Philippine bishops face probe over illegal gifts

The Roman Catholic church in the Philippines is probing allegations that some bishops illegally received luxury vehicles from the state lottery.

Bishops named in press reports are to be asked to explain themselves at a Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines meeting on July 8-10, according to the official website of the conference.

Conference president Bishop Nereo Odchimar said he was unaware of such gifts to any church leaders, according to a posting on the website yesterday. "We will discuss that in the plenary assembly," Odchimar added.

"If they (the alleged recipients) will be around, we will be asking also their positions," he added. The website said one of the bishops named in the reports had denied receiving a luxury sports utility vehicle from the lottery.

Press reports say then president Gloria Arroyo ordered the lottery to buy the vehicles to secure the political support of church leaders, some of whom had openly criticised alleged corruption in her government. They said the lottery was investigating the possible misuse of 15.32 million pesos (USD 355,000) of its funds in 2009 and that auditors discovered funds were used to buy vehicles for several bishops and other priests.

Archbishop Fernando Capalla said lottery donations to the church were used to help victims of natural disasters and the poor. Archbishop Fernando Arguelles denounced the allegations as a smear to damage the reputation of the church, whose leaders are courted by politicians as they help shape public opinion in the conservative, largely Catholic nation. State lottery officials could not be reached for comment today.

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