COMMENT: The Issue: Not Separation

Part II: The Bishops Speak
By Patricio P. Diaz / MindaNews

GENERAL SANTOS CITY (MindaNews/21 July) – The bishops did not deny the reports in the media based on press statements of PCSO top officials citing COA records. They spoke about it before and after the second biennial general meeting of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines and at the hearing of the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee.

[Erratum: “Article II, Section 29” in the last sentence of Paragraph 10 of Part I should be “Article II, Section 6” – the Author.]

Archbishop Orlando B. Quevedo, OMI, D.D., of Cotabato said that governments since the time of President Corazon C. Aquino “have willingly helped Church-related organizations” with PCSO money “for social services, poverty alleviation and human development”. The PCSO assistance crossing religious barriers, “Protestant groups have also received help” (Letter to Oblates of Mary Immaculate Philippine Province, posted in [email protected]).

He explained that the P1.4 million from PCSO “was used to buy a Toyota Grandia Hi-Ace van which the … Archdiocese has been using in delivering relief goods and other forms of assistance to flood victims and families displaced by armed conflict in Maguindanao” (Philippine Daily Inquirer, July 7 and 13,2011).

Bishop Martin Jomuad of Isabela, Basilan, said that he used the P1.l million PCSO to buy a Mitsubishi Strada which the Prelature used for relief work in communities attacked by lawless elements (Philippine Daily Inquirer, July 1, 2011). At the Senate hearing, he said the PCSO assistance benefited Muslims and Christians in conflict-stricken areas – not stressing that Basilan is more than 95% Muslims. (The Philippine Star, July 14, 2011).

In the same report above, Archbishop Romulo Valles of Zamboanga said the PCSO money was used to buy a Toyota Grandia Hi-Ace van for the use of the Social Action Center of the Archdiocese (With PDI report, July 13). At the Senate hearing, he told the senators, “Rest assured that it was not used for personal use.” (The Philippine Star, July 14, 2011)

Bishop Juan de Dios Pueblos admitted having asked President Arroyo for a new car as a birthday gift. He received P1.7 million with which he bought a Mitsubishi Montero that he used “for his community service” in his diocese covering the Caraga Region and to travel as “one of the members of the fact-finding team that investigated unexplained killings in the country (The Philippine Star, July 7, 2011).

Cebu Archbishop Ricardo Cardinal Vidal said that the vehicles donated by PCSO “to certain Catholic bishops were [not] luxurious and all of them … were used for projects for the poor” (Another report: The Philippine Star, July 7, 2011).

The same Star report showed that none of the vehicles was a Mitsubishi Pajero and not all vehicles were brand new. Aside from others already mentioned above:

•    Bontoc-Lagawe Bishop Rodolfo Beltran purchased a 10-year-old Nissan Pathfinder for P280,000 for medical missions in far-flung areas. In an Inquirer report (July 14), Beltran also brought to the Senate a Mitsubishi L-300 van. He used the balance of the P600,000 PCSO aid for Alay Kapwa programs. At the Senate hearing, he recalled using the funds and vehicles to help victims of typhoon “Peping” and other calamities (The Philippine Star, July 14, 2011).

•    Abra Bishop Leopoldo Jaucian bought for P1.107 million, out of the P1.129 million donated by PCSO, a second-hand Mitsubishi Strada pick-up – apparently slightly used. The report made no mention of how the balance was used (With report from Philippine Daily Inquirer, July 13).

Caritas of Nueva Segovia Archdiocese bought an Isuzu Crosswind for its “health, dental and medical outreach programs” (PDI, July 13). In Part I, we mentioned the P600,000 given to Caritas as “for financial assistance”.

