Bishops to answer as group: Our conscience is clear | Inquirer News

Bishops to answer as group: Our conscience is clear

The bishops appear to be circling their wagons in time for the Senate inquiry starting Wednesday into luxury vehicles allegedly given to some Catholic bishops.

“We will answer as a group,” Butuan Bishop Juan de Dios Pueblos told the Inquirer by phone, referring to the other bishops who were named by the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office (PCSO).

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Pueblos had personally requested a Mitsubishi Montero Sport 4 x 4 from then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo as a “birthday gift” in 2009.

Pueblos, one of the staunchest supporters of Arroyo, last month called for the resignation of President Aquino.

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But as the Inquirer was asking him if he indeed wrote then President Arroyo asking for an SUV as a birthday gift, Pueblos said “bye” and ended the phone interview. Efforts to reach him by phone again failed.

“Our conscience is clear,” CBCP president Bishop Nereo Odchimar wrote the blue ribbon committee on Wednesday.

In a five-page letter, Odchimar “categorically” denied that the PCSO donations some bishops had received during the Arroyo administration were used to purchase Pajeros and “for the personal use of bishops.”

“The bishop does not own the donation but holds it in trust for public use of his diocese,” he said. “Hence, the donation is not given to the bishop as such. Whatever benefit the Catholic Church may draw from the gift is purely incidental.”

PCSO Director Francisco Joaquin told senators that the Apostolic Vicariate of Bontoc-Lagawe was the recipient of a donation used to purchase a 17-seat Isuzu passenger van.

The admission prompted Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile to ask: “Is that a luxury car, vehicle? The terrain there is very rugged, right? So it’s not a luxury vehicle.”

No Pajeros

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Bontoc-Lagawe, which allegedly got P600,000 in cash for the purchase of a Pajero, purchased a “second-hand, 10-year-old Nissan Pathfinder pick-up” for P280,000, according to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP).

Asked why she initially alleged that bishops got Pajeros, which led to the “Pajero 7” label, PCSO Chair Margarita Juico told reporters: “Maybe because people call a big jeep they see a Pajero.”

Juico said an audit showed that at least P6.9 million in charity funds were used to buy five vehicles upon the request of several bishops.

Some lawmakers said such donations would violate a law prohibiting the use of state funds for religious purposes.

Sen. Teofisto Guingona III, committee chair, said bishops named in the PCSO exposé would be summoned, probably for the hearing on Tuesday next week.

The Senate investigation will resume at 9 a.m. today (Thursday) with former PCSO officials led by Manuel Morato expected to attend.

Odchimar said he and his fellow bishops were willing to “face the consequences of having accepted financial aid from the government so as to channel it to those who need them most.”

“If the collective wisdom of the Senate will indicate to us that such financial assistance to the poor, as coursed through religious groups, is in fact improper if not illegal, then by all means let us put an end to this long-standing practice,” the CBCP president said.

List of vehicles

Attached to Odchimar’s letter was a list of vehicles purchased by certain dioceses or vicariates using the PCSO donation.

The Diocese of Abra bought a Mitsubishi Strada pick-up worth P1.107 million on Jan. 23, 2009. It was used to “transport personnel and carry needed materials for service missions to the poor and needy constituents of Abra province.”

The Archdiocese of Cotabato got a Toyota Grandia Hi-Ace van worth P1.4 million on April 30, 2009, for its Social Action Center. The van was used to distribute “medicines and other relief goods to disaster-hit areas in the diocese, community health programs.”

The Prelature of Isabela in Basilan also got an Strada pick-up worth P1.225 million on Dec. 29, 2009 for “medical and health missions [and] community visitations to the indigent communities of Basilan province.”

The Archdiocese of Zamboanga bought a Grandia van worth P1.518 million on Sept. 14, 2009, partly for “medical-related services.”

Caritas Nueva Segovia got an Isuzu Crosswind utility van for P720,000 for “health, dental and medical outreach programs.”

Pueblos’ personal request for a Montero included an explanation that it would be used for his “spiritual and social services to the people.”

Enrile said he would “presume good faith until otherwise proven” amid allegations that the bishops who got PCSO donations violated the law.

Prohibited

“The State and the Church deal with the same person,” the Senate President said. “If the donation is received by the bishop, whether in cash or in kind, for the sole benefit of the Church, then indeed that is obviously prohibited.”

“But if it is used primarily for a social function, that is actually a responsibility of the State more than the responsibility of the Church because the Church deals only with the spiritual needs of the people, then we come to a very difficult situation here.”

The Inquirer also tried to reach Basilan Bishop Martin Jumoad, but calls and text messages sent to him since 11 a.m., while the Senate inquiry was ongoing, remained unanswered as of 4 p.m.

In an interview on July 1, Jumoad admitted that he received money from the PCSO to buy a vehicle “which we used for medical and relief operations.”

“The amount was P1.1 million and we used this (vehicle) to bring foodstuff to communities attacked by lawless elements,” he said.

Calls made to Archbishop Romulo Valles of the Archdiocese of Zamboanga City were unanswered. But in a text message later Wednesday afternoon, Valles apologized to the Inquirer, saying: “Sorry, we are having our retreat right now.”

The CBCP is having its annual retreat in Tagaytay City.

Valles confirmed on July 1 that the archdiocese received P1.5 million worth of donations from the PCSO for social action and apostolic services.

He said the money was used by Fr. Allain Ruiz, social action director, to acquire a Toyota Grandia to be used for social action activities.

Davao Archbishop Fernando Capalla, also in an earlier interview, admitted he had endorsed to the PCSO Iligan City Fr. Roger Lood’s antidrug abuse project. Capalla said he did not know if that request was granted.

Up to bishops

Reached by the Inquirer during a break in the CBCP retreat in Tagaytay on Wednesday night, Cotabato Archbishop Orlando Quevedo said he had alerted his office to submit the liquidation of expenses of the P1.4 million-donation from the PCSO.

He said the amount was used to buy a pick-up which the archdiocesan social action and community barangay health programs had been using in relief operations for flood victims and for families displaced by armed conflict in Maguindanao and other areas.

He said he did not request funds from the PCSO for his personal use.

Asked whether he would attend Senate inquiry, Quevedo said, “I think it is no longer necessary.” With reports from Norman Bordadora in Manila; and Nico Alconaba, Julie S. Alipala and Edwin Fernandez, Inquirer Mindanao

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TAGS: Arroyo administration, birthday gift, bribery, Butuan Bishop Juan de Dios Pueblos, Catholic bishops, Graft and Corruption, luxury vehicles, Mitsubishi Montero Sport, Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office (PCSO), Senate inquiry
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