Tuesday, September 13, 2005
LIPA CITY, Batangas -- The influential archbishop of Cebu yesterday dismissed suggestions the worst political crisis to engulf President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo had divided the Philippine Catholic Church hierarchy and accused media of fomenting dissension among the prelates. “It’s the media that are dividing us,” Ricardo Cardinal Vidal told reporters. “You make it appear as though there’s infighting among us when there is none.”
Vidal urged the media to report only the truth and ignore speculations.
The country’s lone active cardinal appeared disturbed by a recent Inquirer report identifying him as among several bishops who had received hefty cash donations from the state-owned Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. (Pagcor).
Vidal, who is usually low-key, and two other bishops had admitted receiving Pagcor money but stressed it went to projects for the poor. This is a practice officially frowned upon by the Church hierarchy and denounced by some prelates.
Vidal yesterday led a pilgrimage to Lipa City in Batangas province, focal point of the National Day of Prayer for Reparation, Conversion and Consecration, called in the aftermath of the House of Representatives’ decision junking the impeachment complaints against Ms Arroyo over charges she stole last year’s election.
Ms Arroyo, upon the invitation of the bishops, took time out from a heavy schedule to attend a Mass in Lipa hours before her departure for New York. “This was in solidarity with the bishops,” said Media Secretary Cerge Remonde.
More than a dozen prelates joined the Lipa affair, including those urging the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines to reassess its position in July staying away from calls for Ms Arroyo’s resignation but urging her not to dismiss them altogether.
The CBCP’s 12-member permanent council is to begin a meeting today on the country’s political situation.
A faction of the 119-strong CBCP is to hold a “special meeting” separately to articulate concerns the organization’s prescriptions for the nation’s political problems had apparently been ignored. The bishops had said in their July statement that resignation, impeachment and the creation of a “truth commission” were not against the Gospel.
A Palace official, who declined to be named, said the CBCP’s policymaking body would address statements made by Archbishop Oscar Cruz and Fr. Robert Reyes urging the prelates to take a tougher stand against the President. The official also said the bishops’ concerns about media reporting that tended to put the Church in a bad light would be taken up in the council meeting.
Cruz has been on the forefront of a crusade against illegal gambling. His campaign led to a House investigation that implicated Ms Arroyo’s family in gambling payoffs.
Archbishop Paciano Aniceto of San Fernando City, Pampanga province, said today’s meeting would “touch on the political crisis.”
A council member, Aniceto said the agenda had been prepared before the current political issues surfaced.
Both Vidal and Aniceto denied knowledge of a parallel gathering of bishops outside of the council. But at least four highly reliable Church insiders yesterday confirmed to the Inquirer that such a gathering would indeed take place.
Bacolod Bishop Vicente Navarra, who earlier confirmed the special meeting, was spotted by the Inquirer at the CBCP office yesterday.
Contrary to perceptions, the special meeting was not meant to pressure the council into issuing a stronger response to the failed impeachment bid, a Church insider said.
The council, headed by outgoing CBCP president Fernando Capalla, is in charge of policy decisions when the body is not in plenary session.
The source said the parallel meeting outside the council was triggered by the Inquirer exposé on bishops and priests who had been receiving hefty cash donations from Pagcor. The failed impeachment of Ms Arroyo was also a major reason, the source said.
“There’s the larger issue of how these things are being handled by the CBCP,” the source said. “The goal is to think this out soberly, in prayerful discernment, and determine what can be done to bring about unity and speak out as one in a clearer voice.”
Aniceto told reporters in Lipa that Filipinos should explore other peaceful solutions to the nation’s political ills.
A people of hope
“Let us not close our doors that easily. There are still alternatives. We are a people of hope,” said Aniceto. Asked what these options were, he said Filipinos should engage in “prayerful discernment so all of us will be enlightened.”
Aniceto seemed unperturbed by the quashing of the impeachment complaints in the House of Representatives against the President last week. He said the impeachment was an important “first step” in resolving the crisis.
“Democracy is a dynamic procedure, that’s why we keep on asking the Lord to illumine our pathway,” he said.
He said Ms Arroyo had the right to defend herself. “This is really what will happen under our present form of government.”
Representative Eduardo Zialcita of Parañaque City urged the CBCP to rein in prelates who issue statements outside of its official position.
“We don’t mean to have their free speech curtailed but going against the CBCP stand is creating more confusion and divisiveness among the Catholic flock,” Zialcita, an Arroyo supporter, said in a statement yesterday.
“The CBCP should serve as a calming voice amid the opposition’s refusal to abide by the House’s decision to dismiss the impeachment complaints against the President,” said another administration ally, Representative Jesli Lapus of Tarlac.
Also yesterday, Senator Rodolfo Biazon said he was not surprised to see the Church and other religious denominations overstep legal boundaries. He said politicians had given them leeway “to meddle in state affairs.”
