MANILA, Philippines—Philippine authorities will question a Roman Catholic priest about ivory smuggling after his collection of ivory religious icons was featured in National Geographic magazine, an investigator said.
Monsignor Cristobal Garcia, who rose to prominence in a Philippine archdiocese despite a US sex abuse case in the 1980s for which he was suspended by the Vatican just this year, is quoted in the October issue of the magazine as describing how to bring ivory figurines into the United States.
National Bureau of Investigation officer Sixto Comia said on Wednesday that authorities are investigating the origin of ivory icons widely used in the predominantly Roman Catholic country. He said Garcia will be questioned but declined to give details.
An international ban on trade in ivory and elephant tusks has been in effect since 1990. But poaching for the black market is rife and endangering elephant populations.
Customs officials have intercepted more than 10,000 kilograms of elephant tusks in two separate smuggling attempts in 2005 and 2009. A security guard in a government agency where part of the 4,000 kilograms from the 2009 shipment was stolen is facing criminal charges, Comia said.
Archbishop Jose Palma, President of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, said Garcia should be given a “fair and just hearing.”
“The church does not condone ivory smuggling or other illegal activities, although in the past, ivory was one of the materials used in the adornment of liturgical worship,” he said.
Garcia, who is based in Talisay city in Cebu province, is reportedly ill and in a hospital.
He was expelled from the Dominican order in 1986 after he allegedly sexually abused an altar boy in Los Angeles. He remains a priest but Palma said Garcia’s “past” case is being investigated by the Vatican.
In the Philippines’ Archdiocese of Cebu, Garcia founded the Society of the Angel of Peace and is chairman of the Archdiocesan Commission on Worship.
Monsignor Achilles Dakay, spokesman for the Cebu Archdiocese, said the Vatican suspended Garcia from his “ministerial duties” in June and removed him as chairman of the Commission on Worship in connection with the sex abuse case in the United States, before the issue of his ivory collection came out. Garcia cannot say Mass or hear confession, he added.
He said it was unclear why the Vatican took action against Garcia only this year. “We would like to know who initiated this in the Vatican level because this was supposed to be closed already,” he told The Associated Press.
Dakay also said the church will cooperate with authorities if they decide to file a case in court against Garcia and the church’s committee on cultural heritage will help in the inventory of his ivory collection to determine which items were obtained after the international ban.
Cebu is where Christianity in the Philippines was founded by Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century and where devotion to the child Jesus is deeply ingrained and celebrated yearly in the feast of Santo Nino.
In the National Geographic article, Garcia was quoted suggesting how an ivory figurine of the child Jesus may be smuggled out of the country.
“Wrap it in old, stinky underwear and pour ketchup on it. … This is how it is done,” Garcia was quoted as saying.
The report also said Garcia suggested that a certificate from the National Museum of the Philippines could be obtained to declare a religious image an antique, or an ivory carver could issue a document saying it was made before the ban.
A fellow priest, the Rev Brian Brigoli, curator of the Cebu Cathedral Museum, said he doesn’t believe Garcia would be involved in illegal trade.
Brigoli said his mentor would not acquire icons with questionable “provenance.”
As a “serious collector” of ivory icons, Garcia “knows a lot about how to smuggle, but he is not the one doing it,” Brigoli said.