The Philippines’ Department of Justice cleared four Catholic bishops of all charges of conspiracy to commit sedition, inciting to sedition, cyber libel, libel, estafa (swindling), and obstruction of justice.
The charges stemmed from a viral video accusing Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and his family are allegedly involved in the illegal drug trade.
Cleared of all charges were Bishop Honesto Ongtioco of Cubao, Bishop Pablo Virgilio David of Kalookan, retired prelate Teodoro Bacani Jr., and Archbishop Socrates Villegas of Lingayen-Dagupan.
“Running priest” Robert Reyes and La Salle Brother Armin Luistro were also exonerated.
Government prosecutors ruled that the bishops showed no intention of committing sedition and that the complaints filed by the police’s Criminal Investigation and Detection Group lack evidence.
The filing of charges, however, were recommended for 11 people including two priests: Jesuit Father Albert Alejo and Divine Word Father Flaviano Villanueva.
Father Alejo, the founder of the anti-corruption campaign called “Ehem!,” and Father Villanueva, who manages the Arnold Janssen Kalinga Center that provides food and hygiene care to the poor in Manila, denied the accusations raised against them.
Bishops welcome decision
Bishop David welcomed the decision but expressed hope that the charges against the other accused, including the two priests, will also be dismissed.
“I am both happy and sad about the [Justice Department] resolution,” he said.
“Happy that the criminal charges … filed against me, my brother bishops, and the rest of my fellow respondents … have been dismissed by the panel of prosecutors that did the preliminary investigation,” he said in a statement.
“Sad that the same panel still found probable cause to indict the two priests … and several other individuals of ‘conspiracy to commit sedition,'” added Bishop David.
“I still hope and pray that the charges against them be also dismissed soon by the courts,” he said. He also thanked everyone for all prayers and “moral support.”
Archbishop Socrates Villegas of Lingayen-Dagupan said he is praying for those who have been charged.
“I know the Lord will turn your anxieties into hope. Do not be afraid,” he said, adding that he will continue to pray despite the dismissal of the charges.
“Now that the government officials have seen the falsity of the charges, what can I do but pray as I have always been doing. I pray even more. Prayer is my duty. Prayer is my power. Prayer is my life,” he said.
The prelate said he is also praying for those who “concocted the calumnies and lies” and wished them peace.
Bishop Bacani thanked his lawyers and the panel of prosecutors “for upholding the truth,” while Bishop Ongtioco also expressed gratitude for all the “prayers and support.”
The Justice Department said there were “interlocking pieces of proof” that provide a “complete picture of the grand conspiracy.”
The so-called conspiracy allegedly aims to create “hatred or revenge” against the president and his family “with the end view of toppling and destabilizing the current administration.”
The charges were filed last year against more than 40 people, including the country’s vice president and 35 members of the opposition.
The complaint noted that the accused conspired to spread “false information” against the family of Duterte and administration officials.
It also said they were looking to “agitate the general population into staging mass protests with the possibility of bringing down the president.”
A certain Peter Joemel Advincula claimed on a video and at a media briefing that Duterte’s son, Paolo Duterte, and presidential aide Bong Go were involved in drug syndicates.
He was later presented at a police media briefing where he claimed that the country’s vice president and opposition members and several church people were behind a plot against the president.
Advincula was among those indicted for conspiracy to commit sedition, despite his being the primary witness of the police.
Also charged were former senator Antonio Trillanes, Fathers Alejo and Villanueva, and several other individuals accused of producing the Advincula’s videos.