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Fr. Suarez vindicated but ‘this isn’t the end,’ says his bishop protector

CANADIAN CONNECTION The “healing priest” Fr. Fernando Suarez (left) with Fr. Jeffrey Mark Shannon, the Canadian moderator of the Mary of the Poor Foundation of the Philippines, which Suarez established after leaving his religious order in Canada in 2008. —PHOTO FROM MARYMOTHEROFTHEPOOR.ORG

MANILA, Philippines — Two weeks before he died of a massive heart attack, the “healing priest” Fr. Fernando Suarez tagged a “fraternity of bishops” as those behind the sexual misconduct case that hounded him for five years until he was cleared in January by a Vatican body that investigates grave offenses of clergymen.

The harassment has stopped, “thank God,” Suarez said in an interview on Jan. 18, where he handed this reporter photocopied papers related to his supposed molestation of Joel Domingo and Freddie Villono Jr. in a chapel in San Jose, Mindoro Occidental, on March 10, 2014.

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The two men eventually recanted, saying an ex-seminarian named Eric Cruz was behind the charge.

That his accusers were able to travel to Manila for a dialogue with a high-ranking Philippine Church official meant that those behind the fabrication were backed by people with ample resources, said retired Bishop Antonio Palang, Suarez’s administrator.

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‘ADVISED TO PREMATURELY RETIRE’ Former San Jose, Mindoro, Bishop Antonio Palang says “there really was no proof’’ to support the sexual harassment allegations against Fr. Fernando Suarez. —RICHARD A. REYES

Among the papers are notarized affidavits and letters signed by Palang as vicar apostolic of San Jose at the time of the alleged crime.

There are also written testimonies of witnesses to Church-appointed investigators, correspondences between Suarez and these investigators, as well as copies of certain decrees given to Suarez by Palang in March 2011 and by then Bishop Wilfredo Manlapaz of Tagum, Davao del Norte, in February 2017.

The decrees authorized Suarez to administer the Holy Sacraments in their dioceses.

Tennis tilt

A second interview with the Inquirer had been scheduled after the 11th National Priests’ Tennis Championship on Feb. 4 at the Alabang Country Club, where Suarez suddenly collapsed while playing his third singles set. He was already unresponsive en route to Asian Hospital, according to his spokesperson Deedee Siytangco.

Suarez would have turned 53 on Feb. 7.

Siytangco set the Jan. 18 interview shortly after the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), to which Suarez’s misconduct case was referred by Philippine Church authorities, ordered the issuance of a decree pronouncing him “not guilty” of the charge.

The CDF order, in effect, echoed the votum or clearance dated Oct. 10, 2014, given to Suarez by Palang as his bishop
protector.

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Palang issued the votum after an investigation ordered by the high-ranking official who spoke with the accusers. But Suarez was still barred from celebrating Mass and administering the sacraments in the dioceses of Cubao, Lingayen-Dagupan, Malolos and Malaybalay.

A priest may celebrate Mass in a different diocese if permitted by its bishop.

Suarez gained popularity in 2008 when he left his religious order in Canada and founded the Mary Mother of the Poor (MMP) Foundation in the Philippines.

Per reports, the faithful that gathered at his Masses included such wealthy patrons as Sen. Manny Pacquiao and businessmen Danding and Tonyboy Cojuangco and Greggy Araneta.

Church eyebrows rose when Suarez began construction of a healing center on a 5-hectare property in Batangas. Eventually, San Miguel Corp. donated a 33-hectare property in Amuyong, Alfonso, Cavite, to MMP in 2010. With it came a plan to build a 33-story statue of Mary Mother of the Poor.

When the trouble began

Suarez said misunderstandings later arose between the foundation and local officials. Church leaders learned of the
matter and ordered him to “close the foundation,” he said.

“That’s when the trouble began,” Suarez said. “I wasn’t a board member. Church officials wanted me to focus on healing, but I suggested that before the foundation is closed, I want to have a legal consultation with lawyers because the foundation had acquired several properties and there might be repercussions.”

There were also questions about what to do with the church that was built and where the donations would go should
the foundation close down.

