A damaged Church

Aries Rufo
Have bishops recovered from the SUV scandal?

MANILA, Philippines – Six months after the vehicle scandal rocked the Catholic Church, the aftershocks are still being felt among the bishops. Apparently, this has stymied them.
 
For the first time in recent memory, the usually combative Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) refrained from issuing any collective statement on political and social issues after their annual plenary in January.

AFTERSHOCKS OF A SCANDAL. Photo shows one of the cars returned by Catholic bishops to the PCSO

The absence of any statement was even more pronounced considering the raging issues—the recent flashfloods in Cagayan de Oro and Iligan cities and in many parts in Mindanao and the impeachment trial of Chief Justice Renato Corona.

The lack of collective statement was also more palpable considering that this is the first time that Cebu Archbishop Jose Palma presided over the CBCP plenary after former CBCP president Tandag Bishop Nereo Odchimar did not seek a 2nd term.

On Sunday, February 12, The Philippine Star reported that CBCP president Cebu Archbishop Jose Palma urged the senator-judges to respect the Supreme Court’s controversial decision to stop the scrutiny of Chief Justice Renato Corona’s dollar-denominated deposits. But 2 other bishops did not agree and pushed for the impeachment trial to continue to ferret out the truth. 

Although Palma is not known for his political statements, he is a social activist. He led the campaign against illegal logging and denounced the alleged human rights abuses committed by fugitive general Jovito Palparan in Eastern Visayas, where he was assigned as Army commander. At the time, Palma was bishop of Calbayog and Palo Archbishop.
 
Thus, when Palma became head of the CBCP, it was half-expected that the collegial body of bishops was back in fighting form.
 
The silence of the bishops in the recent plenary, thus, spoke volumes.
 
Remember Odchimar?
 
Citing health reasons, Odchimar broke tradition by abdicating the CBCP presidency. It was during his term that the Reproductive Health (RH) issue prompted a clash between the Church and the government.
 
It was also during his term that the information that some bishops were beneficiaries of Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office (PCSO) largesse surfaced, with the vehicles that were purchased as the smoking gun.
 
It was the 2nd controversy to hit the CBCP following the envelope scandal wherein some bishops accepted money from a Palace official during the time of President Arroyo, also during their plenary.
 
Odchimar is considered one of the bishops close to former President Arroyo and his election to the presidency was largely believed to be the handiwork of elder bishops who are loyal to Arroyo. Relations between President Aquino and Odchimar had been frosty, highlighted by the withdrawal twice of the CBCP from engaging in talks with the Aquino government on the controversial RH bill.
 
Emotional plenary
 
Former CBCP president Orlando Quevedo, replying to an e-mail letter, admitted that the SUV scandal has “surely damaged the reputation of the Church.” But, he said, the bishops have “regained moral ascendancy” when they appeared before the Senate probe on the scandal and returned the vehicles they procured through PCSO funds.
 
But have they really?
 
The scandal, dubbed as the Pajero scandal, was a actually misnomer.

First, there were no Pajeros provided by PCSO, but those procured were no less pricey. And it was only Butuan Bishop Juan de Dios Pueblos among the 7 involved bishops who specifically sought for a particular brand-new vehicle as a birthday gift from then President Arroyo.
 
Other prelates dragged into the scandal were Cotabato Archbishop Quevedo, Zamboanga Archbishop Romulo Valles, Caritas Nueva Segovia Archbishop Ernesto Salgado, Bangued Bishop Leopoldo Jaucian, Isabela Bishop Martin Jumoad, and Bontoc Bishop Rodolfo Beltran.
 
It was during their plenary in July 2011 when PCSO released the names of bishops who were beneficiaries of their funding. Church insiders say it was timed to embarrass Pueblos, who had sought the resignation of President Aquino a month before. Pueblos, who is close to Arroyo, had criticized Aquino’s style of governance.
 
PCSO director Aleta Tolentino, in an interview, denied it was an orchestrated move.
 
She said the target of the expose “was not the bishops, but the former PCSO board that approved the requests for the vehicles.”
 
Tolentino said the PCSO was just complying with the observations of the Commission on Audit that the financial grants, amounting to more than P6 million to the bishops (which they used in purchasing vehicles), violated the separation of Church and State.
 
Initial reports said that the vehicles are being used for personal means, and not as support for medical purposes.
 
Still, it was a controversy that hurt the Church to its very core.
 
During the plenary, held at the Pope Pius XII along UN Avenue, the bishops involved aired their side. Most of them explained that they were not even aware that their dioceses purchased vehicles from PCSO funds, three eyewitnesses in the assembly independently confirmed.
 
