The Church is not beyond scrutiny

Marites Dañguilan Vitug
Altar of Secrets is the first book of its kind in the country, a journalist’s attempt to bring some air and light into a musty place

Marites Dañguilan VitugThese are excerpts from the introduction to the newly launched book, Altar of Secrets: Sex, Money and Politics in the Philippine Catholic Church by Aries Rufo. 

The Catholic Church is one of the most impenetrable and least scrutinized institutions in the Philippines. We heap our boundless trust in the holy men who lead the Church. We repose our steely faith in God in our bishops and priests, they who say mass, baptize us, marry us, give us communion, listen to our confessions, and bless us. We regard them with awe. They are God’s men on earth.

Our past shaped us to be this way. We grew up in towns where at the center stood the imposing Catholic Church, side by side with the school run by priests and nuns. Life seemed to revolve around these enduring institutions. Education and religion fused; going to school seamlessly blended with attending mass, evening novenas, and joining the Sodality of Our Lady and Columbus Squires.

Then, in those placid times, it was not our place to question the order of things. We learned catechism, prayed our rosaries, and looked up to the men in cassocks. Why, they could do no wrong. God and truth were on their side. They were special, a notch above us, ordinary humans.

But the times, they have changed. Critical thinking has shaken dogma. With the modern world has come hard-earned wisdom, built from years of experience and learning.

Like us, the Church lived through turbulent times in the ‘70s and early ‘80s—martial law, detention of opposition leaders and activists, torture and disappearances, a communist insurgency, and the assassination of Benigno Aquino. Some bishops and priests embraced liberation theology and led grassroots communities in their struggle for social justice; thus began the phenomenon of the BCC or basic Christian communities. The Church did not only tend to spiritual needs, it looked after the welfare of the poor and marginalized. We saw our priests up close, no longer detached in their pulpits and confession boxes. 

Then, in 1986, the Church played a crucial role in ousting the authoritarian ruler, Ferdinand Marcos, and restoring democracy in the country. Its help was called again in 2001 to depose President Joseph Estrada in the midst of his impeachment trial where he was accused of corruption and betraying public trust. Twice, the Church was victorious.

Elsewhere in the world, democracy movements marched and kicked out dictators. The clamor for openness reverberated, not only in government but in other institutions, including the Church. Civil society blossomed. Soon after, transparency and accountability became bywords in many parts of the globe. The “Arab Spring” is the latest manifestation of this global surge.

Technology has hastened all this. With 24/7 news, the Internet, and mobile phones, information has become accessible. We are no longer isolated islands; we have now become connected to the world. Distances have shrunk. Immediately, we know what is happening in Europe, US, and Australia and certain events there affect and influence us.

I mention Europe, Australia, and the US because, in these parts, the Catholic Church has attempted to be transparent. It has responded to complaints on sexual abuse by its priests, disclosed these to the public, sanctioned erring clergymen, and adopted zero-tolerance policies. In the US, questions on Church finances and how these have been managed have been raised and probed.  

These cannot yet be said for the Philippines. 


In Altar of Secrets: Sex, Politics, and Money in the Philippine Catholic Church, Aries Rufo shows a Church that is cloaked in secrecy. It keeps the wrongdoing of its bishops and priests—in sexual misconduct and financial mismanagement—within its confines and lets them get away, unpunished. They’re sent to other assignments overseas or are simply asked to retire or resign.

This book is the first of its kind in the country, a journalist’s attempt to bring some air and light into a musty place, where there’s so little circulation and transparency. As Anne Lamott wrote in her book, “Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers,”  “Light reveals us to ourselves.” And, if I may add, to others. 

The author has covered the Catholic Church extensively. For almost 20 years, he followed the comings and goings of bishops, their big plenaries and pastoral declarations, as well as their mishaps. He has broken new ground in reporting on this pillar that has an outsize influence on our country.

In raising these issues about the Church, we want to encourage an open discussion that, hopefully, will lead to a more discerning public. We want to cajole: Do take away those blinders, be vigilant.  Engage the Church, ask tough questions.  Demand accountability, push for transparency.

After all, the Church, like other institutions, should not be beyond public scrutiny. We hope that the men of God welcome this and consider it part of the new normal.

As Lamott beautifully wrote, “When nothing new can get in, that’s death. When oxygen can’t find a way in, you die.” –




Marites Dañguilan Vitug

Marites is one of the Philippines’ most accomplished journalists and authors. For close to a decade, Vitug – a Nieman fellow – edited 'Newsbreak' magazine, a trailblazer in Philippine investigative journalism. Her recent book, 'Rock Solid: How the Philippines Won Its Maritime Case Against China,' has become a bestseller.