The Philippine government has dropped charges against four bishops and two priests who were accused of attempting to overthrow President Rodrigo Duterte.
Prosecutors admitted Feb. 10 that there is no evidence linking the six clerics to a plot to attempt to overthrow Duterte, and the Justice Department dropped all charges.
Archbishop Socrates Villegas of Lingayen-Dagupan, Bishop Pablo Virgilo David of Kalookan, Bishop Honesto Ongtioco of Cubao, and Bishop Emeritus Tedoro Bacani of Novaliches, along with Fr. Robert Reyes and Br. Armin Luistro, FSC, were initially charged with inciting sedition, cyber libel, libel, and obstruction of justice in July 2019.
The country’s vice president and 35 members of the opposition party were also charged with the same crimes last summer.
While the charges against the six bishops and priests were dropped, the Justice Department announced that it was charging two additional priests with “conspiracy to commit sedition,” Fr. Albert Alejo, S.J., and Fr. Flavie Villanueva. Nine Catholics lay people were also charged with the same offense.
The bishops, who maintained their innocence since the accusations were made, offered mixed reactions to the news that they had been cleared but others charged.
“Now that the government officials have seen the falsity of the charges, what can we do but pray as I have always been doing. I pray even more,” Archbishop Villegas said in a statement published by the Philippine Bishops’ Conference.
“I pray for those who concocted the calumnies and lies and wish them peace,” he said. “My revenge is forgiveness for my slanderers who relentlessly mock me.”
Villegas said that he was praying for the newly-charged priests, and said that “the Lord will turn your anxieties into hope. Do not be afraid.”
Bishop David said that he was “happy and sad” at the news that the charges against him were dropped, but other charges were filed.
“I still hope and pray that the charges against them be also dismissed soon by the courts,” David told UCA News, a Catholic news website based in Asia.
The dismissal of the charges against the bishops is the end of a series of events that began with a viral video last April. The video, posted by an anonymous man, known only as “Bikoy,” alleged that Duterte’s son, Paolo Duterte, and a high-level presidential aide were involved in the drug trade.
“Bikoy” later identified himself as Peter Advincula, and claimed that the bishops, along with the opposition party, were part of a “shadow group” that aimed to remove Duterte as president. That video led to the charges being filed against the six clerics.
The country’s Catholic bishops have long been vocal in their opposition to Duterte, including his “war on drugs,” which critics have claimed has led to extrajudicial killings. Duterte has been vocal in his dislike of religion, and a consistent critic of the Catholic Church.
Bishop Broderick Pabillo, an auxiliary bishop of the capital city of Manila, was recently named the archdiocese’s apostolic administrator after Cardinal Chito Tagle was appointed by the pope to serve as head of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples in the Vatican.
Pabillo has been a consistent critic of Duterte throughout his presidency.
In June 2018, he accused the Philippine president of blasphemy, after he called God “stupid” and a “son of a b-tch” during a speech. The bishop also publicly condemned the president’s claim that the majority of Philippine priests were homosexual.
Later that month, Duterte said that he was willing to dialogue with the country’s bishops’ conference in an effort to repair relationships, and the president’s spokesperson announced that a committee would be created to better collaborate and communicate with the Catholic hierarchy.
In November 2018, Bishop David urged his flock to pray for Duterte, who he called a “very sick man.” The following month, Duterte said that citizens should “kill and steal” from Catholic bishops, stating that “this stupid bunch serves no purpose--all they do is criticize.”
Pope Francis has also been insulted by Duterte. In 2016, prior to his election as president, he called the pontiff a “son of a wh-re” after a papal visit caused increased traffic in Manila.
Duterte later apologized to the pope in a letter.