Cebu: Bishop who has been fighting cult sees return of flock to church

Cebu Sun-Star/June 24, 2002

After 28 years of "all-out war" against the Philippine Benevolent Missionaries Association (PBMA) and the recent arrest of its supreme master, a decline of the cult and the return of Catholics to the Roman Catholic Church in Dinagat Island are anticipated.

In trying to save the Catholic Church in Surigao del Norte, retired Diocese Bishop Miguel Cinches, SVD, drew the ire of PBMA officials and its members, as well as top local government officials.

PBMA's "healing powers" and its resources enticed Catholics to join the religious cult, to the detriment of the Catholic Church in Surigao.

But not for long, said Cinches, as the arrest of PBMA "supreme master" Ruben Ecleo Jr. will have a negative effect on the group.

"All that has happened will have a very negative effect even on its most persistent members. I believe that PBMA members who were formerly Catholics will eventually come back to us," Cinches told Sun.Star in an interview.

Ecleo is facing charges of parricide, possession of illegal drugs and firearms, murder, frustrated murder, and other complaints that have yet to be filed.

He is the prime suspect in the murder of his wife, Alona Bacolod-Ecleo, last January.

As powerful as the Ecleos may be to their members, Cinches believes the PBMA is nothing but a "religious organization abusing its members and taking advantage of gullible people to make money."

Cinches was bishop of the Diocese of Surigao for 28 years, since 1973 until he retired last year.

"Their presence affected my ministry and the whole church so very much. Imagine hundreds of thousands of people believing that the mayor is their god? And most Catholics in Surigao were moving to PBMA," Cinches said.

For 28 years, the bishop led an all-out campaign against then San Jose, Dinagat Island mayor and PBMA founder and "divine master" Ruben Ecleo Sr. and his whole family.

Never mind if he was accused of having received money from the Ecleos' political foes and of supporting their political party.

"Ruben Sr. used his political influence to launch PBMA. He was a tricky man, I would congratulate him for being so shrewd. The people were really fooled so I openly campaigned against the heretic group," the bishop said.

Cinches recalled writing pastoral letters and making posters at the height of the Ecleos' power in the late 70s, asking the public not to vote for Ruben Sr. when he ran for governor of Surigao del Norte in 1995.

He also remembered excommunicating hundreds of Catholics who joined PBMA, including Ecleo Sr.'s wife, Rep. Glenda Ecleo, who lined up once to receive communion inside his church.

"I refused to give it to her. I told her she couldn't take it until she leaves PBMA. How can I give it to those who do not believe in our God? Just because you are the wife of god?" Cinches recalled telling the congresswoman.

The bishop imposed the same sanctions on other PBMA members, which he said, was equivalent to excommunication. Former Catholics turned PBMA members couldn't take any of the church sacraments.

Burial of PBMA members in Catholic cemeteries was also not allowed.

Although some of them wanted to remain with the Catholic Church and at the same time be members of PBMA, the bishop prohibited it and imposed the sanctions on those who refused to leave the cult.

"That cannot be! I said get out of PBMA because they're all saying nonsense things against the Catholic Church. They were murmuring in Latin but it was all nonsense," he said.

He lamented, though, that early on, a lot of PBMA followers already wanted to go back to the Catholic Church but the cult officials forbade them from doing so.

Cinches said that the members feared for their lives since they were threatened that something tragic would happen to them if they left the cult.

Aside from using the PBMA to get more votes during elections, the Ecleos also allegedly used the cult to raise money.

Known also as the "Singsingan", PBMA members were made to wear rings that were exclusively distributed by the Ecleos.

The cult also collected membership fees and tithes from their members.

While some were plain Ecleo devotees, some members used their membership to avail themselves of the loan programs of PBMA, Cinches said.

"Their purpose is to make money. The rings were sold at P15 to P35 and they were the only ones selling it. At that time in the 70s, P35 was big money already. Ang uban apil lang para makautang," he added.

Membership to PBMA though, was not limited to low-income families, as some professionals, including doctors and lawyers, also joined the sect.

While he harbors some dismay about Congresswoman Ecleo, Cinches said he couldn't solely blame her for not being able to urge her son to surrender to authorities.

He also condemned the massacre of the Bacolod family in Mandaue City last Tuesday, as well as the death of 16 PBMA members in Dinagat.

"Bobong (Ruben Jr.) is hard-headed, bull-headed as can be. It's very hard to corner him, much less ask him to surrender. Imagine, 16 followers died and they still believe that he is god?" he said.

Much as this could be considered a religious conflict, Cinches said this should now be handled as a purely criminal case since it has gotten out of the religious context.

"It has taken a non-religious color. As far as the Catholic Church is concerned, PBMA is a spent force. The effect (of recent events) will be so negative that we are bound to get our own members back," Cinches said.

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