Avoiding the divisive reproductive health (RH) law and posters against pro-RH senatorial candidates, President Aquino and Catholic bishops met for more than four hours on Tuesday night to find common ground on other issues affecting the country, a Church official said Wednesday.
The President pushed the envelope and designated Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa Jr. as a “go-between” between the Palace and the bishops.
Monsignor Joselito Asis said the issues discussed were wide-ranging—the Freedom of Information Act, the delay in the distribution of agrarian reform lands, the killing of an Ati leader in Boracay, concerns about the automated elections, corruption in the administration, extrajudicial killings, poverty, mining and the total log ban.
However, the issue of political dynasties, which was raised in the pastoral letter, was not discussed, said Asis, secretary general of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP).
He said the President called the meeting so that he and concerned Cabinet secretaries could explain the issues raised by the bishops in their scathing pastoral letter against the Aquino administration in January.
‘Friendly, very open’
The dialogue was “very positive and very open” with both sides agreeing that CBCP members could have “direct access” to the President and Cabinet members so that they could air their concerns, said Asis.
“[T]his process is very friendly, very open. It opens the door to further mutual cooperation and collaboration in the spirit of understanding and dialogue,” Asis said in an interview.
The Church delegation was led by CBCP president Archbishop Jose Palma, members of the CBCP permanent council and some other bishops.
Aquino was joined by Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, Interior Secretary Mar Roxas, Budget Secretary Butch Abad, Social Welfare Secretary Dinky Soliman and Agrarian Reform Secretary Virgilio de los Reyes.
Over dinner of roasted asparagus soup, Caesar’s salad, paella, red snapper, beef salpicao, and “canonigo” with mango balls, the bishops made a PowerPoint presentation of the issues they raised in their pastoral letter, which the President and mainly Cabinet officials addressed point by point, the officials said.
For instance, businessmen’s proposal to buy illegally cut logs cropped up, and the President responded by saying that the government would convert them into desks and chairs, said Secretary Edwin Lacierda, presidential spokesman.
All throughout, Aquino took note of the environmental concerns raised by the bishops in their dioceses, Lacierda said.
Isues concerning the Aurora Pacific Economic Zone and Freeport Authority (Apeco) and precinct count optical scan or PCOS machines were also tackled, the officials said
Roxas also reported the drop in crime rate and increase of offenders relating to drugs in 2012, compared with previous years, Lacierda said.
“It was a very good discussion. The bishops were able to raise concerns,” he said.
Abad, for his part, responded to questions about good governance and corruption, acknowledging the need “to reorient the bureaucracy,” said Undersecretary Abigail Valte, deputy presidential spokesperson.
On the nonapproval by the House of Representatives of the freedom of information bill, Abad stressed the importance of crafting “a meaningful FOI bill,” Valte said.
Asis said the bishops wondered why the FOI bill was not certified as urgent. “(The President and Abad) explained that government agencies were still digitizing and encoding their data,” the monsignor said.
“They said some agencies were not yet finished upgrading their system…(The bishops) pointed out that the bill could be passed now to force the issue,” he said.
Asis said the bishops were concerned that while the FOI bill might have a chance of passing under the Aquino administration, it could be lost when a new President takes over in 2016.
“So, [the] bishops asked if it could be done now but they replied that they are laying down the groundwork for a well-meaning FOI,” Asis said.