Bishops, Backhanders and SUVs

Were Catholic bishops in the pocket of former Philippines President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo when she was in office?

When public opinion against former Philippines President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was at an all-time high back in 2008 to 2009, many thought that all that was needed to topple her regime was the support of the Catholic bishops. Instead, the bishops, through the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines, called for more prayers and greater sobriety – code for continued support of the status quo and therefore Arroyo’s regime.

However, there are now claims that Arroyo had in fact been constantly showering bishops and priests with envelopes filled with cash as ‘donations’ for their projects or parishes. The funds apparently came from the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office, which falls under the Office of the President. It seems Arroyo wasn’t just keeping members of Congress on side with a constant stream of goodies from government coffers – she is alleged to have been using the same approach to keep bishops as effective allies.

Now, under the Aquino administration, PCSO officials have reportedly uncovered a paper trail that paints an even clearer picture of how some bishops benefited from government coffers.

The most recent revelation is a letter allegedly from Bishop Juan de Dios of Butuan in Mindanao, in which he is said to have asked Arroyo for a brand new SUV as a birthday gift. Bishop de Dios is a known supporter of Arroyo, and called on current President Benigno Aquino to resign for allowing his friends, family and classmates to take up various government positions.

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But the bishop’s call for clean government has come back to haunt him, while the public clamour for a full investigation of other bishops who have received funds and SUVs during Arroyo’s term has been placing pressure on Aquino himself to fulfil his campaign promise of going after those who have abused the public’s trust while in office.

The question now is how Aquino and his administration will handle this investigation, and whether backdoor deals will be cut to save those who are looking to dodge accountability.

Another crucial question is, now that the heat has been turned on the bishops, will the Aquino government have more political space to push through legislation that the church has been opposing, such as the Divorce and Reproductive Health bills?

More than anything, though, most members of the public just want to know when Arroyo will finally have to face the music.