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Priest embroiled in ivory smuggling controversy

By Madison Park, CNN
September 27, 2012 -- Updated 1031 GMT (1831 HKT)
Confiscated elephant tusks seized in Manila are shown by the Philippine's Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau.
Confiscated elephant tusks seized in Manila are shown by the Philippine's Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A quote in the National Geographic article lands priest in ivory investigation
  • Monsignor Critobal Garcia allegedly gave tips on smuggling ivory
  • Garcia has been removed from his religious duties on a molestation allegation

(CNN) -- A priest known for his collection of religious art is under investigation for possible involvement in the illegal ivory trade, according to a Philippine law enforcement agency.

Monsignor Cristobal Garcia was quoted in the October issue of National Geographic directing a reporter to ivory carvers and traders, and also dispensing advice on how to smuggle the banned item into the United States.

According to the National Geographic article, Garcia told the journalist, Bryan Christy, to wrap ivory in "old, stinky underwear and pour ketchup on it," to disguise it as a soiled piece of clothing to get it through U.S. customs. He was with the Cebu Archdiocese when he allegedly made his remarks to the magazine.

This caught the Philippines authorities' interest.

Garcia was known as "one of the best known ivory collectors in the Philippines," according to National Geographic.

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An investigation concerning Garcia is ongoing, said Sixto Comia, the chief of the environmental and wildlife investigation division of the National Bureau of Investigation. Garcia has not been charged with any crime and his collection has not been confiscated.

Comia said the agency takes illegal trade of ivory seriously.

Elephants, valued for their tusks, are being killed in Africa at an alarming rate by well-armed poachers, according to conservation groups. The highly coveted ivory tusks are often traded in Asia, where there is high demand -- especially in China and Thailand.

National Geographic described Garcia owning a "mini-museum" filled with ivory religious figures.

Garcia was removed from his position in June stemming from a U.S. case in the 1980s, said Monsignor Achilles Dakay, the Cebu archdiocese media liaison officer.

National Geographic's article alluded to a dismissed lawsuit filed against Garcia when he served as priest in Los Angeles in the 1980s for sexual abuse of an altar boy.

The Cebu Archdiocese released a statement Wednesday saying that Garcia's past "has been elevated to the Holy See," the Vatican City government of the Catholic Church.

"The Church is also aware of the gravity of the crime of pederasty. In recent pronouncements, the Church has stated her regret for the failure to address the problem in a more decisive and effective way," according to the Archdiocese statement.

Garcia has since taken ill, Dakay said, and is unable to be reached for comment.

The church's statement, attributed to Cebu Archbishop Jose S. Palma, also condemned the ivory trade, saying, "the Church does not condone ivory smuggling or other illegal activities, although in the past, ivory was one of the materials used in the adornment of liturgical worship."

The church also stated that Garcia has rights to a "fair and just hearing" on the ivory trade allegations.

The church said the National Geographic Magazine story "needs to be assessed as to its veracity, considering that the article smacks of bias against religious practices."

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