WASHINGTON - The destruction from Typhoon Bopha in portions of Mindanao in the southern Philippines is worse than feared as rescue workers continued to discover bodies under knee-deep mud, said a Catholic Relief Services official coordinating the agency's storm response.

Published in International

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- As thousands of Philippine families remained in shelters, Catholic Relief Services and Caritas Philippines prepared to speed household supplies and water to eastern sections of Mindanao affected by powerful Typhoon Bopha.

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WASHINGTON - A National Geographic magazine cover story identifies a Philippine Catholic priest accused of sexual abuse in the United States as fueling his country's illegal trade in ivory.

In the course of his research for the October issue, Bryan Christy learned that Msgr. Cristobal Garcia, director of worship for the archdiocese of Cebu, Philippines, had been accused of child sex abuse more than two decades ago but was still serving in priestly ministry.

The article highlights Garcia's extensive ivory religious icon collection and quotes him giving tips on how to smuggle ivory into the Philippines. It also included details of the sexual abuse complaint against him from the 1980s, when he served as a Dominican priest in the archdiocese of Los Angeles. He was expelled from the Dominicans and returned to the Philippines.

In a statement Sept. 26, the Cebu archdiocese said the Vatican had been looking into the sexual abuse complaints against Garcia "long before the (ivory trade) controversy erupted."

"I have also fulfilled the Holy See's instructions regarding submission of documents and acting upon related consequences," Cebu Archbishop Jose Palma said in the statement.

At a news conference the same day, a diocesan official said the Vatican had ordered Garcia suspended from priestly ministry months ago while he is investigated on the charges.

"Let it be made clear that the Church supports the ban on ivory as it is consistent with her doctrine on stewardship of creation," the archbishop's statement said. "The Church does not condone ivory smuggling or other illegal activities, although in the past, ivory was one of the materials used in the adornment of liturgical worship."

The Philippines is a signatory of the international Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, which means importing ivory to the country is illegal, according to Philippine Bureau of Customs Commissioner Rozzano Rufino Biazon. He explained that anything covered by CITES would have to comply with the country's tariffs and customs code and violations could result in imprisonment of six years.

"And depending on the item that's being imported, applicable laws could bring further penalties to make those longer sentences," said Biazon.

There are also fines, but the bureau's chief of staff of intelligence and investigations, Rainier Ragos, called them "minimal, much less than 100,000 Philippine pesos ($2,400 U.S.)." He said pending legislation in the Philippine congress would impose tougher smuggling fines.

A 2011 Pachyderm Journal article said law enforcement on the ivory trade in the Philippines is "generally poor."

Palma said that religious items made of ivory in the Philippines pre-dated its ban on the trade imposed in 1990.

In the National Geographic article, Christy wrote that the anteroom of Garcia's walled compound is "a mini-museum dominated by large, glass-encased religious figures whose heads and hands are made of ivory: There is an ivory Our Lady of the Rosary holding an ivory Jesus in one, a near-life-size ivory Mother of the Good Shepherd seated beside an ivory Jesus in another. Next to  Garcia's desk a solid ivory Christ hangs on a cross."

The article indicates religious practice — Catholic and Buddhist — is a driving force in the desire for ivory.

Christy, who travelled multiple times to Asia for his story, told Catholic News Service in an interview: "In my experience, the devotion to ivory as a religious icon was strongest in the Philippines. In the other places, it was ivory investment even though the image was a religious image, there was ... often a more shallow sort of link, whereas the Filipino collectors that I met truly were devoted."

From 1989 to 2011, more than 40,000 kg of ivory was seized in China, although National Geographic indicated that represents only a fraction of what gets through. The Philippines ranked fifth, at more than 11,000 kg.

The struggle to eradicate ivory smuggling is a deadly one. National Geographic reported that in the first six months of this year, 23 poachers were killed in Kenya. As for casualties on the side of law enforcement in the same time frame, Christy told Catholic News Service that "in Kenya alone a half-dozen (rangers) have been killed, and you can spread that number across Africa. People are killed every year protecting the elephants."

Published in International

MANILA, Philippines - Outspoken Archbishop Oscar Cruz said he continued to receive death threats because of his campaign against an illegal numbers racket known locally as "jueteng."

The retired archbishop of Lingayen-Dagupan, Philippines, said the most recent threat came in early September, the Asian church news agency UCA News reported.

