MANILA - Malacañang on Wednesday assured that justice will be served for three Catholic priests slain in recent months, as a group of priests led by an influential archbishop slammed President Duterte’s “verbal persecution” of the church which they said has emboldened the killers.
Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque said the police have launched investigations into the killings of Fr. Mark Ventura, Fr. Tito Paez and Fr. Richmond Nilo. Authorities will work closely with the Church in solving the cases and ensuring the safety of the members of the clergy, he added.
“The President himself has ordered an intensified campaign against criminality to further expand the significant strides we made in the peace and order situation in the country, as acknowledged by various reports,” Roque said in a statement.
The spokesman asked for unity among Filipinos amid the spate of crimes against priests, as “lawless elements will seek to block our efforts by sowing division and creating animosity.”
Roque issued the statement after the priests of the Archdiocese of Lingayen Dagupan, headed by Archbishop Socrates Villegas, slammed the recent killings of Fr. Nilo and asked the public if this is the “change” they were seeking from the current administration.
"They are killing our flock. They are killing us the shepherds. They are killing our faith. They are cursing our Church. They are killing God again as they did in Calvary," the priests said.
“Let us implore the grace of God to touch the heart of the President of the Philippines to stop the verbal persecution of the Catholic Church because such attacks can unwittingly embolden more crimes against priests.”
Roque had earlier denied that Duterte’s tirades against the Catholic Church are linked to the killings.
“I don’t think there is any empirical basis for that ‘no. Ang masasabi ko lang po itong kultura ng impunity ay naririyan na po bago pa pumasok ang ating Presidente,” he said in a briefing last June 11.
(I don’t there is any empirical basis to that. There has been a culture of impunity in the country even before the President assumed power.)
Fr. Nilo was about to begin Mass in a church in Zaragoza on Sunday night when unidentified gunmen shot him dead.
He was the third Catholic priest to be killed in a span of six months.
In December 2017, Rev. Fr. Marcelito Paez was also gunned down by unidentified assailants after assisting the release of a political prisoner in the town of Jaen, Nueva Ecija.
In April 2018, Rev. Fr. Mark Anthony Ventura was also shot dead by an unidentified gunman after celebrating Mass in Gattaran, Cagayan.
Meanwhile, Fr. Rey Urmenta, a former PNP chaplain, survived an ambush in Calamba, Laguna last week.
The recent attacks against priests have prompted proposals to arm the clergy, but no less than the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines opposed the idea.