MANILA, Philippines – The Catholic Church vowed no cover-up in the case of Monsignor Arnel Lagarejos, the 55-year-old priest from Taytay, Rizal, who was arrested in Marikina City for allegedly "booking" a 13-year-old girl through a pimp.
Antipolo Bishop Francisco de Leon also named retired Archbishop Oscar Cruz, an 83-year-old canon lawyer who has criticized abuses within the Catholic Church, as lead investigator in Lagarejos' case. The church investigation runs parallel to the case handled by state authorities.
In a statement on Tuesday, August 1, the Diocese of Antipolo said that "it will not in any way condone or abet the trafficking of persons, particularly of minors, nor protect the offenders from prosecution, and subsequent trial and punishment when the evidence so warrants."
The diocese said "it condemns in the strongest terms possible the trafficking of persons."
Lagarejos faces a human trafficking case after police caught him in an entrapment operation last Friday evening, July 28, after allegedly having "booked" a 13-year-old girl for sex. He is now in jail.
The Diocese of Antipolo added, "Even as his guilt remains to be proven and the precepts of the Constitution grant him the presumption of innocence, the Diocese has taken every step to hold him answerable for the charges brought against him both before the Republic and before the Church."
Barred from talking to minors
For one, the diocese said Lagarejos "has been relieved of all his pastoral assignments and is forbidden from having contact with all but his lawyer, his brother-priests, and church authorities."
Lagarejos was president of Cainta Catholic College (CCC). He was also parish priest of Saint John the Baptist Parish in Poblacion, Taytay, Rizal.
Police said, however, that Lagarejos initially identified himself to them as "self employed."
The diocese added in its statement Tuesday, "He is particularly forbidden from any communication with minors and from maintaining company with them in any way whatsoever."
For the trafficked minor, the Diocese of Antipolo offered counseling and psychological services "in sincere love, affection, and compassion to the child."
The diocese explained that it has received news of Lagarejos' arrest "with sorrow, with sympathy for the trafficked child and her parents, but also with abiding faith in the God of mercy and compassion."
This is the biggest sex-related scandal to rock the Philippine Catholic Church in recent years. The Catholic Church has often been criticized for covering up for its priests' abuses and for simply transferring offenders from one parish to another.
The case of Lagarejos comes as President Rodrigo Duterte lambasts the Catholic Church for the "hypocrisy" of its abusive priests. Duterte himself claims to have been molested by a Jesuit priest when he was in high school.
Led by 70-year-old Bishop De Leon, the Diocese of Antipolo has acted swiftly on Lagarejos' case.
Less than 24 hours after Lagarejos was arrested, the diocese issued a statement on Saturday, July 29, that it was looking into the priest's arrest.
Cruz's assignment as lead church investigator came on Sunday, July 30.
Fake news spread on social media, however, that Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) president Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop Socrates Villegas has asked the 13-year-old girl's mother to forgive Lagarejos.
Villegas denied this report.
In any case, the Diocese of Antipolo appealed for prayers in its statement Tuesday.
"As the Lord Jesus never gave up on even the most hateful of sinners, we do not give up on the priest concerned – in fact, on no one at all," the Diocese of Antipolo said.
"We shall, as a Diocese, continuously pray for renewal and conversion, for fidelity and for healing, just as we pray earnestly for the child and her family," it added. – Rappler.com
Paterno R. Esmaquel II is a senior reporter leading Rappler’s coverage of religion and foreign affairs. He finished MA Journalism in Ateneo and MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email him at email@example.com.