Leila de Lima

‘I cannot control my tears,’ says archbishop as De Lima walks free

Paterno R. Esmaquel II

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‘I cannot control my tears,’ says archbishop as De Lima walks free

BLESSING. Archbishop Socrates Villegas delivers a video message for Leila de Lima, posted on the former senator's Facebook page on April 25, 2022.

De Lima's Facebook page

(1st UPDATE) ‘Hindi natutulog ang Diyos,’ Archbishop Socrates Villegas tells Rappler after a Muntinlupa court allowed former senator Leila de Lima to post bail after nearly seven years

MANILA, Philippines – “Our next birthday Mass will be in your home.”

Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop Socrates Villegas remembered having told this to former senator Leila de Lima last August 26, when he celebrated Mass in her Camp Crame detention facility. De Lima marked her 64th birthday on August 27.

Villegas’ words proved prophetic on Monday, November 13, after a Muntinlupa court allowed De Lima to post bail in her last drug-related case, which means she can walk free after nearly seven years. “My wish for Senator Leila when I celebrated Mass in her cell is now answered by God,” Villegas said.

“I cannot control my tears,” Villegas told Rappler. “I have been praying for this. Thank you, God.”

“This detention is a source of spiritual and moral pain for me for the past six years. I cry for joyful relief,” the archbishop added.

Villegas, the 63-year-old protégé of the late Jaime Cardinal Sin, has been one of the staunchest allies of De Lima especially after she was arrested on February 24, 2017, under then-president Rodrigo Duterte. The Duterte administration had allegedly fabricated drug-related charges against De Lima, a critic of killings in Duterte’s turf Davao City, as a form of political vendetta.

At a time when Duterte enjoyed supermajorities in Congress, Villegas – former head of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) – and other bishops took the place of a weak, divided, and some would say nonexistent political opposition. In many ways, sometimes not too subtly, the bishops also supported the presidential bid of Leni Robredo, who eventually lost to Ferdinand Marcos Jr.

The Philippines, after all, is a predominantly Catholic country where a Manila archbishop – Villegas’ mentor, the politically influential Cardinal Sin – was instrumental in toppling dictator Ferdinand Marcos on February 25, 1986. Bishops, however, have lost much of their influence through the years, as seen when the dictator’s son won the presidency despite their warnings.

‘Huwag bibitaw sa Diyos’

Still, for Villegas, De Lima’s bail grant teaches Filipinos to hold on.

Hindi natutulog ang Diyos. May dahilan ang lahat. Huwag bibitaw sa Diyos (God does not sleep. Everything has a reason. Do not let go of God’s grip),”  Villegas said. “All these years, Senator Leila taught us that.”

Kalookan Bishop Pablo Virgilio David, the current president of the CBCP, told Rappler on Monday: “Praise God for this good news! But why only now?” 

“Why did it have to take this long for her to be granted bail? This case has made it so obvious that something is very wrong about our justice system,” said the 64-year-old David, an internationally trained bible scholar who battled drug-related killings during Duterte’s term.

De Lima is a former election lawyer who served in the government for years – including as Commission on Human Rights chair under Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and as justice secretary under Benigno Aquino III.

A native of Bicol, a region known for its devotion to Our Lady of Peñafrancia, De Lima is also a devout Catholic. Her Bible and rosary were her constant companions in her detention cell, in the same way that prayer was the refuge of slain opposition senator Benigno Aquino Jr. under the Marcos dictatorship.

On October 9, 2022, it was when De Lima was praying the rosary between 5:30 and 6 am – her morning ritual – when a hostage-taker held her at knifepoint in a dark cell. After she survived this hostage-taking incident, Villegas said Mass for the former senator inside her hospital room. – Rappler.com

1 comment

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  1. ET

    I agree with Kalookan Bishop Pablo Virgilio David, when he said: “This case has made it so obvious that something is very wrong about our justice system.” Allow me to add: And almost all of the officials that are either directly or indirectly involved with such a system.

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Paterno R. Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II, news editor of Rappler, specializes in covering religion and foreign affairs. He finished MA Journalism in Ateneo and MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email pat.esmaquel@rappler.com