Philippine lawmakers began investigating allegations Wednesday that some Roman Catholic bishops may have illegally received donations from the government's lotto operator in exchange for political favors.
The chairman of the state-run Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office, Margie Juico, told senators in a hearing 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 former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo for a brand new car on his 66th birthday in 2009 and received a 1.7 million pesos ($39,000) sports utility vehicle.
Such donations would violate a law prohibiting the use of state funds for religious purposes.
Bishop Juan de Dios Pueblos of southern Butuan city wrote Arroyo saying he won't organize a birthday party in consideration of the "existing (economic) crisis." Instead, he asked her for "a brand new car, possibly a 4 x 4," to help him reach remote areas to promote peace on the main southern island of Mindanao, which is wracked by insurgency.
"I hope you will never fail to give a brand new car, which would serve as your birthday gift to me," he said.
In a followup letter, he said the vehicle was for "spiritual and social services programs."
His letters were addressed to both Arroyo and the charity agency, which indicated that he expected the money for the car will come from the government's lotto operator.
The lotto operator raises funds for health care and other social services. The agency routinely donates ambulances to poor municipalities around the country.
Repeated calls to Pueblos' office went unanswered Wednesday.
Pueblos was among the staunchest supporters of Arroyo, who faced down several coup attempts by disgruntled young military officers and survived impeachment charges of election cheating, corruption and human rights violations during her nine-year rule, which ended last year. She has denied any wrongdoing.
Pueblos has earlier called for the resignation of President Benigno Aquino III, who succeeded Arroyo on a promise to investigate corruption.
Arroyo, who rarely directly responds to allegations against her, was elected a member of the House of Representatives after she stepped down. She was traveling out of the country and her spokeswoman made no comment.
In a letter to the Senate, Archbishop Nereo Odchimar, president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, said any donation to a bishop goes to the diocese and it is not the clergy's personal property.
"Whatever benefit the Catholic Church may draw from the gift is purely incidental," he said, adding they were willing to "face the consequences" of receiving financial aid from government because he said it is channeled to the needy.
"Our conscience is clear," Odchimar said.