Caritas account, which contains among others, Palm Sunday/Alay Kapwa donations, Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Organization donations, and other donations from various sources.

It is from the Caritas account that scholarships, other ministries, and remittances to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines social arm, NASSA, are sourced. The Caritas account, in turn, is deposited in a Bank of the Philippine Islands special account.

As for victims of typhoon Sendong, Mercado ordered the immediate release of money for the dioceses of Dumaguete (P100,00), Iligan (P200,000), and Cagayan de Oro (P200,000) last December 20, even before the donations poured in. The advances totaled half a million pesos.

But the diocese also quickly recovered its advanced remittances, as donations reached P2.212 million in less than a month.

On Jan 19, 2012, the Parañaque diocese released an additional P900,000 each for Cagayan de Oro and Iligan typhoon victims anew, raising total releases to P2.3 million.

Still, the donations for Sendong victims continued pouring in. The number of those who died after all reached more than 900, much more than the 300 or so killed by Ondoy.

The ledger report, as of May 2012, showed that the diocese received an additional P1.099 million from January 19 to February 23, none of which was released to the Sendong victims.

The non-release of funds, partly or wholly, for the intended beneficiaries, was among the issues raised against Mercado by some priests who complained to the Nuncio. Where did the money go?

One fund-raising where no single centavo was released to the beneficiaries was for the victims of the Muntinlupa fire in May 2010, where 800 homes were razed and 8,000 were left homeless.

Four parishes – Holy Eucharist Parish, Ascension of Our Lord Parish, Mary Help of Christians National Shrine, and Presentation of the Child Jesus Parish – remitted a total of P129,201.25 in donations.

The ledger report as of May 2012 belies Mercado’s claim that “donations are regularly remitted to the intended beneficiaries.” In his prepared statement to the media, Mercado said late donations were “added to the calamity fund.”

What he did not mention, however, is that the unremitted funds were deposited in a BPI special account which yields higher interest earnings for the diocese.

While the  money is locked up in the bank, priests had complained that funding for the diocese’s social programs are not being released.

“The bishop will often say to priests and lay that there are no funds available,” the priests said. On the contrary, the diocese’s balance sheet showed it had P91.5 million in its BPI special deposit account. 


Belgian money

Priests and lay leaders have been demanding financial transparency from Mercado, after some parishioners started questioning where their generous donations went.

When priests asked for a financial report, they were given the runaround and were not provided with copies.

Without admitting that he has withheld releasing any financial reports to his priests, Mercado said his priests should realize there is a process that must be observed for such.

Replying to the allegations, Mercado gave assurances “a detailed report is being prepared. All expenses are studied, reviewed and properly document in the spirit of stewardship, transparency and accountability.”

But disgruntled priests and lay leaders said this is not the first time that Mercado engaged in doublespeak.

They cited the case of the money that was left in trust by the Belgian missionary Congregatio Immaculati Cordis Mariae (CICM) or the Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary to the Archdiocese of Manila (RCAM) prior to their exit from the Parañaque diocese.

Eventually, the money was supposed to be turned over to the St. Andrew Cathedral parish, but was it?

St Andrew’s School

The CICM founded the St. Andrew’s School but in 1994, the Belgian Fathers turned over administration of the school to the secular clergy. They also left a trust fund to the St Andrew Cathedral Parish, which as of 2009, stood at $291,422.28

The Cathedral’s former parish administrator found out about the money while doing an accounting of the parish’s finances.

At the time, the cathedral was undergoing renovation and like manna from heaven, the parish administrator thought that money could finance the construction work. The money was estimated at  P13.679 million, as the exchange rate at that time stood at $1-P46.

Armed with the information, lay leaders wrote Mercado inquiring about the status of the money and asked him to release it “in keeping with the intention of the donors, namely to use the funds for Church construction and for the catechetical and the social development programs of the Cathedral Parish.”

In his reply dated April 23, 2010, Mercado replied, “We are still in the process of verifying with RCAM the remaining balance of the said trust fund.”

Mercado added, “Pending result of said verification, RCAM is not in a position to release any amount at the moment.”

In other words, Mercado told them, the money was still under the custody of RCAM.

What Mercado did not know was that the former parish administrator had already confirmed that the money had already been transferred to the Parañaque diocese. 

The lay leaders sought a meeting to clarify the matter. In the meeting were Mercado and his executive secretary, Annie Cruz.

Priests say it is actually Cruz who exercises control over the diocese’s finances, and not the diocese’s treasurer or oeconomus.

Initially, Cruz was evasive about the status of the money. But the lay leaders had had enough. The parish’s finance council head, Adelia Lopez, informed the bishop and Cruz they knew that the money had already been turned over by the RCAM to the diocese as early as May 2009.

Caught by surprise with this revelation, Cruz, the bishop’s executive secretary, was finally forced to admit that the money was, in fact, with the diocese.

Faced with the facts, Mercado released a total P8 million in 2010, but the balance, up to this time, has not been released. Going by 2009 exchange rates, this would be at least P5.7 million.

The former parish administrator told Rappler that were it not for an investigation conducted, “the trust fund would have remained a secret.” In fact, the deliberate attempt to hide the Belgian money was among the complaints raised against Mercado before the Nuncio.

Why they had to keep it a secret, only Mercado and Cruz know. –

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