Philippine church leaders apologize for scandal

TERESA CEROJANO - Associated Press
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Roman Catholic Bishop Nereo Odchimar, left, president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, and Monsignor Pedro Quitorio, emerge from the conference hall after reading a pastoral statement at the conclusion of their three-day assembly to discuss various issues involving the Church Monday July 11, 2011 in Manila, Philippines. In their pastoral statement Monday, Philippine Roman Catholic church leaders have apologized to their flock for a scandal involving alleged illegal donations received by some bishops friendly to ex-President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo from the government's lottery operator, the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)

MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Roman Catholic Church leaders in the Philippines apologized Monday to their followers for a scandal involving allegedly inappropriate donations to bishops.

Philippine lawmakers began investigating allegations last week that the government's lotto operator made illegal donations in exchange for political favors from influential church leaders friendly to ex-President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

A pastoral letter issued by the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines assured followers that the bishops concerned "are ready to accept responsibility for their actions and to face the consequences if it would be proven unlawful, anomalous and unconstitutional."

The statement issued at the end of the bishops' biannual assembly also said the CBCP would "re-examine the manner of our collaboration with government agencies for purposes of helping the poor, making sure that pastoral sensibilities are respected and the highest ethical standards are observed."

The chairman of the state-run Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office, Margie Juico, told senators last week that an audit showed that at least 6.9 million pesos ($158,600) in charity funds were used to buy five vehicles upon the request of several bishops.

Juico said one bishop asked Arroyo for a brand new car on his 66th birthday in 2009 and received a sports utility vehicle worth 1.7 million pesos ($39,000).

Such donations would violate a law prohibiting the use of state funds for religious purposes.

The lotto operator raises funds for health care and other social services. The agency routinely donates ambulances to poor municipalities around the country.

"We are sorry for the pain and the sadness that these events have brought upon you," said the pastoral statement read at a news conference Monday by Bishop Nereo Odchimar, the CBCP president.

The statement added that bishops received the donations without malice and out of their sincere desire to help the people. They failed to consider the "pitfalls to which these grants could possibly lead them," it said.

The statement said the bishops have expressed their readiness to do everything necessary to heal the wound caused by the controversy.

The CBCP is collegial body of bishops that formulates joint pastoral policies and programs.

Arroyo, who rarely directly responds to allegations against her, was elected a member of the House of Representatives after she stepped down last year. She was traveling out of the country and her spokeswoman made no comment.