“Who caused this? Us, politicians. During elections, who do we run to? We troop to these different sects for their support. When you are given that support, you’re accepting the fact that they can meddle in political affairs,” he said.
Biazon also said Filipinos, in some ways, encouraged the Church to overstep legal boundaries and play an active role in the 1986 and 2001 bloodless people’s revolts that toppled leaders.
One way to put a stop to this is for the government to institute reforms in the country’s electoral system by raising the level of maturity of both politicians and the electorate, the senator said.
Ex-Lacson aide and FBI cohort nabbed in US for espionage
Tetch Torres Veronica Uy
FORMER police official Michael Ray Aquino and a Federal Bureau of Investigation analyst were arrested in the United States for espionage, National Bureau of Investigation chief Reynaldo Wycoco said.
At the same time, three government officials in the Philippines will be charged for conspiracy in stealing and passing on classified information about the country's political affairs.
Aquino was arrested, along with an FBI intelligence analyst Leandro Aragoncillo, for allegedly stealing "highly classified" material stored in computers at an FBI office in the US, Wycoco said Tuesday.
Aquino, who is believed to have fled to the United States several years ago after being indicted in Manila on homicide charges, apparently tried to buy the material from Aragoncillo, a Filipino-American FBI employee.
National Bureau of Investigation Interpol chief Ricardo Diaz said the documents were passed on electronically to Aquino, who is based in New York.
Aquino and Aragoncillo were arrested in New York City on Saturday in possession of documents pertaining to "highly classified assessments of the Philippine political situation" as well as assessments of "Philippine political leaders," said NBI Director Reynaldo Wycoco.
Aquino is one of opposition Senator Panfilo Lacson's co-accused in the alleged Kuratong-Baleleng rubout.
Wycoco said three government officials will also be charged for conspiracy, hinting that one of them is a former high-ranking executive, a top-level official, and a second level cabinet member.
He said these officials discreetly sent sensitive information to Aquino, who was arrested in his house in Queens, New York.
Aquino and Aragoncillo were charged with one count of conspiracy and one count of acting as unregistered foreign agents. Aragoncillo is facing a separate case for unauthorized use of a government computer.
Wycoco said Aquino could face up to 18 years in jail if convicted by US courts of espionage. The former police officer could also be charged for other crimes including money laundering, he added.
Lacson on Tuesday admitted to receiving information from Aquino, but said that the items he received were not "sensitive."
"…I don't recall having received any information sensitive [from] the US government," said Lacson, who admitted to keeping "in close touch" with Aquino since he migrated to the US.
Lacson said his former subordinate regularly kept his friends and former associates updated on news about Filipino-Americans' interests and matters concerning Philippines affairs.
"I am not sure which of the information that I and others received were considered classified because to my recollection, the bits of information I got from him were largely news that everyone has read and heard in our local media," he said.
Aquino was brought to court on Monday where his rights and charges were read, Consul General Cecilia Rebong of the Philippine consulate general in New York said in a report.
Felix Vinluan, Aquino's immigration lawyer, clarified that Monday's hearing was not an arraignment that required Aquino to enter a plea.
Aquino is currently detained at the Passaic County Correctional Facility.
Rebong said the judge provided Aquino with a criminal justice attorney to defend him in this case.
Formerly one of Lacson's most trusted aides, Aquino is also among the suspects in the killing of public relations man Salvador "Bubby" Dacer.
Rebong said the following charges were read to Aquino:
"1. Acting as an agent of a foreign official without notification of the Attorney General in violation of Title 18 of US Code, Section 951;
2. Knowingly communicating classified information by a government employee to an agent or representative of a foreign country (i.e. receiving classified information); and
3. Conspiracy to commit all the above offenses in violation of Title 18 of the US Code, Section 371."
The charge sheet said passing on classified information violates Title 50 of US Code, Section 783.
Carol Buch, one of the case prosecutors, said the nature of the case barred him from immediately informing the Philippine consulate on the arrest.
"[B]ecause of the covert and sensitive nature of the case, no consular notification has as yet been made," said Buch, adding that a notice will be sent to the consulate on Tuesday.
Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez earlier asked the United States embassy to provide the Philippine government with more details on the arrest of Aquino.
In his letter to Jeff Cole, US justice department attaché Gonzalez sought information on the documents allegedly obtained by Aquino.
"I would like to be furnished soonest at least, with [a] brief of the documents downloaded by him so that the government can take the necessary action under the circumstances," Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez said, considering the current political situation in the country, "It could be detrimental to our government."
President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo has been dogged by allegations of electoral fraud and recently survived an impeachment bid against her at the House of Representatives.
Rebong said Aquino will have his second hearing on September 21. US laws allow his detention for 10 days from the day of his arrest.
The consul general said the September 21 hearing will determine if Aquino should be turned over to immigration officials, or remained detained and face trial in the US.
With reports from Margaux Ortiz, Inquirer New Service and Agence France Presse