COMMENT:The Issue: Not Separation

(Part III: Improprieties and Challenges)
Patricio P. Diaz

GENERAL SANTOS CITY (29 July) – While, as reported in media, the bishops were “happy” and the Senate hearing ended in conciliatory mood, the “Pajero 7” two-week drama generated inappropriateness, improprieties and challenges involving all actors that should not be swept under the rug.

The Media

The tendency of Philippine media to sensationalize issues hypocritically in the name – but truly at the sacrifice – of truth was at the root and core of the “Pajero 7” controversy. This has been the reality with the many national issues in the past that were more serious than the “Pajero 7” and had been blown up and kept running for weeks at the sacrifice of truth and national unity.

As may be pieced together from media reports spanning the first two weeks of July, some top PCSO officials must have leaked the “juicy” portion of the COA report. Whether the reporters initially received copies of the report and of the checks can only be conjectured. In all probability, “Pajero 7” was media coinage of ideas from the source. It is not clear in news stories whether the “unconstitutionality” of the donation was in the COA report or just elicited from COA officials.

If reporters had been given copies of the COA reports including the checks, the media reports maliciously distorted the truth. If not, the reporters erred in not verifying the facts – in allowing themselves to be “used” by malicious PCSO officials. But PCSO Chair Juico said she had clarified the “Pajero” erratum. That her correction had been ignored could only mean media did not want the “sensation” toned down or clarified.

The leading newspapers and televisions in Manila could have sent veteran reporters to investigate or let their correspondents do it – get pictures of the vehicles and facts about their use. That could have clarified the COA reports and the PCSO “leak”. The news stories did not show such efforts.

The challenge to Philippine media leaders is for them to examine their mode of reporting and the tendency of their reporters to fuel controversies. After the Senate had declared the “Pajero 7” case closed, Chair Juico had expressed “Sorry” and the “Pajero 7” bishops as well as the CBCP had manifested they had no intention to demand an apology from PCSO, the Philippine Daily Inquirer and The Philippine Star featured the statements of four bishops asking President Aquino III to apologize and Juico to apologize and resign.

This report, “CBCP seeks no apology from PCSO” (PDI, July 14), contained the official statement of the bishops of the Philippines. However, the following headlines speak eloquently of the tendency of the Philippine press: “Bishops retaliate on PCSO” (Star, July 14); “Bishops want apology from Aquino, Juico” (PDI, July 15); “Palace backs PCSO chief (Star, July 15); “Why apologize? ‘Bishops yielded to temptation.’” (PDI, July 16). The art of keeping controversies afire is evident – making the opinion of the four bishops outweigh the collective position of CBCP.

The PCSO, Gov’t

The PCSO and the Aquino III government cannot be separated; the first is under the Office of the President. The seven bishops received PCSO donations through President Arroyo.  Could the present Malacanang residents really have no link to the “Pajero 7” exposé despite their denials?

What could have been the motive behind the exposé? The same question of motive could be asked of President Arroyo in her giving gifts to the bishops? Evidently, in either case, the bishops were trapped in hidden motives.

If the past PCSO board and top officials erred in giving PCSO funds to the bishops, was exposing the error through the media as a scandal the first and ultimate remedy? Could the matter not have been better brought to the court or the Ombudsman to address the criminal aspect — if there was — and to recover the PCSO money from the bishops? The media could have picked up the case from there.

If there was no basis in taking the case to court or to the Ombudsman, the error must have been rooted in the PCSO system of operation. This, the present board and top officials should have internally remedied.  But this was apparently not the thinking of the present PCSO. Trying the bishops in the media – the court of public opinion – in order to bring to national attention not only the errors of the past PCSO but the sins of President Arroyo would boost President Aquino III’s image versus corruption. Is that proper?

As it turned out, the P7.333 million, more or less, given to the bishops was just a drop in the bucket of P300 million PCSO money allegedly misused by President Arroyo and her PCSO. But what could be the better way to dramatize the scandal than opening it with accent on the violation of the doctrine of separation of Church and State? With the closure of the Church-State question, the alleged Arroyo misuse of PCSO money as “intelligence funds” and bounties for her political cronies will regale Senate hearings.

Whether correct or incorrect, this is the naughty perception: The seven bishops were either witting or unwitting pawns in the political chess separately played by Arroyo and Aquino III. Arroyo courted the seven bishops to blunt the critical stance of the Church against the legality of her election. Aquino exposed the favors the seven bishops had received from Arroyo to soften the Philippine Catholic bishops’ opposition to liberal reforms like the R.H. Bill that negate Church doctrines.

