MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Philippine Roman Catholic bishops embroiled in a scandal involving allegedly inappropriate donations on Wednesday returned vehicles they received as gifts from the government's charity funds.
The donations took place during the administration of former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo who sought support of several influential bishops while she faced public protests and fended off several coup attempts on charges of electoral cheating and corruption.
She stepped down last year after nine years in power. She has denied any wrongdoing and did not comment on the latest scandal as she was traveling abroad. The bishops have apologized but maintain they did not break a law prohibiting the use of state funds for religious purposes.
The chairman of the state-run Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office, Margie Juico, told a Senate hearing last week that an audit showed that at least 6.9 million pesos ($158,600) in charity funds were used to buy vehicles upon the request of several bishops.
The government's lotto operator also runs charity funds.
At the Senate inquiry Wednesday, the bishops turned over four vehicles to charity officials and said other vehicles in the southern Philippines were in the process of being returned.
The bishops offered their apology for the pain the scandal has caused their followers and the dominant church. But they maintained the donations were only solicited to help them extend services to their far-flung communities.
"Even if it is not unlawful and even if it is not unconstitutional, we believe that it is important for us to clear everything in the air and return the vehicles," said Archbishop Orlando Quevedo of the southern Cotabato diocese.
Bishop Juan de Dios Pueblos of southern Butuan city admitted that he wrote Arroyo to ask for a Mitsubishi Montero sport utility vehicle that costs 1.7 million pesos ($39,000) for his 66th birthday in 2009 to help him reach remote areas and promote peace on Mindanao Island, which is wracked by insurgency.
He said that service to the public motivated him to write Arroyo — a move which he acknowledged "was a lapse in judgment on my part" that has "cast a shadow of uncertainty on my dignity as a bishop and my moral ascendancy as a leader of the Catholic church."
Outside the Senate, some 50 protesters held placards, some wearing bishops' frock and cardboard replicas of SUVs around their waist.
"I need my SUV to reach moral high ground," one placard said.
The church has been a powerful political force in the Philippines, helping organize mass protests that toppled late dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986 and in 2001, President Joseph Estrada on corruption charges. He was succeeded by Arroyo, his vice president.