WHEN NEWS of the “Pajero 7” burst into the headlines, Catholic bishops, including some of the implicated prelates, reacted sharply and I think typically.
The sports utility vehicles, they said, had been donated by the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office to them or to their social service offices so they could better serve the poor, chiefly by distributing food and relief goods in times of disaster. Although I had to wonder why, if delivery of relief goods was the chief objective, they needed luxury SUVs when a relatively cheap AUV or pick-up would be more reliable.
But the issue wasn’t simply why the bishops needed vehicles for themselves. The matter also revolved around the use of government funds—meant to provide charity hospitalization or treatment for indigent patients, for instance—for the private use of Catholic Church officials. This is why the Senate is now getting ready to call for a probe of the donations of Pajeros and other privileges to the bishops. The question is why the bishops were entitled to them, and what they had to offer in exchange for these goodies.
But why was the bishops’ reaction “typical”? When the news broke, many of the Pajero recipients bristled at insinuations that they had somehow profited from the donations, or were indulging themselves by riding around in snazzy sports utes. Some pleaded for “understanding,” emphasizing they only wanted to serve their flock and that they would accept help from whatever source, government or not, if it was for the good of the poor people of their diocese.
In effect, we are being asked to believe implicitly in the bishops’ good intentions, in their purity of heart. “Trust us,” they ask, even as the evidence, in the form of documents and marginal notes, if not the actual vehicles themselves, stare us in the face.
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THIS is in contrast to the way the bishops react and rush to judgment on public events, the pronouncements of public officials, and the behavior of private persons, Catholic or not.
Any instance of incompetence, indecision or erroneous policy on the part of officials meets with swift and devastating condemnation, some of them touching even on personal matters. True, bishops may argue this is part of their “prophetic” role, harking back to the biblical prophets who denounced kings and called on God’s wrath on sinners. But if one desires to be a “prophet,” then one should also be as quick to accept criticism and cynicism, and not hide behind one’s episcopal robes when accused of even the slightest wrongdoing.
The heated atmosphere created by the pending passage of the Reproductive Health bill has also been stoked by Catholic bishops asserting the magisterium of their high office. Catholics who speak out in favor of reproductive health, they declare, are not “real” Catholics, insisting that the faithful toe the line and take their cue on this issue. RH supporters and practitioners they have variously dubbed “sinners,” “abortionists,” “vile” and “evil.”
At the height of the scandals involving sexual abuse by the clergy in the West and to a certain extent here, a bishop issued a public plea for “understanding,” saying that only 2 percent of priests had been implicated in such abuses, including those of minors under their care.
At the time, I thought it the height of irony for a bishop to plead for “understanding” when they had proved themselves most unwilling to grant the same to members of the flock, who were only following their consciences on a matter of personal concern and privacy.
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WHICH is why I was quite personally surprised and heartened by the statement issued by Manila Auxiliary Bishop Broderick Pabillo that he welcomed a Senate inquiry on the issue of the Pajeros, saying it just might be the right forum to “clear the issue.”
Pabillo, who is not among the bishops said to have received PCSO largesse, also hit out at the PCSO, saying the charity agency needs to “spell out its functions and clarify its rules” so that Church officials and personnel could “act accordingly.” He also urged the implicated prelates to attend the hearings “for the sake of transparency” and to “present official documents that would show whether they personally benefited from the PCSO donations.”
Another bishop, Arturo Bastes of Sorsogon, however, called any Senate probe an “overkill,” asking why there was still need for the government to inquire into a transaction where it has been supposedly “proven” that no bishop personally profited (apparently basing this conclusion on the avowals of the concerned bishops). Instead, Bishop Bastes said, the Senate should “investigate corruption by erring officials of the government.” As if the Senate has not done this yet.
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IN THE wake of the revelations made by the leadership of the PCSO of the shocking looting made by Arroyo-era board of directors of the charity agency’s treasury, it isn’t just bishops who are under scrutiny. Already, legislators are up in arms over revelations of how certain congressional districts got favored treatment from the PCSO. Raising suspicions was the fact that many of those favored congressional representatives were among the staunchest supporters of the former President, starting of course with her two sons and brother-in-law. The implication is that, in the run-up to the 2010 polls, the Arroyo government used the PCSO as a cash cow to buy for itself protection in the event of a hostile successor.
In our political history, this can be considered par for the course. But that among those “bought” were bishops who are supposed to stand for integrity only speaks to the deep level of personal and official corruption that characterized the last decade.
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