MALAYBALAY CITY (MindaNews/13 July) – Six of the seven Catholic bishops implicated in the fund controversy hounding the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office today faced the Senate blue ribbon committee to answer accusations they had received SUVs from the agency as personal favors from former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
Four of the bishops are from Mindanao: Bishop Juan de Dios Pueblos of Butuan, Bishop Martin Jumoad of Basilan, Archbishop Orlando Quevedo of Cotabato, and Archbishop Romulo Valles of Zamboanga.
Abra Bishop Leonardo Jaucian and Bontoc Bishop Rodolfo Beltran also attended. Nueva Segovia Archbishop Ernesto Antolin Salgado was out of the country.
Media reports had referred to them as the “Pajero bishops”, but the Senate hearing today, aired live on ANC, confirmed that not one of the prelates received such type of vehicle.
Quevedo opened their testimonies by reading the pastoral letter issued on Monday by the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines in which the prelates apologized for the “apparent inconsistency of our actions with our pastoral preaching”.
Quevedo said the bishops believe they did not violate any law, although they had decided to return the vehicles to the PCSO. He added the vehicles given to the dioceses in Luzon were already outside the Senate building and ready for turnover.
He lamented that the news reports calling them “Pajero bishops” had not been rectified.
Pueblos, who purchased a Mitsubishi Montero with PCSO funds, explained that he needed a vehicle suited to the rugged road condition of his diocese.
“My diocese covers Agusan del Norte and Agusan del Sur, the biggest in Mindanao … and I need a vehicle that can stand rigorous use,” he said.
The bishop said the vehicle had been used in going to indigenous peoples’ communities and other far-flung areas and in doing peace building work.
“But my zeal in this line seems to be my shortcoming. After prayerful discernment I decided to return the vehicle,” Pueblos said, adding his letter to Arroyo was a lapse in judgment.
Pueblos, in a letter to Arroyo, asked for a vehicle as a birthday gift to him.
“My actions were misconstrued. It pains me and my diocese and the church as a whole… although I know that service always means suffering,” he said.
Pueblos admitted that the Montero was registered in his name but is not considered a personal property. He said it is being used by their social action director.
“[Former President] Arroyo knows the road condition in Caraga so I don’t think it’s improper. My purpose was mobility,” he further explained.
For his part, Quevedo said the vehicle they got from the PCSO in 2009, a Toyota Grandia, had been used in transporting sick indigents from Cotabato to Davao City and in bringing assistance to families who were displaced by the floods since May this year.
He said they realized the need for a vehicle when war broke out anew in Cotabato after the Supreme Court decision junking the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain as unconstitutional. He recalled that they rendered assistance to the displaced people by borrowing vehicles from the military and other groups.
Jumoad said his diocese received the PCSO fund in 2009 and it was used to purchase a Mitsubishi 4×4 pickup. He said the vehicle had been used for medical missions and relief operations.
“I’m not only a bishop for the Catholics but also for the Muslims. I only see the person as a child of God,” he said, noting that Basilan is 70-percent Muslim.
He added he will return the vehicle to the PCSO regardless of whether the donation was legal or illegal.
Valles said that his diocese also received a Toyota Grandia which had been used for social action purposes like their anti-human trafficking program. He said it was the social action staff that submitted a project proposal to the PCSO and he just endorsed it.
“I did not receive from PCSO a Pajero, I did not receive an SUV for my personal use. I have been using a 15-year-old Nissan Terrano since 2007,” he stressed.
Valles said the Terrano was handed to him by his predecessor, Archbishop Carmelo Morelos, who served as bishop of Butuan before his transfer to Zamboanga.
Quevedo said they were shamed by reports that they received Pajeros, which he noted “were never corrected in the papers”.
As for the vehicles, Quevedo said the CBCP left it to concerned bishops to decide on whether they should return them.
He said that even if it is not unlawful, “it’s important for us to clear the air and return the vehicles”.
“We shall be forced to change the rules for ourselves with regard to the PCSO,” Quevedo added.
Senators Jinggoy Estrada, Panfilo Lacson, Tito Sotto asked the bishops to reconsider their decision to return the vehicles, saying these were used for good purposes.
But Quevedo said they had a “higher motive in mind in returning the vehicles”.
Estrada asked PCSO chair Margarita Juico who in her office is the source of the “Pajero bishops” report.
Juico said that when the news came out the PCSO board did not have a report on the types of vehicle and that they did not mention the word Pajero to the media.
Estrada further asked Pueblos if he would accept money from Satan and use it for a noble purpose.
The senator read a news clipping quoting the late Jaime Cardinal Sin, Archbishop of Manila, as saying he would accept money from the devil and use it for a noble cause.
Pueblos, although sounding unsure how to answer, said he might accept it after discernment.
“When you received the money, who was the Satan here?” Estrada retorted, eliciting subdued laughter from Pueblos and others in the gallery. (H. Marcos C. Mordeno / MindaNews)