The government should neither embrace nor kick the bishops – whichever is convenient for its political agenda – for either is not the prudent way to keep inviolate the doctrine of separation of Church and State. Both Arroyo and Aquino III failed in this challenge to them.

The Bishops

The bishops admitted their own indiscretion. In its Pastoral Statement, “A time of pain, a time of grace”, the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines said:

“We assure you that the bishops concerned are ready to accept responsibility for their action and to face the consequences if it would be proven unlawful, anomalous, and unconstitutional.  We assure you that their action was done without malice.  Out of their sincere desire to help their people, they failed to consider the pitfalls to which those grants would possibly lead them.  They have also expressed their readiness to do everything that is necessary to heal this wound so that we can all move forward in hope.” [Emphasis supplied]

At the Senate hearing, as reported in media, Archbishop Quevedo, speaking for the bishops, read from the CBCP Pastoral Statement and related the facts of the donation and the conditions prevailing in their dioceses —  although media just randomly quoted the facts and conditions.

Archbshop Quevedo, in his “Personal Statement before the Senate Blue Ribbon
Committee”, related the facts of the donation to his Archdiocese of Cotabato:

“The Social Context of the PCSO Grant of a Service Vehicle: In 2008 war broke out in the Archdiocese of Cotabato in the aftermath of the MOA-AD controversy. Thousands of Muslim and Christian families were displaced. We mobilized our Social Action Program to give relief, food, medicines, and clothes to displaced families. We asked people to lend us an appropriate vehicle. In some cases, we rented one. We also asked the military.

“We were convinced then that the Archdiocese needed its own service vehicle for medical and charitable purposes to help Muslims, Christians and Lumads in need. Therefore, towards the end of 2008 we requested the PCSO for a service vehicle. It was approved in February 2009. We received the funds also in February and bought the vehicle in April 2009.

“The Nature and Use of the Service Vehicle: The facts regarding the service vehicle are detailed in the documents in your [senators’] hands. The Service vehicle is not a Pajero. And it is not an SUV. The vehicle is a Toyota Hi-Ace GL Grandia.

“The Archdiocese uses it in accordance with the PCSO mandate. It has already been used to bring indigent sick people from Cotabato to Davao. It is now being used, even as I speak, to bring relief, food, clothes and medical assistance to Muslim and Christian families displaced by the floods in the Archdiocese of Cotabato in May, June and July of this year.”

In refusing to keep the vehicles despite the urging of Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile, other top Senate officials and PCSO Chair Juico, the bishops must have felt challenged and made it known they will carry on the charitable and social programs and activities of their dioceses with their own resources.

The Congress

After hearing the bishops, the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee was satisfied that the PCSO vehicles were primarily used for secular purposes – to serve the poor – not to promote the Roman Catholic Church. There was no violation of the separation doctrine; the bishops did not break any law. They could continue using the vehicles for the purpose they had acquired them.

Whether the senators and Church critics realized it or not, the “Pajero 7” drama exposed the flawed, if not biased and prejudiced, view of the doctrine of separation of Church and State – and of the arbitrary recourse to it, too, by political leaders. To many critics, the separation is absolute and total; in many cases, however, the doctrine has been used for political convenience.

The “Render unto to Caesar the things that belong Caesar’s and unto to God the things that are God’s” only limits to the State political functions and to the Church the spiritual. Only in those areas must the State and Church be separate as they serve the same people.  They must collaborate and cooperate in their moral and social functions. Only the blind and the biased could not see the imperative.

As written in the Constitution, there is nothing wrong with the doctrine; the mistake is in the interpretation. To avoid misinterpretation, the constitutional provisions should be amended to clarify the separation and cooperation. However, in lieu of amendment, the Congress can pass a law – in the category of “enabling law” – clarifying separation and collaboration. That will have the force of amendment especially if its constitutionality is challenged but upheld by the Supreme Court.

The real issue in the “Pajero 7” drama is not separation but cooperation of Church and State.  That is the challenge for all to see. That fallacies and misunderstanding blind, will be another episode in the Church-State conflict.


(“Comment” is Mr. Patricio P. Diaz’ column for MindaViews, the opinion section of MindaNews. Mr. Diaz is the recipient of a “Lifetime Achievement Award” from the Titus Brandsma for his “commitment to education and public information to Mindanawons as Journalist, Educator and Peace Advocate.” He was conferred the 1st Agong Awards for Journalism by the Mindanao Media Forum in November 2010. You may e-mail your comments to [email protected])