Facing growing scandal, bishops to return SUVs

In the midst of a raging controversy involving the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office (PCSO) intelligence funds, the Catholic bishops who benefited from the disbursements said they will return the sports utility vehicles (SUVs) they bought with the PCSO funds, and the Senate blue ribbon committee chair asked former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to explain her role in how the money was used.

The bishops who received checks from the PCSO, which they used to buy SUVs, are willing to return the vehicles, according to a news article posted on the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines’ website late Thursday.

They include Butuan Bishop Juan De Dios Pueblos, who received a Mitsubishi Montero Sport in 2009.

Lingayan-Dagupan Archbishop Emeritus Oscar Cruz said during an interview Thursday on the mid-morning newscast “News To Go" that it would be better for the bishops to return the SUVs. “… [K]asi, tutal nagamit na naman na, napakinabangan na…"

Cruz said while he didn't believe it was a crime, the bishops asking for and receiving the expensive vehicles from the government lacked delikadeza.

Bishop Pueblos, who had specifically asked then-President Arroyo for a Mitsubishi Montero Sport as a birthday gift, said he was willing to return the vehicle.

“I don’t see any problem with that. I am riding a very old vehicle within the diocese itself. I could even ride a small vehicle if it is necessary. It will not really be a problem," Pueblos said.

On Thursday, he said he is willing to attend the ongoing Senate investigation into the questionable donations by the PCSO during the Arroyo administration.

Come out and tell…

While Arroyo has not been formally invited to appear before the Senate the hearings on the PCSO fund mess, calls were made for her to explain her side.

“If she is for the truth, she should come out and tell where [the money] was used," said Senate blue ribbon committee chair Teofisto Guingona III said Thursday.

Text messages and calls by GMA News Online to Arroyo spokesperson Elena Bautista-Horn went unanswered.

GMA News' "24 Oras" reported Thursday that former lawmaker Maite Defensor, also an Arroyo spokesperson, said the former President’s camp would wait for a formal complaint before issuing a statement.

Arroyo's son, Ang Galing Pinoy party-list Rep. Mikey Arroyo, refused to comment on the issue, saying he is not privy to PCSO transactions. "I don't know the facts," he said.

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Defiant Butuan bishop

While agreeing to return his SUV, Pueblos was "defiant", saying he was a victim of "character assassination" and would want his name cleared.

He would like to make a privilege speech before the Senate to defend himself, Pueblos said.

Pueblos, in his vehicle request letter in 2009 to Arroyo, had promised her his "constant support." Last month, the bishop called for President Noynoy Aquino to resign, citing his supposed incompetence, among other issues.

Bishop Martin Jumoad of Basilan said he is willing to return the Mitsubishi Strada his diocese bought using the financial aid from the PCSO in 2009.

Jumoad reiterated that the pickup is being used for medical and relief operations in Basilan, and not as his personal transport.

At least P6.9 million in charity funds were used to buy vehicles upon the request of some bishops, according to the present PCSO administration. Such donations may have violated the Constitution.

Article VI Section 29 (2) of the 1987 Constitution states that "No public money or property shall be appropriated, applied, paid, or employed, directly or indirectly, for the use, benefit, or support of any sect, church, denomination, sectarian institution, or system of religion, or of any priest, preacher, minister, or other religious teacher, or dignitary as such, except when such priest, preacher, minister, or dignitary is assigned to the armed forces, or to any penal institution, or government orphanage or leprosarium." — With reports by Kimberly Jane Tan and Andreo Calonzo/VS/HS, GMA News