The Church, the media, and Napoles

Imagine an individual who starts a small business supplying helmets and other necessities to the military, using the contacts made possible by her being a military spouse. In the course of her dealings, she develops valuable connections in the rest of government. She quickly grasps the rules of procurement, discovers the informal organization behind every office, nurtures folksy relations with the staff, and spots the weaknesses of people and systems in the public bureaucracy.

She initially asks to be invited to the social functions of the high and mighty, but later organizes her own, to which she attracts very important people, whom she showers with small but expensive gifts. Building on these connections, she meets and befriends powerful politicians, as well as the heads of obscure government agencies that serve as channels for the dubious disbursement of public funds. She realizes how easy it is not only to complete the tedious paperwork for official transactions, but also to please those who are in charge of the control systems of government. In short, she acquires enough practical knowledge to navigate the underlife of the complex structure we call government. But, maybe more than that, after seeing what a huge racket all of government is, she also pacifies whatever moral qualms she may have felt in the beginning.

That, in sum, has been the career of Janet Lim Napoles.

With so much easy cash at her disposal, and no accountability to anyone above her, she indulged the whims of her children, as if to redeem the life of deprivation she herself had led. To her own mother and to her children, she was the portrait of a very successful businesswoman, a tough entrepreneur who, by dint of hard work, overcame adversity. But, when people like her start to believe their own illusions, and forget where the money is actually coming from, they become complacent.  And so it was for Janet—there was a point when she actually thought she could buy the whole government. One US-based Napoles daughter posted images of the charmed life she led abroad on her Facebook account, only to withdraw these in panic when her mother’s scam began to unravel.

When Filipinos suddenly become rich, they, for some reason, also begin to think they can buy God by supporting his priests. They who dispense forgiveness and grace in God’s name, in turn, seldom entertain any doubt about the motive and financial sources of their biggest donors. All that matters to them is that the money is put to good use—to build a church, support religious vocations, take care of the sick, subsidize overseas missions, or build a home for retired priests.

Given that Janet Lim Napoles’ influence had become far-reaching, I guess it was just a matter of time before her incursions into other institutions outside of the political would be revealed. Two such institutions—the Church and the mass media—have commanded public attention in recent days as a result of the Inquirer’s series of reports on the so-called Benhur Luy files. The publication of these files, which purport to contain records of Napoles’ disbursements over a whole decade, has prompted these two institutions to conduct their own internal inquiries. Not surprisingly, they have cleared their implicated members of any wrongdoing.

But it would be a pity if they stopped there, and failed to seize this rare opportunity to press for a review of existing practices for the purpose of strengthening structures of accountability within their respective spheres.  In the case of the clergy, this might mean requiring every priest to turn over every donation that is intended for the Church to an accountable group. These records can then be periodically scrutinized by an independent auditing body and reported to the parish council.

The institutionalization of this modern practice is long overdue in the Church. It would encourage more active lay participation in the affairs of the local church, while freeing the clergy of the very real temptation of treating all donations to the Church as if these formed part of their personal treasury. In his recent statement on the matter, the Manila archbishop, Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, intimated as much. We all know this is easier said than done.  The Catholic Church in the Philippines is embedded in an authoritarian culture that tends to regard members of the clergy as beyond scrutiny. But, attitudes may be changing faster than the Church realizes it. Many things that for a long time were taken for granted as natural are now suddenly seen as improper.

The time may also have come for the mass media to take a second look at practices that have thrived in the blurred boundaries between journalism and public relations work.  Where mass media practitioners straddle these two worlds, they are bound to find themselves mired in unmanageable conflict-of-interest situations. It should be very difficult for any news person to function as a professional journalist while being on a monthly retainer as a PR man for a firm, a politician, or a government office. By the same token, we should ask how long the public could keep faith with radio anchors who sell air time to augment their talent fees.

But here, again, we hope things are moving in the direction of a sharper differentiation of functions. It is perhaps not a coincidence that all these problems are coming to a head in the course of the society-wide self-reflection that has been induced by the Napoles scam. These are growing pains. They reflect our nation’s attempt to grapple with the dizzying complexity of human affairs in the modern world.

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