"I received a check for 80,000 (Philippine) pesos ($1,918) and an envelope containing dried petals," he told a forum in Manila Sept. 18.

"I think it's not that hard to understand what that means," he added. "I used to receive black ribbons cut into pieces."

Philippine criminal syndicates and insurgents are known to threaten potential victims by sending black ribbons, flowers, bullets and even coffins. Such warnings are meant to serve notice for a target to change their ways.

The retired prelate said he was earlier told of a plot to kill him, but he indicated he would not stop his fight against illegal gambling.

"It's hard to fight evil and I'm already old. It's a pity that instead of improving our values we are retrogressing," Archbishop Cruz said.

"I don't think (that this country) is going anywhere," he said.

In 2004, Archbishop Cruz established his anti-gambling group, People's Crusade Against Jueteng, with the aim of stamping out the illegal numbers racket, which is popular with rich and poor alike.

The prelate said jueteng continues to thrive in the country, particularly in the northern provinces of Luzon, and has even invaded schools in metropolitan Manila.

He said the "ballpark figure" that racketeers earn each day from the game is at least $1 million.

Philippine President Benigno Aquino Sept. 17 vowed to eradicate jueteng and ordered a crackdown on small-town lotteries, which he said are being used as fronts for illegal numbers rackets.

Published in International

TORONTO - For the second time Tobias Enverga has made Canadian political history.

After being the first Filipino-Canadian to hold a publicly elected position in Toronto, the Catholic school trustee has been appointed to the Canadian Senate.

"I'm the first Filipino-Canadian (senator) and we have some unique values that the Senate doesn't have yet and I want to share that," said Enverga, who is now a former Toronto Catholic District School Board trustee after his appointment. "It's a big honour for me and a big honour for our community at the same time."

Prime Minister Stephen Harper's office announced Enverga's election to the Red Chamber on Sept. 7, which fills an Ontario seat vacancy. He, along with four other new senators announced the same day, will officially be sworn in on Sept. 25 in Ottawa.

The five new senators, who have an allegiance to the Conservatives, swells the majority government's chamber representation to 62 in the 105-seat Senate.

When Enverga received the phone call telling him he had been chosen as a senator, he was shocked. Not only did he not know he'd been nominated, Enverga, 56, didn't even really know what a senator did.

"Never in my wildest dreams did I think I was going to be in one of the highest positions in the land," said Enverga. "Like any other new position there will be new challenges. I'm not sure what the new challenges will be because this is the first time that I've heard about the position actually."

But treading unfamiliar waters is nothing new to Enverga, who arrived in Canada in 1981 seeking "adventure and a good job."

Employed by the Bank of Montreal since arriving here, most recently as a project manager, Enverga sought adventure again in 2010 when he ran for Catholic school trustee. 

As a senator Enverga had to give his two weeks notice to the bank and resign from his trustee position.

"According to the by-laws I cannot hold two jobs, especially as a senator and trustee," he said. 

Although Enverga said he feels bad about leaving the ratepayers who voted for him, this new position will allow him to help a broader range of people. And he believes his experience with the TCDSB can only help him in his new position.

"The good thing is that the Catholic school board has given me the experience to deal with issues and deal with people at the same time," said Enverga, adding that the economy will be a large area of focus while sitting in the Red Chamber. "It's a big challenge but God will not give me anything that I cannot do."

The TCDSB has not decided how it will fill Enverga's seat. It could call a by-election or appoint an interim trustee.

Published in Canada: Toronto-GTA

MOUNT DIWATA, Philippines - Daylien Elejorde suspects that mining for gold in the mountains of northern Mindanao is not going to result in a windfall of precious metal.

The small mine she operates with her husband keeps the family fed and a roof over their heads, but not much more. Yet, Elejorde faces losing even the little she has to foreign mining interests eyeing the land and the network of hundreds of hand-excavated tunnels she and her neighbors mine day in and day out.

Published in International

VATICAN CITY - The take-away message from a Vatican-backed symposium on clerical sex abuse was clear: Victims, truth and justice come first. And the church can no longer wait for a crisis to erupt before it begins to address the scandal of abuse.

"We do not need to wait for a bomb to explode. Preventing it from exploding is the best response," said Philippine Archbishop Luis Tagle.

Published in International

MANILA, Philippines - Catholic officials are stepping up relief efforts to provide assistance to victims of an earthquake that struck Negros Oriental province Feb. 6.