Then one bishop suggested that they pray, with six of the bishops named in the PCSO scandal, in the middle of the hall where the bishops were cloistered. At that time, only Salgado among the seven was not present as he was in the United States.
 
It was an emotional scene. Many wept while they were praying over the six bishops, the eyewitnesses said.
 
Wounded church
 
It was during the plenary that the bishops decided that they should face the Senate inquiry “like shepherds to their flock,” one of the eyewitness said.
 
In a pastoral statement that followed, the bishops acknowledged that the Church has been “wounded” and that they were “sorry for the pain and the sadness” brought on the faithful on the issue.
 
Although they apologized for the lapse in judgment of some, they stressed that “their actions were done without malice.” They also assured that they will “re-examine” the manner of the Church’s collaboration with the government in terms of helping the poor.
 
It was the first time that the CBCP had issued a public apology, underscoring the seriousness of the damage.
 
While they had issued collective statements before on the evils of gambling and partaking of its largesse, in truth, individual bishops have been accepting financial aid from PCSO for their social projects. PCSO operates sweepstakes games and lotteries. Its mandate is to raise funds for health programs, medical assistance and services and charities.
 
 Such practice has been frowned upon by the more conservative bishops, but each of the bishops is autonomous from one another.
 
The Archdiocese of Manila, under then Manila Archbishop Cardinal Jaime Sin, despite his conservative views, has been a recipient of PCSO largesse for the longest time.
 
Until recently, Caritas Manila, its social arm, has been getting millions of pesos in donations and aid from PCSO. This continued under Cardinal Gaudencio Rosales.
 
We gathered that PCSO has stopped financial aid in the meantime, after Caritas Manila failed to liquidate previous cash advances.
 
The controversy also exposed what had been known all along—that Arroyo has been securing the loyalties of the bishops with 30 pieces of silver.
 
Some insiders lament the fact that other bishops who were actual beneficiaries of Arroyo’s generosity got off the hook.
 
We gathered 3 names of bishops who reportedly were gifted with luxury cars by Arroyo when she was in power. One of the bishops even had a special plate carrying his initials.
 
Church insiders say the bishop had even bragged to his colleagues that his vehicle, a Toyota Camry, was provided by Arroyo.
 
Apart from Pueblo, the rest of the bishops did not know what hit them.
 
Our inquiries showed that they were not even aware that vehicles have been purchased under their name. Each diocese is a corporation sole, which means that any transactions entered into by the diocese is under his name, explains retired Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop Oscar Cruz.
 
“It is the bishop who calls the shots. Everything is under his name,” he explained.
 
Our inquiries showed that it is the social action centers of the dioceses that facilitated the purchases, which explains why even Quevedo initially denied he had any luxury vehicle courtesy of PCSO.
 
The prelate later retracted when documents showed that his archdiocese got a P1.44 million donation, a portion of which had been used for the purchase of a vehicle.
 
Wake-up call
 
Cruz, gambling’s public enemy #1, offered an explanation on the apparent hypocrisy of the bishops in denouncing gambling and accepting proceeds from gambling operations at the same time.
 
For the bishops, the PCSO is not a gambling operator but a charity organization, Cruz said.
 
Cruz recalled the early days of sweepstakes when it tapped the disabled and those with deformities to sell tickets. “You buy sweepstakes tickets not to win but to extend help to the poor. Thus the bishops were not conscious of it as a gambling agency.”
 
Quevedo, in his earlier statements, acknowledged that hundreds of church-related organizations have received financial aid from PCSO and hundreds of indigents have benefitted in the process. He even cited Sin, who had defended the PCSO assistance to the Archdiocese of Manila as a necessary evil to help the poor.
 
What has come out from the controversy then?
 
If it is any consolation at all, Cruz said the bishops have finally decided not to solicit any financial aid from the PCSO .“Anything from the government, we will watch out from now on,” Cruz said.
 
Quevedo, in his e-mail reply, said the immediate lesson that the bishops learned “is to be very careful and discerning in dealing with government. The far reaching final lesson that the entire CBCP learned is for bishops no longer to ask for help from government for charitable and social services on behalf of the poor and needy.”
 
It has also finally sealed a wall between the Church and State on financial matters.
 
“Today, requests from government to collaborate in social service work with promises of financial support are now denied by the Church. We would rather look for our own Catholic resources than seek funding that might later on become poison to the Church.”
 
He added: “Integrity and credibility are far more important to the Church than fund availability.” – Rappler.com
 

Editor’s Note: Aries Rufo covered the Church for Newsbreak.

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