Lifting the veil of the Catholic Church and the Iglesia ni Cristo

In Catholic Churches in the Philippines, the faithful often sit back and listen to what is presented as biblical truth. The Gospel readings often end with the declaration, “This is the word of the Lord."

Because of this, faithful followers dare not question the priests who proclaim the gospel because they are seen as acting in the person of the head of the Catholic Church, Jesus Christ himself.

The Catholic Church in the Philippines counts at least 80,304,061 followers or 80% of the entire Philippine population, according to data from the Philippine Statistics Authority. Also in the millions is the home-grown Iglesia ni Cristo (INC) which has about 2.3 Filipinos followers.

No doubt the faithful listen. They listen when they are taught how life should be lived or which leaders they should vote for.

They listened when Jaime Cardinal Sin, together with those who opposed the Marcos dictatorship, rallied millions to EDSA to put a peaceful end to decades of martial law in 1986. They heeded again, years later, another call to topple yet another leader, Joseph Estrada, who was ousted from the presidency in 2001.

No doubt the Catholic Church and INC are among the country’s most influential institutions. Wielding power from the truth they espouse, these religions are, however, also prone to controversies and abuse.

But more often than not, they are left unchecked because of how they are revered as institutions beyond question. This has not stopped us, however, from checking on reported abuses – even if it means being at the receiving end of hate and threats.

Pushing for transparency, accountability

The late award-winning investigative journalist Aries Rufo set the bar for covering issues involving the Church. In 2013, he published the book "Altar of Secrets” which exposed sexual misconduct, political interference, and financial mismanagement by Catholic bishops and priests – religious who were supposed to be beyond reproach.

These stories included diverted calamity funds and the multi-million peso donations to Radyo Veritas that were unaccounted for.

President Rodrigo Duterte even cited Rufo's book in his tirades against the Catholic clergy, spurred by their criticism of his war on drugs.

When Rufo wrote the book, he said it was driven by the desire to push for more transparency and reforms that the Catholic faithful deserve. It was about lifting "the veil of secrecy" that had wrapped the centuries-old institution. In the dedication of his ground-breaking book, he wrote: "For those who remain steadfast in their faith yet ache for reforms within the Holy Mother Church.”

This is what we try to live by when we practice our journalism. Our obligation first and foremost is to the truth. When we write and report about abuses and corruption, it is with the end in view of helping bring about meaningful change, and trying to correct what is wrong.

Journalism is about asking critical questions and shining the light on issues that matter the most. Through stories, we seek to help fix flaws in institutions, including Churches, that impact on the lives of many. 

It is an obligation journalists have, a commitment that stands steady – even in the face of relentless criticism and attack.

The ‘secretive’ INC

This commitment continues to guide Rappler today as much as it had during our coverage of the controversies surrounding the Iglesia ni Cristo in 2015. (READ: Revolt in the Iglesia ni Cristo)

INC has always been such a secretive Church. At the same time, it has yielded so much political influence mostly because of its bloc voting during elections. It is a system whereby high officials dictate on followers the names to write on ballots.

INC has always carried an air of exclusivity and normalcy in its over a century of existence – until July 2015 when Felix Nathaniel "Angel" and his mother Cristina "Tenny" Villanueva-Manalo appeared in a YouTube video, appealing for help and saying their lives were in danger.

Issues slowly crept out of 36 Tandang Sora, family home of former executive director Eraño Manalo. We reported on allegations of corruption and the extravagant lifestyles of some INC leaders, including the existence of a multi-million-dollar Airbus used by the Church ministers. It was never the same for the INC since then.

But the Church has proven resilient. It attempted a show of force on EDSA, telling the previous Aquino government it had the power to mobilize support. (READ: INSIDE STORY: The end of the Iglesia ni Cristo protest)

We weren't spared. We were attacked relentlessly and accused of being biased. We were targets of calls for a boycott. But we persisted.

We will not go away

KEEPING WATCH. Police wait outside 36 Tandang Sora, the home of the Manalo family. Rappler photo

KEEPING WATCH. Police wait outside 36 Tandang Sora, the home of the Manalo family.

Rappler photo

Rappler is probably one of the few media organizations that still closely follow INC issues.

We were there when expelled church worker Lowell Menorca II first surfaced, when he was arrested, and when he eventually fled the country. We broke the story when he and another expelled INC member started the process of filing refugee applications in Canada. (READ: The long road to safety for ex-INC refugee claimants)

Rappler was there when the family of Angel Manalo claimed they were being harassed, when they refused to let go of their 36 Tandang Sora home even after a long legal battle, when their house was eventually demolished, and when Angel was arrested.

In our coverage, we faced masked men who threatened our reporters if they did not go away. We had to remind ourselves it was a religious Church we were covering. 

Access to Church officials was hindered and obtaining important documents to aid our stories became harder. But ethics and standards of journalism continue to guide our investigations and work.

Even if we face more challenges ahead, we will not stop covering the Catholic Church, Iglesia ni Cristo, and other religious sectors in the Philippines. Their followers, after all, deserve to know the truth about them. – Jodesz Gavilan and Sofia Tomacruz/Rappler.com

Sofia Tomacruz

Sofia Tomacruz covers foreign affairs, the overseas Filipino workers, and elections. She also writes stories on the treatment of women and children. Follow her on Twitter @sofiatomacruz. Email her at sofia.tomacruz@rappler.com.

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Jodesz Gavilan

Jodesz Gavilan is a writer and researcher for Rappler and its investigative arm, Newsbreak. She covers human rights and also hosts the weekly podcast Newsbreak: Beyond the Stories. She joined Rappler in 2014 after obtaining her journalism degree from the University of the Philippines.

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