San Carlos Diocese on Negros Island is organizing relief groups to deliver food and water to thousands of people who remain isolated after a magnitude 6.9 earthquake on the eastern part of the island, reported the Asian church news agency UCA News.

The quake destroyed or damaged bridges and buildings and triggered landslides. As of Feb. 9, the official death toll was 26, but rescuers said there was little hope of finding any of the 71 missing alive, UCA News reported.

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MANILA, Philippines - Catholic agencies and officials in the Philippines are working to provide housing for victims of recent flooding that left more than 1,200 people dead and hundreds of thousands more displaced.

The Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines said it would seek funding for the construction of 1,000 houses and 400 permanent homes in Cagayan de Oro, another 400 transitional homes in Iligan, and 200 other temporary shelters in Dumaguete.

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CAGAYAN DE ORO, Philippines - Church agencies teamed with international aid groups and the Philippine government to assist tens of thousands of people left homeless in northern Mindanao by flash flooding caused by an intense tropical storm that left at least 650 people dead and hundreds more missing.

The country's National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council reported that about 135,000 people in 13 provinces were affected by Tropical Storm Washi, which unleashed floods and landslides as people slept in their homes across northern Mindanao late Dec. 16.

Casualty figures from the Philippine Red Cross Dec. 19 put the death toll at 652. But with another 808 people missing, that toll is expected to rise, reported the Asian church news agency UCA News.

Church sources in Cagayan de Oro and Iligan, two of the worst hit areas, say exact casualty figures are difficult to pin down because of the extensive damage caused by the storm.

Joe Curry, country representative for Catholic Relief Services, the U.S. bishops' overseas relief and development agency, told Catholic News Service Dec. 19 from Cagayan de Oro, a city of about 600,000, that about 35,000 people who lost their homes are being housed in evacuation centers in schools and outdoor covered gymnasiums

Overall, an estimated 75,000 of the city's residents living near a river that flows down from nearby mountains on its way to the ocean were affected by the flooding, he said.

"It looks kind of like the tsunami hitting," he said describing what he saw when he arrived in the low-lying area at the base of a mountain. "Everything was taken off the foundations. The water was 11 feet above its banks, and anything near it was wiped away."

Curry described survivors as stunned.

"People in the evacuation centers we've met have nothing left from their houses," he said. "Everything went with the house. They have no clothes. They have no kitchen items. They have nothing."

CRS, which sent a team of eight workers form Davao City, and other aid agencies met at the residence of Archbishop Antonio Ledesma of Cagayan de Oro, just outside the flood zone Dec. 19 to coordinate their response with the government. The representatives planned to meet every two days to report on their work and update their plan.

Curry said about 80 percent of the city is without water because water washed away the main water line through the city.

Beryl Tranco of the Panday Bulig Relief and Rehabilitation Center told UCA News that providing water to the city is the biggest challenge facing relief workers.

"Our priority was to distribute drinking water because there is no water, no electricity, the area smells of garbage and decaying bodies," she said.

Caritas Manila, church-run Radio Veritas and the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines' national social action secretariat have appealed for relief supplies, clothing and money from dioceses across the country.

In Manila, Archbishop Luis Antonio Tagle directed parishes to take up collection at Masses through Christmas for survivors.

Meanwhile, words of comfort and offers of assistance poured in from around the world.

After reciting the Angelus Dec. 18 at the Vatican, Pope Benedict XVI said he wanted to assure the people of the Philippines of his prayers. After the "violent tropical storm," he said, "I pray for the victims -- many of whom are children -- for the homeless and the numerous people who are missing."

Caritas Australia also announced the opening of an appeal for flood victims.

U.S. President Barack Obama offered condolences to the country and said the United States was prepared to assist in recovery efforts if needed.

Published in International
December 13, 2011

A Filipino Christmas wish

TORONTO - This Christmas season, a group of Toronto Catholic students will be living Jesus’ Gospel of love and caring for others by helping to build homes in the Philippines.

From Dec. 27 to Jan. 10, 18 students will take part in the Philippines Study and Leadership Experience. The trip is being run by Adventure Learning Experiences in partnership with the Toronto Catholic District School Board.

Marshall McLuhan Catholic Secondary School, Loretto Abbey, Cardinal Carter and St. Michael’s Choir School are some of the eight  schools taking part. One student from the York Catholic District School Board will also be going.

Published in Youth Speak News