Senate Told

At the hearing of the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee, Archbishop Quevedo, speaking for the bishops, said:

“We are from the provinces that have some of the most difficult areas that we, as bishops, have to reach. Most of us are from calamity- conflict-stricken areas. We serve communities with some of the poorest of the poor. Our vocation is to help them in so far as we can with our resources. When we lack resources, we seek the assistance from others.” (The Philippine Star, July 13, 2011)

“We are very grateful for the help extended to us. Still, we have not violated any law or the Constitution. Regardless of whether the acquisition of the vehicles has been lawful or unlawful, constitutional or unconstitutional, we are returning the vehicles. The vehicles in Mindanao will be returned to the authorized PCSO officials. The vehicles in Luzon are outside the Senate for immediate turnover to the PCSO authorities.” (Philippine Daily Inquirer, July 13 & 14, 2011)

PCSO Chair Margarita Juico clarified “Pajero” referring to the vehicles acquired by the bishops as “luxurious”. As The Philippine Star of July 14 sporadically quoted her:

“I am so sorry for whatever this may have caused. I really do not know where that came from. In fact, I have already said that there was no Pajero here and in fact, I enumerated the cars.”

“I don’t recall saying Pajeros. It was, I think, an information that was given to us by one of the managers in the PCSO when they said utility vehicles were given to bishops.”

When Sen. Jose “Jinggoy” Estrada doubted that media had misquoted her, she reiterated:

“Your honor, Mr. Chairman, I think somebody from within PCSO told me it was a Pajero, and maybe that got spun around. But that I think I made a correction when I finally got the documents that the Pajeros weren’t Pajeros. There were no Pajeros, and instead there was a Montero Sport, there was a Grandia, there were other cars. No Pajero, I think. I made that correction several times.”

In the Inquirer report of July 14, Juico stressed that PCSO had “no intention to shame the bishops” and that “the media news stories were based on the COA audit report findings”.

Noting that the COA report and the checks reflected “financial contributions”, Senate President Enrile believed PCSO officials leaked the COA report to the media “based … not on the documents on hand but on what they wanted to say to the public – [that certain bishops were given Pajeros]” (The Philippine Star, July 14, 2011).

Senate Response

Media described the treatment of the bishops at the Senate hearing as “reverential”. [The reports, however, did not mention if any senators kissed the rings of the bishops on meeting them – if they did – before the hearing opened.] The hearing opened with a privilege speech by Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago that virtually exonerated the bishops before they could say anything.

As sporadically quoted in the Inquirer report of July 14, Santiago, chair of the Senate Committee on Constitutional Amendments, said:

“The basic purpose of the grant of public funds is clearly stated on the face of the checks (issued by the PCSO) themselves: ‘purchase of service vehicles to be used by the diocese in its various community and health programs.’ If there is any benefit to the bishop and the diocese, it is merely incidental.”

“The COA report said that this action was a violation of the constitutional provision that no public money should be appropriated, directly or indirectly, for the use of any church. Under the Constitution, the power of the COA is to audit government funds, not to settle questions of constitutional law. The power is granted only to the Supreme Court.”

This and the “It depends” stand earlier pronounced by Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile, set the tone of the Senate response to the bishops declarations. They were convinced that the funds and the vehicles were primarily used to help the poor and victims of calamities. No law was violated; neither was the Constitution.

Keep the Vehicles

Accepting that the vehicles are vital to the bishops’ charity and social works in far-flung areas of their dioceses, PCSO General Manager Jose Ferdinand Roxas II said they “really want the bishops to keep the vehicles” and if the bishops insist on returning them, these would be sold – giving the proceeds to the bishops for medical assistance (The Philippine Star, July 14, 2011). Juico said the same in an Inquirer report of the same date.

In the same report above, Enrile, Estrada and Senate Majority Leader Vicente Sotto III “asked the bishops to reconsider their decision to return the vehicles”.

But Quevedo reiterated their decision to return the vehicles, heeding “the wisdom of the Bishops Conference” and believing the importance “for us to clear everything in the air and return the vehicles.”

And, the clincher: “We think that we can do our job without encumbrance of political or any reason whatsoever that has give shame to the whole Conference.”

As media reported, the bishops were “happy” and Senate hearing ended in conciliatory mood. But the inappropriateness, improprieties and challenges falling out of the case should not be swept under the rug.
(Next: Part III: Improprieties and Challenges)