My introduction to the brave new (for me) world of activism took place when I was in high school when I joined a picket against the Roman Catholic Church.
More specifically, it was a protest action launched by a group of students, most of us from “exclusive” Catholic schools, to exhort the Archdiocese of Manila, then headed by the late Rufino Cardinal Santos, to “open” its books to the laity. Although the words weren’t in current use then, it was a call for greater “transparency and accountability” in the way the archdiocese conducted its business. I don’t remember now what the cardinal’s or the archdiocese’s response was, or if they even bothered. But pretty soon, in the early 1970s, more urgent and life-and-death issues emerged and we young activists were soon battling the government.
Soon after the declaration of martial law, Cardinal Santos passed away and in his place the Vatican appointed a prelate with the funny and incredible name of Jaime Sin. Almost from the beginning, Sin (soon to be named a cardinal) enjoyed good press and he went out of his way to parlay his personality—jovial, outgoing, outspoken—into public popularity, burnishing along the way the image of the Archdiocese of Manila and of the Philippine Catholic Church. During martial law, the Church seemed to be the only institution capable of confronting the Marcos machinery, even if by then Cardinal Sin had declared his policy of “critical collaboration,” and even activists had pinned their hopes on it.
Certainly, Cardinal Sin seemed a pleasant, welcome contrast to the dour, aloof Cardinal Santos. The cardinal from Aklan enjoyed such a favorable public image, especially after he began speaking out against the more egregious abuses of the Marcos regime, that soon after the fraudulent elections of 1986, he lent his voice to marshal “People Power” and launch the Edsa Revolt that toppled the Marcoses. But have things changed?
* * *
The years after the triumph of 1986, which saw a newly-powerful Catholic Church, symbolized by Cardinal Sin, are the focus of the book “Altar of Secrets: Sex, Politics, and Money in the Philippine Catholic Church” by Aries Rufo. He is a journalist who has extensively covered the Church beat and has written investigative pieces on “scandals” involving prelates, mainly tales of sexual misconduct and financial shenanigans.
Now, sex and money are the lifeblood of muckraking journalism, but the stories told in “Altar of Secrets” gain sensational power mainly because they involve an institution that has wrapped itself in the mantle of holiness. More specifically, the main characters are men (and some women) who have somehow removed themselves from the scrutiny of other institutions—regulatory agencies, the police and the courts, even their constituency of the faithful—by claiming ethical and moral superiority. And, it must be said, blocking all attempts to hold them accountable—even though the Vatican seems to be able to gather the information it needs—to society, if not to God.
Before I proceed further, a confession of my own. Fresh from college, I worked in the information office of the Archdiocese of Manila and personally know many of the persons that Rufo discusses in his book. I thus read the book with increasing dismay, disbelief, chagrin and disappointment.
* * *
It strikes me that Rufo seems to rely on quite a sparse selection of cases which form the core of “Altar of Secrets.” There is the closure of Monte de Piedad, the bank that used to be owned by the Archdiocese of Manila (and owes its origins to a “charity fund” that began during the Spanish era) that was lost due to mismanagement, malfeasance, and abuse by its board members, some of them priests.
Then there’s the failure to disclose the disbursement of the money collected through a public fund-raising for Radio Veritas (Philippines), which played a crucial role in the Edsa Revolt.
There’s also the dispute between Parañaque Bishop Jesse Mercado and lay leaders over accountability over money raised in regular collections and special fund-raising drives for flood victims, among others.
The “politics” part is covered in a discussion of the contentious relations between the Catholic bishops and Malacañang over family planning, among other issues.
But there is also the revelation that a “Malacañang diocese” held (or still holds?) sway among the bishops, composed of a clique of prelates supportive of the embattled former president, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
And the “sex” part? There are rehashed accounts of the familiar cases involving former Bishop Crisostomo Yalung, retired Bishop Teodoro Bacani, the case of retired Bishop Cirilo Almario of Bulacan, even allegations against retired Bishop Ted Buhain. Rufo even mentions the Archdiocese of Pampanga which is reportedly “notorious” for the number of priests involved in dangerous liaisons and fathering a small barangay of young Catholics. Not sexual in nature, but indicative of the prelates’ attitude toward women, is the case of a nun accused of theft by a bishop and subjected to public humiliation.
* * *
While the scandals that Rufo recounts are indeed troubling and disturbing, he does include in the narrative instances when reformers among the bishops and especially among lay leaders stepped in and saved the day.
The Vatican is also reported as stepping in when a scandal appears to have ramifications way beyond the secretive, reclusive world in which much of the Church resides. But as we all know, the Church of Rome is not itself free of intrigue and wrongdoing.
Perhaps the call that galvanized us young activists all those decades ago remains just as valid and necessary today. It’s time lay people stepped up and met the challenge.