ANOTHER DAY, another complaint against the Iglesia ni Cristo. This time, on top of the serious allegations of illegal detention and grave coercion filed by former ministers against the INC hierarchy, a complaint for tax fraud has been filed with the United States’ Internal Revenue Service by another minister—a move that has the potential to dramatically expand the public scrutiny that the church has tried desperately to treat cavalierly and elude all this time.
The implications are portentous for the church. In the Philippines, its home ground where it is said to have seeded the government bureaucracy with supporters and allies, and where it can quickly mobilize tens of thousands of its flock to paralyze traffic in the capital to protest the government’s ministerial handling of the cases filed against it, the INC is a recognized social and political force. It can count on the vast network of connections it has built up over its 100-year existence to work for its protection and defense. But not so in the United States, where it will be unable to mount the kind of muscle-flexing it demonstrated months ago with a four-day rally on Edsa that made the startling call for “separation of church and state”—that is, for the government to leave it alone even if the allegations of criminal wrongdoing against some of its top executives were now clearly imbued with legal and public interest.
The United States’ IRS has not yet announced an inquiry into the tax fraud complaint filed by Vincent Florida, but his allegations against the church are anything but frivolous. Florida, 65, a former minister in the INC Northern Virginia congregation, claims that cash donations were routinely left out of the tax reports filed by the church with the US government. He says only checks were counted, and INC members were told to convert their donations to $100 bills that were then turned over directly to church auditors. For the past six years, according to Florida, some $150,000 was remitted to INC auditor Glicerio Santos Jr. four times a year—“with no paper trail,” apparently because, if Florida is to be believed, the money was spirited aboard a private plane that Santos, along with INC executive director Eduardo Manalo and other top church officials regularly use on their pastoral visits to the United States.
These are serious allegations, but the INC’s response sounded as pro forma as the statements it has rolled out at every point of the crisis on the home front—that it would respond “in due time and in the proper forum,” and that it “will cooperate with the proper authorities.”
But in fact cooperation apparently had to be pried out of the church with an industrial-strength crowbar. To the initial charges of grave threats and the kidnapping of certain ministers and brethren, the INC demonstrated anything but a cooperative spirit, stonewalling inquiries about the real story behind the rift that had upended its enigmatic image, and apparently calling on friendly police and government officials to shield it from further public scrutiny. When that didn’t work to tamp down the growing calls from the public for a closer look into the allegations, the church took to the streets and savaged then Justice Secretary Leila de Lima with the very un-Christian tag of “hostessya” (a play on “hustisya,” or justice, implying that De Lima prostituted herself for accepting the cases filed against the church by its expelled ministers). What did that suggest but that if push came to shove, the INC was prepared to get down and dirty to protect its interests?
The Department of Justice recently dropped, for lack of probable cause, the cases of illegal detention, coercion and grave threats filed against the INC by expelled minister Isaias Samson Jr. and expelled member Jose Norlito Fruto. In that alone, the church appears to have been proven wrong. The system it excoriates as impinging on the separation of church and state has ruled initially in its favor—a victory that many INC members have celebrated in social media, unmindful of the irony.
Now that the controversy has reached the Philippine Supreme Court and even the US government, the INC may do well to rethink its strategy of evasion, obfuscation and characterizing every complaint as designed to “create division within the church.” That strategy is not serving its purpose.
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