The Archdiocese of Manila on Saturday distanced itself from church projects that received money from the family of fugitive businesswoman Janet Lim-Napoles, the alleged mastermind behind the P10-billion pork barrel scam.
In a statement, the archdiocese said former Quiapo church rector Msgr. Josefino Ramirez’s involvement with a foundation Napoles set up to help church projects was his own “personal apostolate” and did not officially involve the archdiocese.
“There has been mention of Msgr. Josefino S. Ramirez in stories on Janet Lim-Napoles in newspapers, in particular his ties with a foundation named after her mother that she set up,” the archdiocese said.
“This involvement is a personal apostolate of Msgr. Ramirez, now a retired priest of the Archdiocese of Manila, and does not officially involve the archdiocese,” it said.
The archdiocese also released a letter Ramirez sent to Fr. Rufino Sescon Jr., chancellor of the Archdiocese of Manila, explaining his involvement with Napoles’ foundation.
This came four days after Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle tearfully decried the pork barrel scam in a press conference.
Ramirez and five Chinese priests are Napoles’ witnesses in the serious illegal detention case filed against her for allegedly kidnapping Benhur Luy, the whistle-blower in the pork barrel scam.
Ramirez and his fellow priests claim Luy was never detained.
In his letter to Sescon, Ramirez said he met Napoles’ late mother, Magdalena Luy Lim, “an ardent devotee of the Divine Mercy,” when he was parish priest of Binondo in 1992.
“Lim has always supported our apostolate for the poor, most especially the Pantawid Gutom Feeding for the street people and malnourished children both in Binondo (1992-2004) and Quiapo (2004-2007) Parishes,” Ramirez said.
When Ramirez was transferred to the Divine Mercy Shrine in Mandaluyong City in 2007, Lim continued to support church programs for the elderly and for prisoners in the New Bilibid Prison in Muntinlupa.
“Since her death on Feb. 28, 2008, her family, relatives and friends, especially Chinese-Filipino devotees, continue to contribute in her memory to the now referred Magdalena Luy Lim Charity Foundation in the Service of Divine Mercy Inc.,” Ramirez said.
Pork abolition urged
Calls for the abolition of the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) intensified on Saturday, a day after the Commission on Audit (COA) disclosed findings that indicated massive abuse of the pork barrel from 2007 to 2009 alone.
The results of the COA special audit tended to show why leaders of both the House of Representatives and the Senate were reluctant to investigate the P10-billion pork barrel scam allegedly masterminded by businesswoman Janet Lim-Napoles.
House Speaker Feliciano Belmonte has rejected proposals for an investigation and Senate leaders are cool to Sen. Francis Escudero’s call for an inquiry because it will amount to an investigation of senators by senators.
But Bayan Muna Rep. Neri Colmenares is bent on pursuing an investigation. On Saturday he said the COA report made this the perfect time to “deliver the fatal blow” on the PDAF.
The PDAF is a pork barrel that channels funds to congressional districts and the COA report showed that nongovernment organizations (NGOs) were used as conduits for funds from 2007 to 2009.
Napoles allegedly used bogus NGOs to siphon off P10 billion in pork into her bank accounts.
Social Watch Philippines, a budget-watch group, joined the call for the abolition of the PDAF, and urged the government to follow the COA’s advice to rechannel the special purpose fund in the program to other agencies.
But Cardinal Tagle said proposals for the abolition of the PDAF should be carefully studied.
Tagle said an alternative to the PDAF must be presented “or else the pork barrel may go to private pockets again.”
The Teachers Dignity Coalition, which failed to win a seat in the House in May’s party-list elections, said the PDAF should be abolished.
Coalition national chair Benjo Basas said that apart from being a source of corruption, the PDAF is one of the reasons why political dynasties have proliferated in the country.
“It’s graft-ridden. We are for the abolition of (the PDAF),” Basas said.
“This is the most opportune time to deliver the final blow on the pork barrel, considering that the Palace, the Senate and the House are not so enthusiastic to scrap it,” Colmenares told the Inquirer.
Escudero said he hoped the COA report would make his colleagues in the Senate change their mind and agree to an investigation.
“This issue is becoming contentious day after day and just like the anxious and outraged public, we also want to pursue the truth,” Escudero said.
Sen. Aquilino Pimentel III, who joined Escudero in calling for a Senate inquiry, said Saturday that the COA report may have rendered a Senate investigation into the scandal irrelevant.
“The COA report is Step No. 1. Step No. 2 would be the preliminary investigation by the (Department of Justice) or Ombudsman where those concerned are allowed to explain or answer,” Pimentel said.
A preliminary investigation is where probable cause is determined and the decision to prosecute is made.
“Actually the COA should have allowed those agencies with audit findings to explain their side even before finalizing the COA report,” Pimentel said.
Senators Loren Legarda and Antonio Trillanes IV said they favored the abolition of the PDAF.
Legarda said lawmakers should stand solely on the basis of the effectivity of the laws they had written.
Trillanes said he would support the abolition of the PDAF if President Aquino himself would propose it.
In the meantime, he said the President should order an investigation to determine and plug the loopholes on the PDAF.
The investigation should also determine and prosecute the guilty and clear the innocent, he said.
But deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte said on Saturday that Malacañang expected Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales to pick up where the COA had left off.
“We will defer to the Office of the Ombudsman on any action that in its judgment it should take in the wake of the findings of the Commission on Audit,” Valte said.
There was no comment from President Aquino, who has not had public engagements recently due to allergy.
But Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma said the President had “stated that the evidence should point the direction of the ongoing inquiry.”
“Inquiry” refers to the National Bureau of Investigation’s probe of the pork barrel scam.
The Office of the Ombudsman is also investigating the case.
“The COA findings will be transmitted to the Department of Justice and the Ombudsman, thereby buttressing the case buildup that will determine [who will be eventually prosecuted],” Coloma said.
Belmonte said that last year he and then Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile were told by COA Chair Grace Pulido-Tan about a wide-ranging investigation into the PDAF.
Belmonte said he told Tan to “go ahead” and just recently he sought an update on the investigation.
“I welcome it,” he said in a text message. “(But) I certainly don’t want to muddle it with a House probe at the same time. I propose a joint follow-up probe by COA, DOJ and the Ombudsman, instead of congressmen investigating themselves. I hope you see my point.”
But Colmenares insisted that the House had no choice but to act on the minority bloc’s resolution calling for an inquiry into the pork barrel scandal.
“Whatever the opinion of the leadership of the House is, there was a resolution filed and under the rules, it must be heard,” he said.
Colmenares said any investigation should not zero in only on Napoles, who remains in hiding following the issuance of an arrest warrant for a separate criminal case.
“Napoles could not have pulled it off by herself,” he said. “Prosecuting Napoles alone would be the greatest tragedy.”
In light of the COA findings, the Speaker said that no PDAF should be “turned over to an NGO in any form,” and that the allocation should be used for a congressman’s own district. He said the amount should not also be given to any local government.
Former Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman, chair of the powerful House committee on appropriations from 2007 to 2008, maintained that the P70-million annual pork barrel for each representative was an “absolute ceiling.”
“No member of Congress can exceed his annual PDAF maximum allocation because the PDAF is not elastic,” he said in a statement.—Reports from Michael Lim Ubac, Norman Bordadora, Cynthia Balana and Kristine Felisse Mangunay in Manila; Tonette Orejas and Anselmo Roque, Inquirer Central Luzon; and Villamor Visaya Jr., Inquirer Northern Luzon; Nico Alconaba, Inquirer Mindanao