MANILA, Philippines—Recognizing the urgency of the matter, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines’ permanent council on Saturday took over the investigation of bishops who received money from the Arroyo administration for the purchase of sports utility vehicles.
In a statement, Bishop Nereo Odchimar of Tandag, the current CBCP president, said the permanent council took over the “internal inquiry” into the scandal from the Episcopal Commission on Bishops’ Concerns headed by retired Cebu Archbishop Ricardo Cardinal Vidal.
“Under the CBCP constitution, the permanent council… can be convened by the CBCP president at any time to discharge its functions for special purposes, including some particular inquiry that is deemed urgent in character,” Odchimar said in the statement, which was released through the Church-run Radio Veritas.
“The CBCP permanent council would now take over the inquiry to provide for a more broadly represented panel to conduct an inquiry by peers,” he added.
The CBCP president issued the statement as the CBCP plenary assembly—the local hierarchy’s highest decision making body—began its bi-annual meeting at the Pope Pius XII Catholic Center in Manila.
“Moreover, as the CBCP plenary assembly ends its meeting on Monday, the permanent council can continue to act for and on its behalf with regard to the inquiry, and to address all public concerns related to it,” Odchimar said.
“In this line, the CBCP thanks His Eminence Ricardo Cardinal Vidal, as chairman of the Episcopal Commission on Bishops’ Concerns, for having endeavored to do the initial data gathering,” he added.
The Catholic hierarchy is embroiled in a controversy over millions of pesos in donations from the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office at the behest of then president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Critics claim the money was given to ensure Church support for Arroyo, who was then buffeted by scandals and repeated threats of impeachment.
The critics claim the donations led the bishops to take a softer stance on the Arroyo administration despite the many corruption and electoral scandals that rocked it.
The recipients of the donations for the purchase of 4×4 vehicles were the Diocese of Butuan (P1.704 million released on July 9, 2009), Zamboanga Archdiocesan Social Action Apostolate (P1.54 million released on July 9, 2009), Archdiocese of Cotabato (P1.44 million released on Feb. 24, 2009), Diocese of Bangued, Abra (P1.129 million released on Jan. 16, 2009), Roman Catholic Prelate of Isabela, Basilan (P1.125 million released on July 2, 2009), and Apostolic Vicariate Bontoc (P600,000 released on April 30, 2007).
A seventh recipient, Caritas Nueva Segovia, which covers the province of Ilocos Sur, received P720,000 on March 17, 2010, under the general term “financial assistance.”
The leaders of these dioceses are Bishop Juan de Dios Pueblos (Butuan), Archbishop Romulo G. Valles (Zamboanga), Archbishop Orlando B. Quevedo (Cotabato), Bishop Leopoldo C. Jaucian (Bangued, Abra), Bishop Martin Jumoad (Isabela, Basilan), Bishop Rodolfo F. Beltran (Bontoc) and Archbishop Ernesto Antolin Salgado (Caritas Nueva Segovia).
De Dios Pueblos, in particular, has come under heavy criticism for asking for a brand new 4×4 vehicle for his 66th birthday in March 2009.
Except for Valles and Salgado, the bishops linked to the scandal were at the plenary assembly on Saturday which was also attended by 77 other active bishops and seven retired bishops.
Meanwhile, Pope Benedict XVI has relayed a message assuring the Filipino bishops of his “spiritual closeness” as they hold their plenary assembly and vote for a new set of officers who will be taking over next year.
“He greets all the bishops and assures them of his spiritual closeness. His Holiness prays that this time of reflection and renewed dedication in the service of the Gospel will bear abundant fruit for the Church and the society,” Tarcisio Cardinal Bertone, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, said in a letter sent to Odchimar.
“He encourages the bishops in their efforts in defense of the value of each human life, of the sacredness of marriage, and of the family,” Bertone said.
“Entrusting your deliberations to the intercession of Mary, Mother of the Church, the Holy Father willingly imparts his Apostolic Blessing as a pledge of peace and joy in our Lord,” he added.