Stories about his lifestyle soon circulated. Suarez told the Inquirer that he had about 100 million in cash from supporters worldwide. “That’s just the cash, the real estate is not counted,” he said.

Suarez eventually relocated MMP to Mindoro Occidental. Palang enlisted him into the Apostolic Vicariate of San Jose on March 25, 2011, after noting his desire to pursue “the foundation of a new community called Missionaries of Mary Mother of the Poor (MMMP).”

Powerful group

The MMMP moderator, Fr. Jeffrey Mark Shannon, said controversy continued to hound Suarez after his move to Mindoro Occidental.

“Father Suarez had been followed by a serious powerful group of detractors originating from within the Philippine
Church who have been jealous of his popularity and the crowd he is able to gather. They have been maliciously trying to stop his ministry for the last 10 years,” Shannon, a Canadian, said in a statement on April 12, 2019, in reply to a questionnaire sent by a judicial vicar.

The vicar, also a ranking Church official, opened an inquiry into Suarez’s sexual misconduct case despite Palang’s
2014 votum, which apparently anticipated a problematic situation like this.

Normal procedure requires that complaints involving a priest “be endorsed first before the Bishop [who has] full jurisdiction of the area where … the act [supposedly] occurred,” Palang said. But Suarez and his supporters suspected that his accusers were first brought to the Manila-based high-ranking Church official and assisted in seeking an audience.

In his votum, Palang said his attention should first have been called so he could investigate Suarez, who was under his jurisdiction at the time of the supposed crime.

‘Homosexual tendencies’

Palang also noted that the charge against Suarez was stated only in a letter, not a police report. “The lack of evidence and affidavits … and authenticity of the signatures of the complainants leaves me unconvinced …” he wrote. “It is also unclear why these individuals have not even reported the alleged incidents to the lawful authorities.”

Palang later revealed in an affidavit signed in 2016 that one Bro. Bonifacio Mosca from Suarez’s Mary Mother of the Poor Charitable Organization confessed that it was he who had molested Domingo.

Barangay Captain Sotero Enano of Ilin Proper mentioned Mosca in a statement dated April 12, 2019, and addressed to the judicial vicar who had formulated the questionnaire.

Among the vicar’s questions addressed to Suarez “and other witnesses” were: “Does Fr. Suarez show homosexual tendencies? How does he show this tendency?” and “When doing healing, people notice Fr. Suarez being touchy, even embracing men in particular. Do you notice that too? Does he do that also with women?”

Other questions involved the “authenticity” of Suarez’s healing ministry, lifestyle, and properties. One dealt with
what witnesses “honestly think about” the sexual misconduct charge against Suarez.

Witness Enano focused on Mosca, alleging it was he who “always gives [Domingo] bracelets, lotions, cell phones and the like. Then Mosca connived with [ex-seminarian] Cruz who later fabricated the lies against Fr. Suarez.”

In his recantation, Domingo claimed that Cruz had coached him and promised to “provide for my education and to help my family” if he cooperated in pinning down Suarez.

Villono, the other accuser, also named the ex-seminarian whom he described in his own recantation as “the man behind all the lies” against Suarez.

Letters to Vatican

Suarez quoted portions of their notarized recantations in similarly-worded five-page letters he sent to two prefects of
the Vatican’s Congregation of the Clergy—Beniamino Cardinal Stella and Fernando Cardinal Filoni—dated March 19, 2018.

Another ex-seminarian, Darius Amansec, was named in another Suarez letter as Cruz’s conspirator. In an eight-page letter dated Nov. 21, 2019 sent to “The Cardinal Prefect” of the Vatican’s CDF, Suarez said the two ex-seminarians were the ones who brought his accusers to see the high-ranking church official in Manila.

Suarez described the ex-seminarians as “disgruntled seekers into my congregation” in his letter. The two ex-seminarians are said to be overseas.

Villono said Cruz brought him and Domingo to Manila where they talked about the incident to the high-ranking
Church official that Palang named in his votum. The dialogue took place in Intramuros.

