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

MANILA (Reuters) - 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, organised gambling has been linked to organised crime," Villegas said, asking his fellow bishops to vigilantly monitor gambling activities, alert authorities to wrongdoing and educate the faithful against the vice.

(Reporting by Manuel Mogato; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

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