Six to seven in the evening is usually the hour of the day when I cook dinner. While waiting for the food to cook, I watch a little TV. If I’m cooking a stew which can take up to two hours, I can finish a whole movie. Otherwise, a half-hour program on the Food Network or an episode of Law and Order would suffice.
Six to seven in the evening is also the time when local networks air the evening news. Seriously, I don’t like watching the evening news. In the attempt to grab attention, it’s as though nothing good ever happens. The only “happy” note is when there’s something about Manny Pacquiao but since I don’t care for Pacquiao, there’s really very little in the local news that interests me.
It’s only when there’s nothing interesting on that we tune in to the evening news. And that happened more than once during the past couple of days. Too many replays and we landed on the local networks. The highlight of the news? The SUVS, of course. I mean, even I who don’t read nor watch the news regularly anymore (ahhhh, the luxury concomitant with not writing an op-ed column anymore) know about the SUV scandal — Catholic bishops who requested SUVs from the previous administration and who got what they asked for via “donations” from the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office (PSCO).
Of course, when I first read about it, I thought it was both makapal and garapal. But when the photocopy of a bishop’s letter-request was shown and read on TV in the course of an ongoing Congressional inquiry, I felt the onslaught of a bad, bad headache. And I’m not even prone to headaches.
In the first place, even outside of the SUV scandal, I don’t understand why it has been a practice for the government to make donations to the Catholic Church. In the case of the national government, it’s mostly via the PSCO. In the case of the local governments, the donations come from local government funds and pork barrels.
You want the official version or the reality bites version? Let’s start with the official version.
According to former PCSO General Manager Rosario Uriarte:
“There has been a long partnership with the Church and the religious sector in the field of medical and charity [work]. In fact, the PCSO [donates] not just to Catholics. There are also NGOs and institutional partners,” Uriarte said.
It might sound innocuous. It might even sound beneficial to the public. But is it?
The PSCO is a government agency. From the PCSO website:
The Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office (PCSO) is the principal government agency for raising and providing funds for health programs, medical assistance and services, and charities of national character.
The PCSO being a government agency, its funds is public money. Self-explanatory.
What does the Constitution say?
No public money or property shall be appropriated, applied, paid, or employed, directly or indirectly, for the use, benefit, or support of any sect, church, denomination, sectarian institution, or system of religion, or of any priest, preacher, minister, or other religious teacher, or dignitary as such, except when such priest, preacher, minister, or dignitary is assigned to the armed forces, or to any penal institution, or government orphanage or leprosarium.
That’s crystal clear already as to why the PCSO should not have been giving money to the Catholic church all these years but let’s set aside the legalities. You know how it is. The meaning of any law can be bended to suit the interpreter. The Constitutional provision can be debated ad nauseam. Let’s look at this from the perspective of logic. Let’s go back to Uriarte’s statement that the donations made to the Catholic church is part of a partnership in medical and charity work.
First, in the case of medical work. Is there a reason why PCSO funds geared toward medical projects cannot be channeled directly to government hospitals? Just last week at the height of the downpour that drenched Metro Manila, I saw a video of a public hospital in Valenzuela. The emergency room on the ground floor had to be evacuated because the water was knee deep. And if you’ve been around the country and seen public hospitals, you’d know that the sorry condition of that Valenzuela hospital is echoed across the country. Dilapidated buildings. Outdated medical equipment. Lop-sided ratio of hospital bed to patient. Poorly paid doctors and medical personnel… Aren’t those hospitals and medical professionals more deserving than the Catholic church? Aren’t those hospitals and medical professionals more proper beneficiaries of the PCSO funds?
Second, in the case of charity work. What charity work exactly does the Catholic church do that justifies the PCSO in making donations to it? Programs for street children? Out-of-school skills training programs? There is the Department of Social Welfare and the Department of Education, both of which repeatedly whine over the lack of budget to effectively carry out their programs. And the PSCO is giving to the Catholic church?
Then come the requests of bishops for SUVs. One, Butuan Bishop Juan de Dios Pueblos, in his letter to then President Gloria Arroyo, even said it would be a nice “pa-birthday.” And the requests were granted.
Are all those donations, including the funds to cover the purchase price of the requested SUVs, truly in line with “a long partnership with the Church and the religious sector in the field of medical and charity [work]?”
To answer that question, let us analyze the National People’s Army (NPA) and the Philippine National Police (PNP). For you non-Filipinos, the NPA is the military arm of the Communist Party of the Philippines.
We’ve all heard stories about how the NPA collects “taxes” especially in rural areas. We’ve also heard stories (in my case, I have even experienced) how members of the PNP try to extort money from ordinary citizens. A traffic cop flags you down for an IMAGINED traffic violation and wouldn’t let you go until you’ve given him lunch money — that kind of thing. For business owners, it’s more than lunch money. In the case of restaurants and bars, it’s more of a regular payment so that cops don’t come raiding the establishment because of some vague violation or complaint.
In short, in both cases, NPA and PNP, it’s protection money. Even the term “protection” is misleading. It’s more of “we will leave you alone” money. It’s payment made so that you’re in their good graces — you’re not disturbed, you don’t get accused, you don’t get raided, you don’t get hurt.
And I’ve come to realize that the PCSO has been donating to the Catholic church following the same principle. Every administration wants its peace with the Catholic church. And I’m not just talking about the national administration but also local governments. This, after all, is a country where priests deliver speeches from the pulpit about whom to vote and not to vote. No mayor, governor or congressman looking for a second or third term wants his name in the “not to vote” list of any bishop or parish priest.
In the case of the national government, the role of now dead Jaime Cardinal Sin in ousting two presidents has not been forgotten. Sin may be dead but the power he wielded as head of the Catholic church is still fresh in the mind of any politician who dreams of becoming president. No incumbent wants the clergy to mobilize the people for another People Power. And the fear might have been greater in the Arroyo administration, being fully aware of just how it came to power.