Seven Catholic bishops can evade liability if they return the sport utility vehicles (SUVs) to the government and prove that these were used for nonreligious purposes, senators said on Sunday.
On the eve of the closing of an assembly of Catholic bishops, a source in the Church said the prelates might issue a “more defined” policy against receiving donations from legal and illegal gambling.
Sen. Franklin Drilon said the Senate would have no reason to hold the bishops accountable if they agreed to turn over the SUVs to state-run Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office (PCSO).
“If there were violations, the violations are remedied by the return,” Drilon said in an interview.
The bishops who received donations from the PCSO for the purchase of vehicles during the previous Arroyo administration were Butuan Bishop Juan de Dios Pueblos, Zamboanga Archbishop Romulo Valles, Cotabato Archbishop Orlando Quevedo, Abra Bishop Leonardo Jaucian, Basilan Bishop Martin Jumoad, Bontoc Bishop Rodolfo Beltran and Nueva Segovia Archbishop Ernesto Antolin Salgado.
Msgr. Pedro Quitorio, the media director of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), said the seven bishops were suffering from the recent attacks against them.
But Quitorio said that such suffering was not in vain if it was paving the way “to opening a can of worms” and to help the government solve corruption in the country.
“If this will be the opportunity to open the doors toward cleansing the government, somehow the suffering of the seven bishops will [not be put to waste],” he said.
The Senate blue ribbon committee has invited the bishops to its inquiry into the PCSO fund mess which resumes on Wednesday.
The bishops declared they were ready to face the Senate inquiry and return the vehicles to the PCSO.
Not keen on grilling
Sen. Francis Escudero said he was not keen on grilling the bishops after they agreed to return the SUVs and after the CBCP opened an inquiry into the matter.
“I hope it would end [the controversy],” Escudero said over dzBB.
Tandag Bishop Nereo Odchimar, the outgoing CBCP president, earlier announced that the CBCP Plenary Council would tackle the controversy during its assembly. The CBCP Plenary Council is the highest decision-making body of the Philippine Catholic Church hierarchy.
He also said that the bishops, as a body, would issue a statement on various matters facing the Church. The statement is expected to include the issue involving the seven bishops.
Quitorio confirmed that the CBCP would hold a press conference today (Monday).
Message from Palma
A day before the press conference, the incoming CBCP head, Archbishop Jose Palma, posted a message that encouraged cooperation from fellow bishops when he assumes leadership in December.
“I would like to ask my brothers and the people…that as shepherds and servant leaders we may realize the importance and sacredness of our responsibility, and together with our people may we journey toward becoming a country of life and love,” Palma said.
Burden on giver
For his part, Sen. Ralph Recto said the bishops could not be absolved of any crime they did not commit.
“They did not commit any crime. The legal burden is on the one who gave it,” Recto said in an interview, referring to the old PCSO board. “The real issue is propriety. The allegations basically are that they were bribed.”
It was Bishop Pueblos who requested then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in 2009 to give him a Mitsubishi Montero Sports 4×4 as a “birthday gift” and assured her of his support.
As far as he was concerned, Recto said there was nothing irregular about helping Church-based groups, “whether the CBCP or any religion.”
While the Constitution prohibits the donation of funds to any religious sect or a priest, it does not provide sanctions for any violation, said Drilon, a former justice secretary.
So should the bishops be found to have used the SUVs for religious purposes, they would not face any sanctions, he said.
Even so, Drilon said the bishops should at least explain for what purpose the SUVs were used in view of the constitutional provision.