From a PR perspective, it would seem that the Catholic bishops have successfully survived what could have arguably been their Church’s most serious scandal since the Philippine Revolution.
Far from being on the defensive, the seven bishops who received sports utility vehicles (SUVs) as donations from the Arroyo regime were treated deferentially, and even exonerated, by the country’s senators in last week’s hearing of the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee. This after the Catholic Bishop’s Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), in an apparent attempt at damage control, collectively came up with an official apology.
As a result of their “exoneration” by the Senate, the bishops are now being portrayed in the mainstream media as victims of gross irresponsibility of, if not political harassment by, Malacanang in general and the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office (PCSO) in particular. Indeed, some bishops have even asked the President to apologize, while a commentator in one online website has prodded PCSO Chair Margie Juico to step down and say sorry to the bishops.
But was there really a closure on the bishops’ involvement in this imbroglio? To answer this, we have to remember that the scandal has different implications: Legal, political and moral; all of which should be examined.
First, let us remember the facts. Seven Catholic prelates received donations from the PCSO during the term of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, which they used to purchase the SUVs in question. The donations were not given to the bishops on their personal capacity but to their respective dioceses. The most significant of these donations is possibly the one involving the Bishop of Butuan, Juan de Dios Pueblos, who wrote a letter to Arroyo requesting for a vehicle as a birthday gift. Bishop Pueblos, who already owned a Mitsubishi Pajero prior to his request for another vehicle, had been appointed by Arroyo as a member of a presidential fact-finding committee on extra-judicial killings.
Perhaps the easiest to resolve is the legal issue. Constitutionally, according to Fr. Joaquin Bernas, public money cannot be made available to any religious institutions and persons unless “the use of the money (1) will be for a secular purpose, (2) will neither primarily inhibit nor advance religion, and (3) will not involve excessive government entanglement with religion.” Feisty Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago believes that the donations were legal since “the basic purpose of the grant of public funds is… purchase of service vehicles to be used by the diocese in its various community and health programs” and that, therefore, the personal benefits to the bishops were “merely incidental.”
In case of Bishop Pueblos, since the Mitsubishi Montero he got was used to fulfill his duties as a member of a presidential fact-finding commission, which are secular in nature, the donation he received was certainly not unconstitutional. As for the other bishops, if the vehicles they received were indeed used solely for their dioceses’ community and health programs, then the donations do not violate the Constitution. However, if the SUVs were used merely for the bishops’ personal use—indeed, I can’t see how an Isuzu Crosswind can be used for community programs; I can understand if it was an ambulance or even a pick-up vehicle—then there certainly is a constitutional violation. Unfortunately, this question is moot since only the Supreme Court can rule on the donations’ constitutionality. Still, even if the high court declare the donations to be unconstitutional, the bishops would not be held legally accountable since, strictly speaking, it is Arroyo and the PCSO, not them, that made the constitutional violation.
A report by the Commission on Audit (COA) mentioned that the donations to the bishops were taken out of PCSO’s charity fund, which can only be tapped to finance medical missions. Technically, this is malversation of public funds. But, again, legal accountability in this case rests not on the bishops but on the PCSO board. In short, the legal issues surrounding the donations have been resolved in the bishops’ favor.
Unlike the legal aspect, however, the political implications of the donations are yet to be resolved. An Inquirer editorial posed several questions that the senators failed to ask during their investigation: Why were these seven bishops favored by the PCSO under the Arroyo administration?
“There are several dozen active bishops; what made the seven special beneficiaries of PCSO largesse? There are other dioceses with more pressing needs; for instance, and to give just one example, the Diocese of Borongan, in Eastern Samar.” the editorial read.
Let’s put things in context. The SUV grants came at a time when Arroyo was facing impeachment raps and widespread protests for apparent election fraud and corruption. At that time, civil society groups were pressuring the bishops to speak out against the apparent abuses of the Arroyo regime. Politically, Arroyo needed the neutrality, if not the support, of some bishops. And all of the bishops that received the donations did not speak out against Arroyo; indeed, Pueblos even went to the extent of supporting her and, recently, calling for the ouster of her nemesis, President Benigno S. Aquino III.
“It doesn’t take much intelligence to know that you are being corrupted or bribed,” said a Catholic priest, who also claims that the largesse these bishops received from Arroyo were not limited to the SUVs. Allegedly, the bishops also received grants for construction of religious houses, convents and cathedrals. Did the seven bishops receive these donations in exchange for their political support for the Arroyo regime? The bishops are mum. The senators didn’t even bother to find out.
Finally, there are the moral implications. Receiving these donations seems to betray the propriety required of Catholic bishops. Of course, “propriety” and “morality” here are measured by Catholic standards. Given the vow of poverty imposed on the clergy, why did the bishops solicit donation for the purchase of SUVs? Why not ambulance for the community instead? Indeed, given the Church’s denunciation of gambling as an immoral activity, why did the bishops accept donations from the state’s gambling agency? Especially since, as Novaliches Bishop Emeritus Teodoro Bacani has reminded his fellow prelates, the CBCP had made it a collective policy in 2005 not to solicit or receive donations from any form of gambling?
Unless the bishops answer these important questions and are held accountable in case they are proven to have had erred, their Church would be in a bind. Whether the prelates realize it or not, these unresolved issues seriously question not only their wisdom but their moral character as well. In the long run, the fate of the Church’s moral authority, indeed its place in an increasingly secularizing Philippine society itself, might be determined by how the bishops would face these issues.