Philippine Catholic bishops say they are not out to undermine the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte by offering sanctuary to several policemen allegedly linked to drug-related killings. Father Jerome Secillano, executive secretary of the public affairs office of the bishops' conference, said the church leaders should not be perceived as plotting against anyone. "The church is not one to take steps to destabilize the institution [government] or to undermine the president," said the priest in an interview. He said some law enforcers sought the help and protection of the church to reveal what they know about drug-related killings. Close to 12,000 suspected drug users and dealers, mostly from urban poor communities, have been killed since the middle of 2012 following Duterte's declaration of an intensified war against narcotics. Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre accused church leaders of hiding witnesses, hampering the investigations of recent killings, particularly that of three teenagers in the Manila suburb of Caloocan. Aguirre said church leaders have been trying to obstruct investigations by withholding witnesses. "Why are you intervening? ... Aren’t we all in favor of eliminating police scalawags who kill teenagers who are helpless?" he said. National police chief Ronald dela Rosa also urged the bishops to present the law enforcers who reportedly have information about the killings. "If it’s true, then present these people. There is no problem," said Dela Rosa. "We are talking about testimonies," he said. The police chief said he would not stop policemen seeking the help of bishops, but warned of "sanctions" if they go absent from their duties. Senators who are investigating the killings have also offered protection to the police officers. Senator Panfilo Lacson, chairman of the Senate committee on public order and safety, appealed to the bishops to allow the policemen to testify in the investigation. "[The bishops] can bring them to us and we will not shy away from our mandated task to conduct the investigation," said the senator. He said the police officers should issue sworn statements to back up their stories.
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Senator Grace Poe, vice chairwoman of the Senate panel, lauded the church for "opening its arms wide to provide sanctuary" to witnesses. Archbishop Socrates Villegas of Lingayen-Dagupan, president of the bishops' conference, earlier announced that policemen wanting to reveal information about the drug war have sought protection from the church. "They have expressed their desire to come out in the open about their participation in extrajudicial killings and summary executions," the prelate said in a statement on Oct. 2. The archbishop declined to say how many policemen were prepared to come forward, or if they included two policemen who earlier testified before a Senate hearing. He said convents and seminaries in his archdiocese could serve as places of refuge for witnesses and their families after an assessment of the accuracy of their testimonies. Father Secillano, however, said law enforcers should follow a "process" before they are placed under the church's protection. "The initial step is the church will listen to them. They won't be rejected right away. The determination of the truthfulness of what they are saying comes next," said the priest.