Seven Catholic bishops who received vehicle donations from the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office emerged relatively unscathed from a Senate hearing on Wednesday on the issue of whether the largesse breached the constitutional principle governing the separation of the Church and State.
For the first time in Philippine legislative history, a group of Catholic bishops was grilled in the Senate blue ribbon committee, to shed light into the circumstances behind the donations. The object of the inquiry was to determine whether the bishops were liable for soliciting or accepting the donations.
The issue of separation of Church and State flared up two weeks ago when the PCSO told the press that it was trying to verify reports of the Commission on Audit that at least seven bishops had received the donations initially described as “luxury” vehicles. The revelation sparked a controversy involving the politically sensitive issue of relationship between the republican State and the politically influential Philippine Catholic Church, the majority religion of more than 80 percent of Filipinos.
The Senate hearings were expected to bring about a confrontation and fireworks between secular senators and the bishops, but fortunately for both sides, such expectations did not materialize. Rather, the hearings turned out to be a non-violent skirmish in which the senators treated their witnesses deferentially, and spared them the humiliating treatment they normally inflict upon their witnesses. At the end of the hearings, the bishops decided to return the vehicles they had received from public (PCSO) funds after they were shamed by reports from the COA that they had been receiving State largesse, and leading senators concluded that despite all the frenzy over the donations, it was not shown in the hearings that there was no violation of the constitutional precept of separation of Church and State and no illegal act was committed in the receipt of the donations.
The senators appeared to have handled the bishops with silk gloves, restraining themselves from bullying and browbeating the bishops whom they summoned “in aid of legislation,” not because they were scared of divine retribution if they savaged the clergy, but probably because they were aware of the influence of the bishops among the Catholic constituency in swaying electoral opinion away from elected officials, especially with the coming 2013 election.
Even though the possibility that the bishops might face criminal prosecution for the illegal act of receiving State monies receded at the end of the hearing, the inquiry accomplished three things: first, it gave the bishops the platform to show that the vehicles bought with PCSO money were used for the Church’s apostolic and charitable work on behalf of the poor; second, it was revealed to them that they could be politically compromised if they solicited and received state donations to carry out their social projects; and third, their receipt of donations undermined the credibility of the Catholic hierarchy’s policy of January 2005 “to refrain from soliciting or receiving funds from illegal and legal gambling so as not to promote a culture of gambling.”
The seven bishops escaped rigorous retribution when Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago came to their rescue, with the declaration that “no constitutional violation” was committed with the disbursement of PCSO funds for the purchase of the vehicles. Santiago delivered a speech at the start of the hearing on the alleged misuse of PCSO funds in the acquisition of the vehicles.
According to Santiago, “The basic purpose of the grant of public funds is clearly stated on the face of the checks (issued by the PCSO)—purchase of service vehicles to be used by the diocese in its various community and health programs.” She said that if there was any benefit to the bishop and the diocese, it was “merely incidental.” Some senators said that the donations violated the constitutional provision prohibiting the government from favoring a particular religion.
In her speech, Santiago slammed the Commission on Audit for filing a report in 2009 saying that the grant of P6.49 million to certain dioceses violated the Constitution. “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,” said Santiago, chair of the Senate constitutional amendments committee. “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.”
She said the COA, instead of declaring the donations as unconstitutional, should have recommended that the constitutional issue be raised in the Department of Justice, the legal adviser of the executive department. She said it would be the PCSO, not the bishops, that would have to explain why it appeared to be favoring Catholic leaders.
Cotabato Archbishop Orlando Quevedo said the bishops stood by their decision to return the vehicles. “Regardless of whether the acquisition of the vehicles has been lawful or unlawful, constitutional or unconstitutional, we are returning the vehicles,” he said. But the question of whether to accept similar donations from the PCSO remains unclear from the bishops’ statements. The hearing has shown that such donations have been used by the past administration to win the support of some bishops when the Arroyo administration faced a crisis of legitimacy.