THE SEVEN Catholic bishops who received public funds from the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office during the Arroyo years for the purchase of service vehicles—the misnamed Pajero 7—appeared before the Senate blue ribbon committee on Monday to dispense, and also to receive, a series of benedictions. It is no surprise that the bishops received highly favorable treatment from usually acerbic senators. Despite public outrage over the possibility of bribed, politically partisan bishops, despite growing public resistance to the Catholic bishops’ either-or position on the controversial Reproductive Health bill, both the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines and individual bishops remain not only highly influential but also much respected.
The real surprise lay in the senators’ conduct: They failed to press the essential question.
It was good that six of the seven bishops showed up at the Senate hearing. The presence of former CBCP president Archbishop Orlando B. Quevedo of Cotabato, Archbishop Romulo Valles of Zamboanga, Bishop Leopoldo C. Jaucian of Bangued, Bishop Rodolfo F. Beltran of Bontoc, Bishop Martin Jumoad of Isabela in Basilan and the controversial Bishop Juan de Dios Pueblos of Butuan was ample proof that as citizens in the temporal realm they continue to hold themselves accountable to temporal authorities. They were not subpoenaed, merely invited, and yet there they were. Only one of the seven could not make it: Archbishop Ernesto Antolin Salgado of Caritas Nueva Segovia who was still abroad, but who did send a representative.
The benedictions began in unexpected fashion, when Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago was allowed to preface the hearings with a vigorous speech exonerating the bishops of any liability. After noting that the donation of public funds was justified by their use in community or health programs, she said: “If there is any benefit to the bishop and the diocese, it is merely incidental.”
This pronouncement may have served to chasten the rest of the Senate. At a certain point, after the bishops made clear that the service vehicles were in fact being used according to the terms of the PCSO donations, four senators even appealed to the bishops to reconsider their decision to return the service vehicles—as though the entire issue revolved only around the question of use.
It was good that the bishops declined the senators’ charity. Quevedo, speaking for the group, said: “We met and we said that I think that the wisdom of the bishops’ conference is correct that even if it is not unlawful and even if it is not unconstitutional, we believe that it is important for us to clear everything in the air and return the vehicles.”
In the end, the senators considered the matter closed. Committee chair Sen. Teofisto Guingona III summed it up for reporters: “What happened is we had a proper closure to the issue. It was also proved that there was no Pajero. The bishops were able to air their side. The PCSO also said sorry that there was no Pajero. There was closure. We were able to establish that the vehicles were used for secular purposes.”
But in fact there was no closure. The senators, in their newfound circumspection, failed to press the essential question: Why were the bishops favored by the PCSO under the Arroyo administration?
There are several dozen active bishops; what made the seven special beneficiaries of PCSO largesse? There are other dioceses with more pressing needs; for instance, and to give just one example, the Diocese of Borongan, in Eastern Samar. The Creator, the Gospel of Matthew reminds us, lets the rain fall on both the just and the unjust; why did the managers of the PCSO during the presidency of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo direct its rain of benefits to fall only on those close to her?
That’s the real issue: Whether the favored bishops favored Arroyo with crucial political support. In the same way that fervent Arroyo supporter Quezon Rep. Danilo Suarez seemed to enjoy astonishing access to PCSO donations, perhaps some of the seven bishops received their
PCSO windfall—regardless of the question of “incidental” personal benefit—because of their support for Arroyo.
Unfortunately, that was never discussed. By giving the bishops the favorable treatment, the senators gave a new meaning to an old saying: Charity covers a multitude of sins.
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