Probing a Priest

Every once in a while, headlines just write themselves. A recent instance is this story from the Malay Mail “Philippine priest probed over ‘child abuse’ “. Even the url for the story screams authenticity—philippine-priest-probed-over-child-abuse-31465, as if it were a counter of priests rather than of articles.

The Vatican has suspended a senior priest in the Philippines over allegations he abused children when he was based in the United States three decades ago, a church spokesman said Thursday.

Monsignor Cristobal Garcia, who was in charge of ensuring churches follow Vatican guidelines in the country’s second biggest city of Cebu, was suspended in June from all priestly functions, said Monsignor Achilles Dakay.

“He is undergoing preventive suspension because the Vatican is investigating his case in the United States in the early-80s. He had a case of alleged child abuse,” said Dakay, spokesman of the archdiocese in the central island of Cebu.

This sounds as if the Vatican has decided that child abuse is worthy of serious consequences. Not so fast.

The admission that Garcia had been suspended came only after media reports this week that he was involved in the illegal trade of African ivory by collecting religious icons made of tusks.

Philippine authorities launched an investigation this week into Garcia and another priest allegedly involved in the trade. They face up to four years in jail if found guilty of illegally possessing ivory.

The accusations of ivory smuggling come from a recent National Geographic article written by Brian Christy. Christy begins by bringing up the American charges of child abuse and how Garcia was supported by the Vatican in his role in the Philippines.

In the mid-1980s, according to a 2005 report in the Dallas Morning News and a related lawsuit, Garcia, while serving as a priest at St. Dominic’s of Los Angeles, California, sexually abused an altar boy in his early teens and was dismissed. Back in the Philippines, he was promoted to monsignor and made chairman of Cebu’s Archdiocesan Commission on Worship. That made him head of protocol for the country’s largest Roman Catholic archdiocese, a flock of nearly four million people in a country of 75 million Roman Catholics, the world’s third largest Catholic population. Garcia is known beyond Cebu. Pope John Paul II blessed his Santo Niño during Garcia’s visit to the pope’s summer residence, Castel Gandolfo, in 1990.

Then he moves onto the ivory trade.

His anteroom 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.

Filipinos generally display two types of ivory santos: either solid carvings or images whose heads and hands, sometimes life-size, are ivory, while the body is wood, providing a base for lavish capes and vestments. Garcia is the leader of a group of prominent Santo Niño collectors who display their icons during the Feast of the Santo Niño in some of Cebu’s best shopping malls and hotels. When they met to discuss formally incorporating their club, an attorney member cried out to the group, “You can pay me in ivory!”

My goal in meeting Garcia is to understand his country’s ivory trade and possibly get a lead on who was behind 5.4 tons of illegal ivory seized by customs agents in Manila in 2009, 7.7 tons seized there in 2005, and 6.1 tons bound for the Philippines seized by Taiwan in 2006. Assuming an average of 22 pounds of ivory per elephant, these seizures represent about 1,745 elephants. According to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the treaty organization that sets international wildlife trade policy, the Philippines is merely a transit country for ivory headed to China.

The trade in religious icons is aided by the free pass religion gets from people in general. A Thai, known as the Elephant Monk describes how easy it is to smuggle religious icons made of elephant ivory.

And that was all it took to get the Elephant Monk to talk smuggling. He tells me to cut the ivory to fit into my suitcase, holding out his hands to show me how long to make the pieces. That’s what his followers do, he says. When I arrive at the Bangkok airport, his assistant will pick me up and drive me to him. He has followers in immigration, but if anything goes wrong, I should say I’m bringing the ivory to his temple. Religion, apparently, will cover me.

Because this is about faith, and because faith requires suspension of disbelief, ivory traded for religious purposes doesn’t garner the aggressive scrutiny it might if it were carved into, say, chess pieces. God’s ivory has its own loophole.

The article by Christy is quite long and focuses on the ivory trade and is definitely worth a read. But, back to Garcia. Priests and other religious leaders always claim to be moral leaders. In fact their privileged position in society is based upon this belief. The access to information spawned by the internet has demonstrated that these so-called leaders are as fallible as all others. We have seen child abuse by preachers, and cover-ups by the hierarchy, especially in the Catholic Church; affairs, both gay and straight, by those who preach ‘family values’; money laundering in the Vatican; financial empires built on donations of the faithful; and so on.

People are fallible, we have lapses in judgement, although most of us try to live up to our personal standards. In religious leaders, the response in most cases, rather than public confession, is to hide and lie. In the child abuse cases, how many priests have come forward of their volition and admitted, before prosecution, that they were abusers. None that have made the news. These are the people who claim the moral high ground. These are the people who need to be condemned as hypocrites and treated as pariahs.






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