“Blood Ivory: Ivory Worship” is generating keen interest in the Philippines. The country’s ivory trade has been the cover story of the Philippine newspapers this week and is receiving similar attention across the country, especially on the island of Cebu.
Earlier today Jose S. Palma, Archbishop of Cebu, held a press conference, “Ivory Worship and Msgr. Cris Garcia” (see below), in which he reportedly announced that ivory collector Monsignor Garcia had been suspended and stripped of his position in the archdiocese of Cebu on orders of the Vatican. Palma emphasized that this move was not the result of my investigation, which features Garcia, but rather is the result of Garcia’s sexual abuse of minor boys while serving in Los Angeles, California in the 1980s. The case was exposed by Brooks Egerton of the Dallas Morning News as part of that newspaper’s 2005 series, “Runaway Priests: Hiding in Plain Sight.” My story cited the Dallas Morning News story and reiterated Garcia’s past.
“Let it be made clear that the Church supports the ban on ivory,” Palma says in his written statement for the press today. He then opened the door to an important possibility for elephants and the Africans who risk their lives to protect them: “…in the past ivory was one of the materials used in the adornment of liturgical worship…in no way does [the Church] encourage the use of ivory for new implements.”
Will the Church go a step further and disavow the active carving of ivory for religious purposes and the selling and trading of new images by devotees? Archbishop Emeritus Oscar Cruz does exactly that in an interview today with the Philippine Daily Inquirer. Cruz calls for a stop to the use of elephant tusks for religious images “because it is contrary to the signs of the times.” There are better materials to use, he says.
This is the uplifting possible outcome of uncovering the role of religion in fueling the ivory trade in the Philippines, Thailand, China, and elsewhere: It is a practice contrary to the times, and it is contrary to basic religious principles, including respect for life.
It is worth emphasizing that the “Blood Ivory” story is not intended to paint Cebu as a place where illegal ivory trade is “overflowing” but rather as a place where devotion to the Santo Nino is deep, and where many people maintain religious images, and some have them in the form of ivory. What is legal or illegal depends on the circumstances.
Regrettably Archbishop Palma also says my story “smacks of bias against religious practices.” I spent more than two years working to understand religious practices that influence ivory trade and consumption. On Cebu, this included participating in the 4 a.m. processional walks with Jesus, with Mary, the fluvial procession, the solemn procession, attending numerous masses over two years, and interviewing priests and parishioners. The story celebrates those aspects that are true to religious belief while distinguishing them from behavior that seem to be something else possibly masquerading as devotion. While much is being made of smuggling issues raised in the story, the core of the piece is intended to celebrate the diversity of human cultures, including authentic worship by Catholics and others according to their faith. Yet Ivory Worship also shines a light, appropriately, on the problem of some church leaders condoning ivory trade. In light of the effort I made to tell a story that went beyond mere finger-pointing and which placed veneration of images in historical and cultural context, the archbishop’s criticism of bias seems unwarranted. It would be more in keeping with religious practices I experienced in the Philippines if the archbishop were to note the work the story has done to expose and correct exploitation of children, animals, and civil society in the Philippines and Africa.
The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) have launched investigations into the Philippines’ ivory trade.