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Behest SUVs

/ 08:39 AM July 11, 2011

Seven Catholic bishops received donations of sports utility vehicles from the administration of former president Gloria Arroyo through the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office. The controversy has besmirched the reputation of Catholic bishops in a way that would be hard to repair or undo in the years to come.

The behest SUVs were given to Bishop Juan de Dios Pueblos of the Diocese of Butuan, Archbishop Romulo Valles of Zamboanga, Archbishop Orlando Quevedo of Cotabato, Bishop Leonardo Jaucian of the Diocese of Bangued, Abra, Bishop Martin Jumoad of the Roman Catholic Prelature of Isabela, Basilan, and Bishop Rodolfo Beltran of the Apostolic Vicariate of Bontoc.

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Archbishop Ernesto Antolin Salgado of Caritas Nueva Segovia in Ilocos Sur is said to have received P720,000 “financial assistance” on March 17, 2010 or just before the Arroyo administration bowed out.

Immediately after news of the behest SUVs hit the headlines, radio and television talk shows were filled with chatter that ridiculed the bishops. Mitsubishops, Nissan Sapari, Episcopal Pajeros are newly minted witticisms that mocked high ranking members of the Philippine clergy.

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The fallout from the PCSO report filtered into the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines’ 103rd plenary assembly. The July 8 to July 10 gathering was preceded by a spiritual retreat in Tagaytay City, but it was clear the bishops couldn’t take their minds off the PCSO expose.

According to Manila Auxiliary Bishop Broderick Pabillo, the bishops talked about the controversy in Tagaytay for days, and up until the plenary assembly, they were still talking about it.

I had expected that after that much talking, the CBCP would come out with a pastoral letter that would tell the faithful about its stance on the behest SUVs because people look up to their bishops for moral guidance.

The moral and legal implications of such an expose are grave and dispatching the concerned bishops to the Senate hearing does not address questions about the bishops’ lifestyles, or about the propriety of receiving material consideration from a beleaguered President who was facing ouster moves owing to charges of graft and corruption.

Noted constitutionalist Fr. Joaquin Bernas, SJ said the pertinent provisions in the Constitution include Article VI, Section 29(2) which says: “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 of any priest, preacher, minister, other religious teacher, or dignitary as such, except when such priest, preacher, minister or dignitary is assigned to the armed forces, or to any penal institution, or government orphanage or leprosarium.” All the seven bishops are assigned in their respective dioceses, or in other words, they are not covered by the exemption contemplated in the provision.

The other pertinent provision would be Article III, Section 5, referred to as the dogma of the separation of Church and State.

People will take time to ponder the legal concepts but one thing that will not escape their recollection is that majority of the bishops did not take a position on the numerous corruption charges levelled against the previous administration.

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In Cebu, at the height of the NBN-ZTE controversy in March 2008, it was reported that diocesan priests were ordered not to celebrate Mass for a symposium that featured whistleblower Rodolfo Jun Lozada. At that time, the Senate was conducting hearings on the botched state broadband deal and Lozada had come out to implicate then Neda Secretary Romulo Neri, who earlier mentioned having talked to then president Arroyo about the deal.  The event was organized by the Association of Major Religious Superiors in the Philippines (AMRSP) and a Mass for Truth was to precede a symposium attended by students.

I thought it was uncanny that no priest was available to offer Mass for Lozada’s crusade, but one has to be exceptionally dim-witted not to understand. In the end, an Ecumenical Prayer Service was held at the Bradford Church of the UCCP, which had Fr. Jesus V. Dumaual, MSC reflecting on Lozada’s search for truth. Fr. Dumaual’s reflections took note of the fact that while the head of the clergy wondered why Lozada was treated like a hero, diocesan priests welcomed a Malacañang functionary in their spiritual retreat.

In highlighting the relevant provisions in the Constitution, Fr. Joaquin Bernas opined that the question will always be asked whether “the use of public money may be authorized at all in a manner that might benefit religious persons or institutions.” Meaning, will the bishops get away with the PCSO gifts by attaching it to the Church’s preferential option for the poor?

I am a law sisiw and will not attempt to discuss this angle, but the obviously telling question is, would the bishops be prevented from accomplishing their work for the poor without the SUVs?

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TAGS: Church, Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office (PCSO), President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo
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