Once burned, will Quevedo take chances with Aquino gov’t?

Aries C. Rufo

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How sincere is gov’t in making the peace deal work? The new cardinal from Mindanao, once dragged by the Palace into the PCSO scandal, will be watching.

MANILA, Philippines – What does the appointment of Cotabato Archbishop Orlando Quevedo as the country’s newest cardinal mean to the Aquino government?

Quevedo, who will be formally ordained as one of the Princes of the Church in February, was among the bishops dragged in the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office (PCSO) vehicle scandal that was exposed in 2011. During the time of President Gloria Arroyo, they received expensive vehicles from the state gambling agency supposedly for their personal use.

It was an issue that shook the core of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, sending those involved to tears during their bi-annual regular plenary in July 2011. It was also a turning point of Church engagement with the Aquino government.

Quevedo initially denied that he was one of the recipients of PCSO-funded vehicles but later retracted when he found out that it was the social action center of Cotabato that requested for it and he had in fact written a letter to the PCSO requesting “for an appropriate vehicle.”

Still, he found the disclosure by the PCSO to be a betrayal of the Aquino government, with him and his colleagues as “unwitting victims.”

‘Gov’t twisted the issue’

The Aquino government, in an attempt to put the bishops in a bad light, twisted their well-intentioned request for the vehicles, Quevedo said in his reply to an email I sent a few months after the mess.

To Quevedo, the vehicles controversy was an eye-opener for the Church to be more circumspect in dealing with the government. The whole brouhaha had injected “distrust into the relationship between the government and the bishops.”

“The immediate lesson that the bishops learned is to be very careful and discerning in dealing with government. The far-reaching lesson that the entire CBCP learned is for bishops to no longer ask for help from government for charitable and social services in behalf of the poor and the needy,” Quevedo said.

Quevedo said the government took advantage of the “innocence” of the bishops in dealing with government. “This absence of guile became like a poison that would later be used against them,” he said.

Contrary to what had been reported in the media, the vehicle provided by PCSO – at least in Cotabato’s case – was not for the bishop’s personal errands.

“For my part, the need for a vehicle was a demand of emergency when I had to help provide basic necessities for Muslims and Christians displaced by the armed fighting between Ameril Umra Kato and the AFP – and later on for the hundreds of thousands displaced by the floods in the Mindanao river basin areas,” the prelate told me.

PCSO intrigue linked to RH war

WHAT'S NEXT? Will the relationship between Cotabato Archbishop Orlando Quevedo, officially a cardinal in February, and the Aquino administration change? File photo by Roy Lagarde/Rappler

The Catholic Church at the time was already at odds with the Aquino administration over its support of the reproductive health bill. The PCSO vehicle controversy further sank Church and government relations to an all-time low. 

Given the RH debate context at that time, the bishops suspected the vehicle mess was disclosed to the public to clip the moral ascendancy of the Church.

Outspoken and combative when the necessity calls for it, Quevedo sought to confront PCSO chair Margie Juico during a Senate hearing on the vehicle mess, where, for the first time, the bishops were grilled by senators.

As one of the resource speakers, however, Quevedo was barred by the Senate rules from posing questions to Juico.

Speaking on behalf of the other bishops, Quevedo said they were returning the vehicles to put an end to the issue. This prompted senators to run to the bishops’ defense, but Quevedo was insistent.

To Quevedo, that turned the tide in their favor. “I do believe that the encounter between the bishops, the PCSO, and the senators at the hearing regained the moral ascendancy of the bishops as the truth of the vehicle issue fully came out and the disinformation given by the PCSO was revealed,” Quevedo said in his email.

Trappings of power don’t matter

Two years after the mess, the frosty relations between Malacañang and Quevedo, in particular, remained.

In contrast to President Aquino himself issuing a congratulatory message and praising Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Tagle when the Vatican announced that he was going to be named cardinal in October 2012, the government only issued a statement on Quevedo’s appointment through the office of the President’s peace process adviser.

Aquino even went to the extent of saying that he “admired Tagle from way back” and applauds “what he has done for the Church and for its followers.”

Not that it mattered to Quevedo.

Long-time Church lawyer Sabino Padilla said that just like Pope Francis, “Quevedo has avoided the trappings of power. He is a missionary bishop first and foremost.”

What matters to him are life-long vocations such as pursuing peace in Mindanao. In fact Quevedo is inclined to think that his appointment as cardinal indicates that Pope Francis “is giving emphasis to the Muslims in Mindanao,” Padilla said.

In 2000, the archbishop of Cotabato confronted then President Joseph Estrada when the latter initiated an all-out-war against Muslim rebels in the region.

Estrada invited him and other bishops to Malacañang to charm them into tempering their opposition to the all-out-war against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). Quevedo immediately asked Estrada to stop the attacks.

But Estrada silenced the bishops when he showed them a video of the Muslim rebels asking a soldier to recite “Hail Mary” before beheading him.

Assessing gov’t sincerity

With Quevedo’s appointment as cardinal, the bishops in Mindanao have found a stronger voice to speak on their behalf in pushing for genuine peace in the region. 

Foremost on his agenda as the de facto leader of bishops in the south has always been to check the government’s sincerity in ending violence in the region.

In a statement released in 2013 on the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro, Mindanao bishops led by Quevedo listed 6 things that should characterize the peace negotiations. Sincerity was on top of the list. The government, they said, needed “to dispel the atmosphere of mistrust and confusion in many communities. 

The most contentious issues in the negotiations have been ironed out, paving the way for the signing of a peace agreement between the government and the MILF. But it’s just the beginning of making sure both sides will keep their part of the bargain.

And for someone who has been burned once in dealing with government, Quevedo is not taking any chances. – Rappler.com

Aries C. Rufo is the author of Altar of Secrets: Sex, Money, and Politics in the Philippine Catholic Church, published by the Journalism for Nation Building Foundation Inc. Copies of the book are available at leading bookstores.

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