Philippine Catholic bishops voice alarm over gambling after $81-million heist

March 29, 2016
Casino dealer trainees practise on a roulette table inside Solaire Casino in Pasay city, Metro Manila, Philippines, March 27, 2015. The Philippines has emerged as one of Asia's hottest gambling hubs after it launched its 120-hectare (1.2 square km) gaming and leisure enclave called Entertainment City in the capital, modelled on the Las Vegas strip. When paying your final respects for a relative or friend, the last thing you might expect to see at the wake is people placing bets on a card game or bingo. Not in the Philippines. Filipinos, like many Asians, love their gambling. But making wagers on games such as "sakla", the local version of Spanish tarot cards, is particularly common at wakes because the family of the deceased gets a share of the winnings to help cover funeral expenses. Authorities have sought to regulate betting but illegal games persist, with men and women, rich and poor, betting on anything from cockfighting to the Basque hard-rubber ball game of jai-alai, basketball to spider races. Many told Reuters photographer Erik De Castro that gambling is only an entertaining diversion in a country where two-fifths of the population live on $2 a day. But he found that some gamble every day. Casino security personnel told of customers begging to be banned from the premises, while a financier who lends gamblers money at high interest described the dozens of vehicles and wads of land titles given as collateral by those hoping lady luck would bring them riches.  REUTERS/Erik De Castro  PICTURE 12 OF 29 FOR WIDER IMAGE STORY "HIGH STAKES IN MANILA". SEARCH "BINGO ERIK" FOR ALL IMAGES. - RTX1HP9C

(Casino dealer trainees practise on a roulette table inside Solaire Casino in Pasay city, Metro Manila, Philippines, March 27, 2015. REUTERS/Erik De Castro)

Catholic bishops in the Philippines expressed alarm on Monday over the spread of government-sanctioned gambling through casinos, after a mid-sized bank was dragged into one of the world’s largest bank heists and a money-laundering scheme.

Gambling has brought “national shame” to the Philippines, which figured prominently in a recent heist of $81 million from the central bank of Bangladesh, said Archbishop Socrates Villegas, head of a grouping of Philippine bishops. “No one pulls off a criminal stunt like this alone,” Villegas, the president of the 91-member Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, said in an Easter message.

“So it is that the dramatis personae in this sad story of loot and theft are many, including cyber-criminals, colluding bank executives, probably even government officials and public servants.”

The bishops are very influential in a country where more than 80 percent of a population of 100 million is Roman Catholic. They lead the fight against all forms of gambling, from casinos to online betting.

A government panel to combat money laundering has filed complaints with the justice department against those suspected of involvement in the heist, including a branch manager of mid-sized bank RCBC who facilitated the money transfers.

“We are alarmed at the seeming lukewarmness on the part of government and civil society at dealing with these forms of high-stakes, high-risk gambling,” Villegas added.

Senators looking into the money laundering and hoping to enact tougher laws against it will continue a congressional hearing on Tuesday, taking testimony from an ethnic Chinese man as they try to trace the stolen funds.

The 53-year-old Kim Wong, a casino resort manager, who got around $21 million of the stolen funds, promised to reveal all he knows about the heist, his lawyer told Reuters last week.

“Large-scale, organized gambling has been linked to organized crime,” Villegas said, asking his fellow bishops to vigilantly monitor gambling activities, alert authorities to wrongdoing and educate the faithful against the vice.

Source: Philippine bishops voice alarm over gambling after $81-million heist | Reuters

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