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Philippine Clergy Meet to Restore Public Faith in Catholic Church - 2004-07-05

Catholic Church leaders in the Philippines have opened a five-day convocation Monday following a series of scandals and revelations that have shaken public faith in the church. The convocation is the first-ever gathering of the Philippine's Catholic priests and nearly 4,000 are expected to attend.

The Philippines hosts Asia's largest Catholic community and the church has always played a vital role in society and politics.

The assembly opened with a message of hope delivered on behalf of Pope John Paul II. But most of the week will be dedicated to restoring public confidence in the scandal-hit church in the Philippines. First there were reports of Filipino priests abusing children. Then various media and church investigations uncovered priests, who take a vow of celibacy, having sexual affairs, some had families, and still others were caught embezzling parish funds.

Religion Professor Michael Pinches, of the University of Western Australia, says the Church has created more problems for itself when it supported President Gloria Arroyo's reelection campaign.

"There's a view that they [the church] actually antagonized and alienated quite a lot of Catholics who were ordinary people and in as much the church was seen to be aligned with the elite and with Arroyo they were seen to have been disaffected and alienated from the church leadership," added Professor Pinches.

The archbishop of Manila, Gaudencio Rosales, convened this week's meeting and his office says its central theme will be renewing the church through the rededication of its priests to their moral mission.

The conference will end Friday with a mass celebrating a renewed commitment to the Philippine people.

Although the Philippines has a secular government, the Catholic Church has traditionally wielded tremendous influence over domestic politics.

In 1986 the church helped organize a so-called "people power" revolt, which led to the overthrow of Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Church endorsements are considered major advantages in more recent democratic elections.

Both divorce and abortion, banned under the Catholic faith, are outlawed in the Philippines. President Gloria Arroyo - just elected, in her own right, for the first time - has stressed her government's commitment to Catholic law.