“I lied [to the Church official] for I feared that I wouldn’t be able to go home from Intramuros,” Villono said.

He said Cruz had also promised to send him to school but instead brought him to Pampanga where he served as
a domestic in Cruz’s house for two months.

In his affidavit, Palang cited the testimony of a Sister Marieta Calderon who said Suarez arrived at the town where the crime allegedly happened only two days after, or on March 12, 2014.

Her testimony was corroborated by a Bro. Ronnie T. Talaver who said Suarez was actually in San Jose, not Ilin, on the day of the supposed crime.

Pressured, bullied

Palang quit as bishop in February 2018, indicating in his resignation letter that he was “advised to prematurely retire
… for the good of the Vicariate” despite having “a good four years to the end of my term.”

The letter, titled “The Truth Behind My Resignation” and addressed to “[a]ll Bishops, Consecrated Religious, and Priests,” mentioned Suarez’s case.

Palang recalled that an apostolic visitation to his vicariate in Mindoro Occidental by a third ranking church official had Suarez and other supposedly errant priests on the agenda.

He said the official listened to his report clearing Suarez but still “came to the decision that it would be proper to suspend Fr. Suarez from engaging in public ministry.”

“I felt I was being pressured, even bullied to follow the words of [this official]. In spite of the lack of substantiation, I
could not understand how suspension of the good priest was deemed proper,” he said.

Suarez’s papers also showed how a fourth ranking Church official, who put the words “Instructor Delegate” under
his signature in letters sent to the priest, raised the molestation case in 2017 and informed Suarez that the case was “submitted to the proper Vatican Congregation for the eventual resolution thereof in accord with the pertinent instructive process.”

This official’s letters did not acknowledge Palang’s votum and instead gave Suarez two options: “to seek favor of Dispensation from Clerical Obligations or to be imposed with the penalty of Dismissal from the Clerical State.”

Suarez’s reply to one of the Instructor Delegate’s letters said he was “unaware of any case being processed against me.” Insisting on his innocence, he also offered to “talk to you, Your Excellency, should you want to hear my
side personally.”

But the official sent another letter to Suarez, this time informing him that his case “is now undergoing preliminary
procedural instruction” by the CDF.

In the last paragraph, the official wrote: “Do write back whatever you want to put on record—during this Preliminary Inquiry basically about your sexual errant behavior.”

At least two more letters followed, prompting Suarez to send a letter to two prefects of the CDF stating he was prepared to face a “Philippine Civil Court” if necessary.

‘Fraternity of bishops’

Suarez also wrote a letter to the judicial vicar who had sent the questionnaire. “To say that this is [an overly long] ordeal is an understatement,” he said.

“Nobody, placed in my same situation, would have survived this psychological torture I am made to endure … Had I been weak, I would have long ago lost my sanity.”

His prayers were answered when the CDF ordered the Philippine Church to clear him.

“No more harassment after the Vatican [instruction]. Huminto na sila, thank God,” he told the Inquirer.

Suarez said the Vatican’s ruling was a “vindication” and also a “triumph for the Catholic Church” given the allegations of sexual impropriety against its priests.

He added: “It’s like a fraternity of bishops. It’s very bad if one bishop is against you [because] eventually all bishops
will be against you. If there is a bishop who is not against you, he would appear to be against the other bishops. That’s what happened to me.

“It’s so hard if you get in conflict with one bishop and he somehow will have clout and they gang up …”

At one point in the interview, Suarez received a phone call from Palang. He switched to speaker phone and informed
the ex-bishop of this reporter’s presence.

Said Palang in a mix of Filipino and English: “There really was no proof. The accusers didn’t speak with me; they
immediately went to Manila … The big question is: From Mindoro to Manila, how were they able to travel? They didn’t have money, not even for transportation. There were people behind this.”

Asked who he thought were behind the sexual misconduct case, Palang said: “Let’s just wait. It will be made obvious.
I’m happy [Suarez] has been cleared. Thank God the ruling has been issued. This is a big thing. The truth, everything,
will come out. This is not the end.”

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TAGS: Antonio Palang, Fernando Suarez, sexual misconduct case
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