Pajeros for Prelates Flap Weakens Philippine Church

An apology Monday by Filipino Roman Catholic Church leaders for what appears to be a massive scandal involving allegedly illegal donations of cars to bishops leaves an opening for lawmakers who for 14 years have been trying to pass a reproductive health bill over the adamant opposition of the church.

The timing of the allegations, which surfaced when a blue ribbon Senate committee began an investigation into the cars last week, appears to have been exquisite. The controversy occurs at a time when the reproductive health bill, which would allow for contraceptive devices to be made available to women, stands perhaps its best chance ever of being passed over the adamant opposition of the church.

Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office Chair Margarita Juico, an appointee of former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, said earlier this year that Arroyo had allegedly given six or seven Mitsubishi Pajeros to bishops before the departing president stepped down from office. Allegedly Arroyo, under repeated fire for a long series of corruption charges including vote fraud, and facing impeachment in 2006, regularly got the state-owned sweepstakes office to release millions of pesos to buy sports utility vehicles for bishops assigned to dioceses across the country after they sent letters to Arroyo claiming the vehicles would be used for social work in aiding the poor.

The matter, which has been tagged the “Pajero scandal” for obvious reasons, also features allegations that in 2006, when the church officials were meeting to discuss Arroyo’s impeachment, each attendee received envelopes from Arroyo containing P20,000 each (US$400 at then-prevailing exchange rates).

The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, in a pastoral letter released Monday, said the controversy had deeply wounded the church and that the bishops were sorry for the pain and sadness caused to church members. The bishops, the letter said, are willing to face the consequences if their actions are proven illegal. The contrite bishops have offered to return the cars.

The scandal, an open secret in Manila, illustrates the delicate relationship between the government and the Catholic Church, which has long had the power to drive politicians from office if the bishops wish to do so. At one point the Catholic Bishops Conference threatened to excommunicate President Benigno S. Aquino III if he supported the reproductive health bills, a package aiming to provide universal access to women for birth control and maternal care.

Earlier this year one diocese said it would refuse communion to any lawmaker who votes for the bill. In the past the church, one of the world’s most conservative Catholic bodies, has made good on those threats, mounting vigorous campaigns to unseat proponents of the bill. The Philippines is the only country in the world that does not allow divorce.

Although Aquino appeared to support the legislation when he was a senator, Malacañang Palace announced early this year that its list of priority bills to be pushed through the Congress does not include the family planning bill. Instead, the government said its own Responsible Parenthood Bill, as it is known, would focus on poverty reduction rather than population control.

The power of the church in the Philippines heretofore has been overwhelming, to the point where, despite the separation of church and state written into the Philippine constitution, people in Manila regularly talk about the relationship of the executive branch of government and the church as if they were separate and co-equal branches of government. The scandal, if pushed by pro-birth control lawmakers, puts a serious dent in the church’s armor.

“It depends on how far P-Noy will go if he says he wants the bill,” a Manila source told Asia Sentinel. “That is how he would be able to do it. If he’s weak, if the church sees his weakness, they will have their way. That is the thing between the executive branch and the church.”

The sheer scope of the current scandal, however, seemingly puts that relationship in danger. Allegedly during various times during the Arroyo presidency, bishops regularly received donations from the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation, which has a legal monopoly on gambling in the country despite official church policy against accepting money from gambling.

Although an estimated 75 percent to 80 percent of Filipinos belong to the Catholic Church, it is questionable how deep that loyalty goes when it comes to the issue of birth control. Aquino’s endorsement of the family planning bill while a lawmaker was regarded as a factor that contributed to his strong win in the 2010 presidential race. Polls have consistently shown overwhelming support for contraception and other family planning programs.

In the meantime, the population continues to spiral upward, although it is skewed. According to the UN Population Division, the 2010 total fertility rate, the rate of births per woman, is 3.23. However, the rate for the richest quintile of the population is 2.0, or below replacement levels. The TFR for the poorest quintile is 5.9 children per woman, while that for college-educated women is 2.3 while that for women with an elementary education is 4.5 per woman. Overall the combined TFR is 3.23 per woman, down from seven in 1960.

The church has continued to insist that the country’s population is not related to poverty, a stance that is contradicted by almost all known research. In particular, it flies in the face of statistics supplied by the Philippine National Statistical Coordination Board showing that although poverty incidence among families (the ratio of poor families against the total number of families) dipped slightly to 20.9 percent in 2009 from 21.1 percent in 2006, the number of poor families rose by 85,000 to 3.86 million from 2006.

Although abortion is illegal in the Philippines and women who undergo the procedure are liable to a six-year prison term, large numbers of women continue to abort their fetuses. It is estimated that as many as 80,000 women are treated in hospitals every year for complications from induced abortions, some performed by masseuses who simply squeeze the fetus to death in the womb. At least 800 women are estimated to die every year from complications.

Nobody seems to know which way Aquino himself goes at this point.

“Gloria showed she was religious and beholden to the church, cars or no,” the Manila source told Asia Sentinel. “I don’t know what (Aquino) wants. Before, he was saying he wanted population control, family planning. Now I don’t see clearly what he wants. Church has had the upper hand in trying to trash the RH bill. The debates on the side don’t matter – whether the bill is anti-poor, as the Church says. The main fight will be between the church and the president. We will have to see if he is going to succumb.”