The fall of the rising star

Aries C. Rufo

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The Catholic Church handles cases of priests' sexual dalliances – such as Bishop Crisostomo Yalung's – in a conspiracy of silence on the pretext of an internal investigation

MANILA, Philippines – This is the second in a series of excerpts from the upcoming book Altar of Secrets: Sex, Money, and Politics in the Philippine Catholic Church by veteran journalist Aries C. Rufo that Rappler is running this week. The book will be launched on Friday, June 7, at The Forum, FullyBooked at The Fort, Bonifacio Global City, Taguig, Metro Manila. Launch price is at P400; regular price at P450.

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They had many things in common:  both were protégés of Manila Cardinal Jaime Sin; both were former auxiliary bishops of Manila; both at one time worked and taught at the San Carlos Seminary — Bishop Teodoro Bacani as former dean and professor of theology and Bishop Crisostomo Yalung as former rector.

Both were also forced to resign after committing indiscretions involving the opposite sex.

Bacani and Yalung were both promising prelates before their fall from grace. The former was a most-sought-after inspirational speaker, a media personality in his own right, and a public figure largely active in political affairs. 

Yalung, for his part, was very popular among parishioners but most feared by young priests and seminarians. A rising star in Church circles, he was nurtured by Sin as a potential Church leader, appointing him as treasurer of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Manila (RCAM) when it was hit with financial scandals. Among his contemporaries, his only rival to Sin’s attention and favor was Socrates Villegas, who would become archbishop a few years later. (Sin had prophesied that Villegas would one day become the Archbishop of Manila.)

Their cases are a microcosm of how Church superiors handle cases of sexual dalliances involving prelates — a conspiracy of silence on the pretext of an internal Church investigation. They show a Church which put its blind trust on its erring members, amid the mounting evidence and calls by lay leaders for an immediate investigation; a Church that was more concerned in protecting the privacy of its erring members than the welfare of the victim or victims; and a Church that was quick to condemn the other party as guilty, yet just as fast to absolve its erring member.

Bishop Yalung’s case

The case of Yalung had all the above elements. A small clique in Church circles had been aware of his extra-curricular affair.  Bespectacled, short and with chinito eyes, Yalung could pass for a college freshman. “He was charming in his own way. He was a natural magnet for old ladies,” said a Church layman.

Appointed at 40, Yalung was one of the youngest bishops. He enjoyed the backing of Cardinal Sin and former CBCP president Archbishop Oscar Cruz who both served as his consecrators when he was ordained as bishop.

Early on, he was exposed to the life of the rich and famous. He was a Young Turk, the apple of Sin’s eye, one of his most trusted. He held several positions in Church corporations: as board member of the Bank of the Philippine Islands, where the Church is a major stockholder, chairman of the Church-run travel agency Catholic Travel Inc and chairman of Fidelity Insurance Inc.

It was at the Sacred Heart Parish in Makati where Yalung’s dangerous liaisons first surfaced.  Makati parishioners first noticed his special friendship with a rich Church patroness. The woman, in her early 50s, was clearly smitten with the bishop, who was then in his mid-40s. 

“I think the woman was in love with Bishop Yalung but it was not reciprocated,” a parishioner said. Tongues wagged, “but we have no evidence they had an affair.”

It was a special friendship that eventually turned sour after another woman, who was in her late 20s, entered the picture. The woman was Christine Rances.

Rances said she met the bishop sometime in November 2000, at the National Shrine of the Sacred Heart in San Antonio Village, Makati, where he was the parish priest.

In an interview in 2003, Rances told us she had sought out Yalung to confess. But other sources said she sought counseling about her ongoing affair with a priest. Indeed, Rances was having an affair with the priest who solemnized her marriage. “She has a certain weakness for men [of the] cloth,” the Makati parishioner who staked out Rances said.

Soon after, she and Yalung became “text-mates.” Texting was eventually replaced with Yalung making visits to her parents’ home in Pasay where they “would talk.” Soon, they would go out, in the company of friends and her brother. “He loves to eat. We would go to fancy restaurants. Of course, his treat,” Rances said in that interview.

Evidently, Rances, who was already separated from her husband by the time she was dating Yalung and who had apparently ended her affair with the previous priest, was smitten with the bishop. They would later go out alone, watching movies or dining out. “I felt secure. And he was so handsome,” Rances recalled.

Rances, who was in her mid-20s at the time, was not a stunning beauty. But she was charming and wily, in a way. It was just a matter of time before she, the vamp, and Yalung, the strict disciplinarian, would have an affair. After a month of dating, she and Yalung were officially “on.” At that time, Yalung was on his sixth year as bishop.

It was an affair that the two tried to keep a secret but their actions were giving them away. She would be in the constant company of Yalung. Their age difference — she was 23 and he was 47 — raised eyebrows. “When people ask how I am related to Bishop Tom, he would say ‘pamangkin’ [niece]. They were wondering why he was so concerned about me,” Rances said.

The older female Makati parishioner, in the meantime, was getting jealous of the blossoming “friendship” between Yalung and Rances. For Rances, the feeling was mutual — she would not tolerate any rival for Yalung’s affections.

Less than a year after the affair started, Rances confronted the older female parishioner if she and Yalung had an affair. Not contented, she told the older female that she and Yalung were an item. “She got a slap from FV [initials of the older female],” a witness said.

Still, they did not believe Rances, thinking she was delusional. FV informed Yalung about the encounter to warn him, but the bishop appeared blinded by love. Meanwhile, unsigned letters began circulating in Makati about the supposed affair. It also reached the doorsteps of the CBCP and the RCAM.

Following the slapping incident and her own admission, Rances threatened to file legal charges against those spreading gossip about her affair with Yalung. She sent a letter to FV, accusing her of spreading the rumors.  In that letter, she backtracked, claiming she and Yalung were only friends.

About a year into the affair, on October 2001, Yalung, then 48, added another feather to his cap after he was appointed to the third richest diocese in the Philippines — the diocese of Antipolo. (The first two are Manila and Cebu.) It was a relief in more ways than one. The promotion also allowed the secret lovers a welcome respite from the talks in Makati. 

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I sent a letter to Yalung at his residence in Sacramento, California, requesting an interview. He did not reply. Former journalist Aldwin Fajardo, who was living in Sacramento, called Yalung’s office on my behalf, also requesting for an interview. Fajardo left 3 messages in his voice mail, but did not get any return messages.

On Fajardo’s fourth try, Yalung finally picked up the phone. When Fajardo told the other person on the line that he was looking for Bishop Crisostomo Yalung, he answered: “Yes, this is Tom Yalung.” When told about the request for an interview, Yalung said, “Sorry, I am respectfully declining the interview.” He also rejected a request to send him a letter with our questions. –

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