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Financial scandal hits Parañaque diocese

MANILA (Mabuhay) : What is regarded as being the richest diocese in The Philippines is currently mired in a financial scandal, with Bishop Jesse Mercado, from Parañaque, being accused of diverting up to 3.2 million pesos ($540,000) from funds collected for disaster relief away from their intended beneficiaries.

The disputed collections begin with Typhoon Ondoy in 2009, then the Haiti earthquake in 2010, Typhoon Sendong, World Youth Day and the Caritas Palm Sunday Appeal from last year.

The accusations say that instead of being distributed to the intended beneficiaries the money has been locked away in diocesan investment accounts.

The matter came into the public forum when a group of priests and lay leaders went to the apostolic nuncio to The Philippines, Archbishop Guiseppi Pinto, asking him to investigate what happened to the money that was collected, but never reached its intended beneficiaries.

Apart from state law, canon law has strict stipulations about money that is collected for Church and charitable purposes.

Canon 1300 states, “The intentions of the faithful who give or leave goods to pious causes… once lawfully accepted, are to be most carefully observed, even in the manner of the administration and the expending of goods…”

In straight language, this means that the money must be used for the purposes that it was collected for and cannot be diverted to anything else without the express permission of the donor.

However, reported that one priest told the papal nuncio that there is more to this than meets the eye, as there has been a pattern to the misuse of diocesan funds for some time.

Reports say that the nuncio, Archbishop Pinto, was reluctant to act on the matter, but finally agreed to refer it to the Curia in Rome, where it will be investigated by the Congregation for Bishops.

The Curia may then appoint someone to investigate, if merit is found in the accusations.

The diocese of Parañaque was formed from the subdivision of the archdiocese of Manila in 2002 and Bishop Mercado, an auxiliary in Manila at the time, was made its first bishop.

Parañaque is home to some of the most expensive and luxurious housing estates in Metro Manila.

 The Catholic people of the area are also known for their generosity to disaster appeals and social welfare programmes.

However, priests have also complained to the nuncio that the funds for the diocesan welfare programmes that are allocated by the diocese have not been forthcoming.

Up until the election of the current president, Noynoy Aquino, the diocese was also receiving 225,000 pesos ($40,500) a quarter from the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office, but they were suddenly cut off when the new broom moved into in Malacañang in 2010.

The undistributed money from the charity collections is said to have been placed in various investment accounts in the name of the diocese, which have a standing balance of over 90 million pesos ($16.2 million).

UCA News reported on June 20 that the bishop is denying diverting the money, saying, “All donations are properly receipted and promptly turned over to the intended beneficiaries.”

He added that the books are audited annually by the archdiocese of Manila and have a no problem rating.

The bishop accused the priests who took the matter to the apostolic nuncio of being disgruntled, dismissing them as being only six out of 53 in the diocese.

He then accused them of having their noses out of joint because they do not like the appointments they got in the parish reshuffle.

While no one has accused Bishop Mercado of stealing the money for personal gain, he told CBCP News that he was ready to resign if charges of corruption against him were to be proven to be true.

One person said that the bishop seems to be in a state of denial.

While they pointed out that he is not denying the fact of the missing money, he does not seem to recognise that the matter has become a scandal and silence is not going to make it go away.

Bishop Mercado said that he is disappointed that the priests went to the media instead of coming to talk to him directly.

“Our stand should always be through dialogue. Let’s talk things over, because we believe in dialogue as a means by which we can clarify things, renew our ties and that is where we understand each other,” the embattled bishop said.