Good governance, transparency a two-way street

Michael Alan Hamlin

Posted on June 28, 2012

The Catholic Church in the Philippines is among the most politically intrusive in the world, despite a constitutionally mandated separation of church and state in public policy. As a result of its activism, the Philippines remains the only country in the world, for example, that bans divorce. Instead, a thinly disguised annulment procedure is incorporated into the Family Code, providing a way to dissolve a dysfunctional union as long as one party is found to have been “psychologically incapacitated” when the marriage was solemnized; thus, no marriage happened.

High population growth is blamed by development experts, health advocates, and brave politicians as an important contributing factor to the Philippines’ stunted economic growth and overwhelmed educational and healthcare infrastructure. Advocates of the Reproductive Health Bill, which is meant to provide access to information and methods for birth control and maternal care, are demonized by the Church, which argues the bill, if enacted, will provide government-funded access to condoms and birth control pills and lead to increased promiscuity.

Because of its high population growth and large productive population—over 60% of Filipinos are 15-60 years old—the Philippines desperately needs to create jobs, including jobs that don’t require an advanced formal education. According to experts and government officials, the Philippines has the fifth-largest mineral resources in the world, but they are mostly untapped. Despite the jobs the industry could create and the potential for vast export earnings, the Church is at the center of “civil society” opposition to development of the mining industry.

The Church has also been at the center of historic political upheaval and change in the Philippines. The late Archbishop of Manila, Jaime Cardinal Sin probably prevented the slaughter by government forces of rebel troops and their leaders during the 1986 EDSA Revolution when he called on the faithful to act as human shields. His followers responded in the tens of thousands, heroically forming a protective yet vulnerable barrier between loyalist troops and the revolutionaries.

EDSA brought down an overstaying, brutal dictator who had destroyed the Philippine economy. But the Church was also a persistent critic of former president Joseph Estrada, a legally and popularly elected president. Mr. Estrada was chased from the presidency by another mass action, EDSA II, in 2001. Although the Supreme Court upheld the transition that foisted former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo on the nation, most constitutional experts agree Mr. Estrada was removed from office illegally. His crime: being his loutish, but entertaining, self.

Although the Church has struggled in recent decades to remain relevant and attract young priests and nuns to carry on its work, its intrusions into public policy debate have increased in frequency and shrillness. Most Sundays, Church calls for good governance and transparency are regular mass prayers. It is common for priests to rail against the RH Bill, the mining industry, and other public policy issues Church elders feel undermine its authority and doctrine.

But what happens when calls for good governance and transparency are directed at the Church? If the example of the Diocese of Parañaque is used, pretty much what happens when a government official is accused of corruption or favoritism: blanket denials bereft of substantiation. Last week, allegations by lay leaders and priests of mismanagement of Church collections by Bishop Jesse E. Mercado made national and international headlines.

The issues are straightforward. Mr. Mercado is accused of diverting special collections by the Church from their intended beneficiaries, mostly the victims of calamities or special projects. Especially damaging is an allegation that P1.6 million collected to aid victims of Typhoon Ondoy in 2001 remains substantially in church coffers to this day. According to the priests who raised the alarm, less than P300,000 of the donation was remitted.

Likewise, less than a third of more than P3.4 million raised for victims of Typhoon Sendong last year has been remitted, according to priests in the Parañaque Diocese. None of the almost P130,000 raised for Muntinlupa fire victims in 2010 was ever released. Mr. Mercado’s response was to deny the allegations, even asserting that when circumstances merit, donations to calamity victims are advanced.

Priests who brought the issue to light after years of internal evasion by the bishop and his allies responded that Mr. Mercado was being untruthful. Along with lay leaders of the church, they are challenging Mr. Mercado to present official receipts and bank records—which can’t be tampered with—to conclusively demonstrate his innocence. When questioned by reporters, Mr. Mercado suggested he had no obligation to do so.

The controversial bishop instead blamed the allegations on “disgruntled priests,” who have misbehaved. He says they were punished for sexual indiscretions, a disingenuous attempt to deflect attention from the issues of financial malfeasance. Mr. Mercado can quickly resolve the issue by producing documentary evidence that funds collected by his diocese have been properly administered. Will he?

(Michael Alan Hamlin is the managing director of TeamAsia and a Manila-based author and commentator. His latest book is High Visibility: Transforming Your Personal and Professional Brand. Write him at mahamlin@teamasia.com and follow him on TwitterFacebook and LinkedIn. Copyright © 2012 Michael Alan Hamlin. All Rights Reserved.)

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