Police officers in the Philippines wishing to expose the full extent of the government’s anti-drug killing spree have approached the Church for protection, according to the outgoing president of the country’s bishops’ conference.
“Law enforcers have come forward confidentially to us, their spiritual leaders, to seek sanctuary, succor and protection,” said Archbishop Socrates Villegas of Lingayen-Dagupan.
“They have expressed their desire to come out in the open about their participation in extrajudicial killings and summary executions. Their consciences are troubling them,” he said in a statement released on Monday.
Since he took office in June last year, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has ordered law enforcement to eliminate what he calls the country’s “drug problem,” and said he would turn a blind eye to officers who kill drug offenders and users. Before being elected, Duterte ran on a campaign to clean up crime and encouraged the public to take matters into their own hands if they saw any wrongdoing. Rights groups say more than 7,000 people have been killed since then. Local news outlets place the death toll at between 10,000 and 13,000.
The nation’s bishops have been leading the opposition to the policy, but Duterte has ignored them, and even said to his followers, “I will go to hell. Join me!”
In August, Villegas pledged to ring the church bells in his archdiocese every evening for three months – until November 27 – to protest the extrajudicial killings and other abuses which have become common under Duterte.
Now that members of the security forces have approached him seeking protection, the archbishop said Church officials would examine the veracity of their stories, and expressed his willingness to grant them and their families “accommodation, shelter, and protection.”
Villegas called on clergy and religious “to open their hearts and their rectories, the convents of religious communities and seminaries as well as other secure buildings” to house and protect those who wish to speak publicly about the abuses they have seen.
“If such law-enforcers wish to testify, then the Catholic Church will see to it that they are in no way induced to speak, to disclose nor to make allegations by any member of the clergy or the hierarchy,” the archbishop said. “Statements, especially in the form of affidavits and depositions, must be made with the assistance of competent independent counsel. If their preference is to stay with us in the Church, they will not be turned over to the State under its own witness-protection program.”
He said any clergy or religious offering such sanctuary are to refrain from discussing the contents of any testimony or depositions the security personnel might be preparing, and emphasized that lay lawyers are to assist them, and no member of the clergy is to be involved in the process.
However, Villegas said the “Ministry of Mercy” is to be offered, and the security officers should make use of pastoral counseling and values formation.
Duterte’s popularity has remained high, but the August 17 killing of Kian Loyd Delos Santos just north of Manila sparked public outrage and continuous protests that have been encouraged and heavily attended by clergy and religious. The 17-year old high school student was seen on closed-circuit video being dragged away by alleged plainclothes officers; his body was later found with bullet holes in the head.
In May, Duterte placed the predominantly-Muslim southern third of the nation under martial law to deal with a siege by pro-Islamic State group militants in the city of Marawi.
In recent weeks, the president has threatened to extend martial law to the entire country if protests against his rule continue.