Bishops liable for SUVs, say 2 senators
Bishops can’t invoke the separation of the Church and State to escape culpability over the alleged misuse of funds of the state-run Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office (PCSO), two senators said on Sunday.
Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile and Sen. Panfilo Lacson agreed that the Constitution barred the donation of public money for the benefit of any religious group or a priest, with some clear exceptions.
The new PCSO management has identified six Catholic bishops and one group that received sports utility vehicles (SUVs) and cash amounting to P8.3 million from 2007 to 2010—the last three years of the Arroyo administration. The Commission of Audit (COA) said this was a violation of the Constitution.
“It doesn’t mean that if [members of] the religious sector committed a crime, they can escape responsibility,” Enrile said over radio dzBB.
The charity arm of the Archdiocese of Manila defended the bishops and Church institutions that have received SUVs from the PCSO, saying it was part of the long “critical collaboration” between the Church and State.
Fr. Anton Pascual, Caritas Manila executive director, said the Church had good intentions when it received funds and vehicles from the PCSO as these formed part of its “material and spiritual” services to the poor, particularly in areas hardly accessed by the government.
The collaboration between the Church and government in delivering services has been present since the time of then Presidents Corazon Aquino, Fidel V. Ramos, Joseph Estrada and even Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, Pascual said.
Section 6, Article II of the Constitution states that the “separation of the Church and State shall be inviolable.”
Lacson believed that the Church had long encroached on state affairs. “Now they’re not only interfering. They have received endowments and vehicles from the executive branch. If they invoke this now, the application would be too unilateral,” he said over dzBB.
Blue ribbon probe
The Senate blue ribbon committee is set to look into the charges, among other alleged instances of PCSO fund misuse, on Wednesday.
Culpability for the distribution of PCSO largesse to lawmakers and bishops could lead to Arroyo, Lacson said.
He said he had seen documents showing that Arroyo herself had signed the approval of the old PCSO board’s recommendation allotting “charity funds” for certain personalities.
Enrile said it would be premature to say that the grant of the SUVs to the bishops violated the law unless the specifics of the grant had been established.
Sec. 29 (2) of Article VI of the Constitution states: “No public money or property shall be appropriated, applied, paid or employed, directly or indirectly, for the use, benefit, or support of any sect, church, denomination, sectarian institution, or system of religion, or any priest, preacher or minister … except when such priest, preacher or dignitary is assigned to the armed forces, or to any penal institution, or government orphanages or leprosarium.”
“Besides, why would you give a luxury vehicle bought with charity funds?” Lacson said.
Enrile, however, said the bishops who were implicated in the PCSO fund mess should explain their side, if possible at the Senate.
“If the chair of the committee asks for the presence of the bishops, there’s no stopping that. They have to appear,” he said.
Even if the prelates returned the SUVs, they would not be immune from criminal charges, Enrile said.
“If you’re a preacher or a religious minister, if you violated the law, you have to answer for it. Even the highest political leader with power, if he commits a crime, that person is not immune from the operation of the law,” the Senate president said.
“The act, fact, crime, the violation has been done,” he added.
Lacson agreed: “Malacañang is right. No one is above the law even if you’re a member of the Church.”
But everything would depend on whether they used the vehicles for personal use, or for the purpose for which they were intended for, such as charity, Enrile said.
Some bishops viewed the charges as part of the government’s counterattack against the Church, which has been openly critical of the administration’s push for the reproductive health bill.
Enrile and Lacson believed that the exposé on the bishops had nothing to do with the Church opposition to the RH bill.
Tandag Bishop Nereo Odchimar, president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, has admitted that as a bishop, he had sought the help of then President Arroyo, but this was never for personal intentions.
In an interview with reporters on Friday, Odchimar said he personally lobbied Arroyo for the concreting of coastal roads in his province during her administration.
“If it is for the good of the people, I lobby for them. But for my personal use, I never asked,” Odchimar said.
For the first time, Odchimar openly spoke with reporters about perceptions that he was among the prelates belonging to the so-called “Malacañang diocese” which allegedly supported Arroyo amid calls for her ouster during the second half of her term.
“That has to be qualified that I am close with [her] because protocol dictates that as the head of the diocese, whenever she and other government officials [visited], I am also with them because we have common constituents,” the prelate said.
Arroyo would also consult with him about the situation in his province “because I am the bishop,” he added. But he said he had strictly instructed his priests against soliciting funds from Malacañang for the benefit of their convents or churches.
Odchimar said he owned a second-hand Mitsubishi Pajero, which he bought for P200,000.
“It did not come from Malacañang. I bought it with my own money. I can show you the deed of absolute sale if you have doubts,” he said.
In defending his fellow priests who received donations from the PCSO, Pascual said the Church and the government had been in partnership in terms of providing services to the poor.
“Whatever donations, either cash or in kind, the Church leaders receive will always be for the benefit of the community since [they] are stewards not owners of what they receive from public and private donors,” Pascual said over the Church-run Radio Veritas.
Such collaboration, he said, should be maintained and strengthened because the Church remained apolitical and had neither “hidden agenda nor partisan ambition.”
The Church has been effective and efficient in service delivery mainly with the help of parishes, mandated organizations and an extensive grassroots network of its Basic Ecclesiastical Community organizations, he said.
“The Church [also] has no institutionalized corruption … It is autonomous from the government and will collaborate critically, ensuring good check and balance at all times,” Pascual said.
He said the people, not the Church, benefited from grants given by the PCSO.
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