What goes around, comes around: Transparency and accountability

Michael Alan Hamlin

Posted on August 29, 2012

Approximately 200 parishioners from the Diocese of Parañaque spent last Monday morning debating issues of good governance and transparency and accountability in one of the Philippines’ largest—and most influential—institutions. No, they weren’t concerned—at least that day—with national or local governance issues. Or the private sector and shareholder rights. The concern was the way the Catholic Church, at least in Parañaque, is being administered.

Here’s the background. Back in June, rappler.com published an investigative report entitled, “Bishop accused of diverting millions.” It reported that second collections intended for victims of Typhoons Ondoy and Sendong, the 2010 Haiti earthquake, and a 2010 Muntinlupa fire, along with other special donations, were diverted, and in a substantial way. Of P7.4 million in donations, over P3.3 million was diverted, apparently in violation of Canon Law article 1300, which states, “intentions of those who give goods to pious causes, once they are lawfully accepted, must be carefully observed.”

Responding to the rappler.com report, Parañaque Bishop Jesse Mercado issued an official statement to assure the faithful that, “all donations are properly receipted and promptly turned over to their intended beneficiaries.” It said all expenses are studied, reviewed and properly documented in the spirit of stewardship, transparency and accountability, and that the Diocese is audited annually by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Manila and receives a 100% rating.

Unsatisfied with these generalizations, several hundred parishioners wrote Mr. Mercado in June requesting official receipts and reports showing that funds donated to calamity victims were remitted in their entirety for the purposes intended. They also requested information on specific social programs funded by the diocese, where funds received from the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office were applied, and the composition and role of the Diocesan Finance Council. Copies of annual audited financial reports were also requested.

No response was received from the bishop. So parishioners created an online petition at www.change.org publicly requesting the bishop to respond to the allegations of financial irregularity. Again, no response. The laity then wrote the bishop on August 13 to invite him to present the information in a public forum. The Diocesan Finance Council was likewise invited. A “truth caravan,” which visited parishes in the diocese to distribute information, was organized to increase awareness of the forum and generate attendance.

On August 23, the Diocesan chancellor issued a new circular, which was read during masses throughout the diocese. But instead of providing clarity on the issues, its purpose was to say the public forum “is not recognized nor endorsed” by the bishop, seemingly to discourage attendance. It also stated that the bishop had already submitted an accounting to the Apostolic Nuncio, and that the Diocesan Financial Administrator and the Diocesan Finance Council have explained in detail the facts pertinent to the “unfounded allegations.”

Individuals who attended those meetings have told me privately that the information presented was far from detailed, or clear.

The circular had the unintended, but welcome, effect of increasing the visibility of the public forum across the diocese. Organized by an informal group called LAITY, organizers said the forum was intended to create awareness of the lack of transparency and accountability in the diocese, enlighten parishioners on their important role in the church concerning stewardship and transparency, and obtain clarification from the bishop on the issues raised.

Belying the notion that the laity’s role in the church is simply to “pay, pray and obey,” Dr. Erwin Carabeo explained in the forum that the diocese has formally adopted shared, participative, transparent stewardship of the process and resources of evangelization as one of its four core values. In February 2006, a Diocesan Pastoral Assembly identified ten pastoral priorities, including using modern management techniques and principles of transparency, equity and mutual trust in marshalling and managing resources.

Dr. Carabeo said that the Approved Lineamenta (Acts and Resolutions) of the Diocesan Pastoral Assembly clearly states that management of church resources is a shared responsibility of the clergy and the laity. In fact, it emphasizes transparency as both a requirement and a product of shared responsibility, and that when it comes to the principle of stewardship, the challenge for the church leadership is to ensure the moral, effective, efficient and equitable use of resources.

According to the organizers, the public forum would have been an excellent opportunity for the bishop to demonstrate these principles in practice. As one speaker said, “If there is nothing to hide, then it is easy to answer the questions raised.” In recent months, the church has been an active advocate of what it calls good governance. If it expects to be taken seriously, it has to walk the talk by demonstrating transparency and accountability.

(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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