Once there was a Radio Veritas Priest Part II
By Carlo Osi
Posted date: February 27, 2008
PHILADELPHIA, USA – From his brief two years at the University of Philippines, his near expulsion from the seminary, his efforts to empower the youth as a parish priest, his rise as a cleric-broadcaster of the eminent radio station, Fr. Efren Dato had been a consistent activist and reformer.
Still a priest after the martyrdom of Ninoy Aquino he was ready to give up his pastoral priesthood and Radio Veritas duties for the communist revolution in the ‘80s. EDSA I made him abandon all thoughts of violent revolution.
In a Philippine Panorama interview in March 9, 1986, Fr. Dato was quoted as saying in a TV appeal that historic February: “The real glory of the people’s revolution lay in the magnanimity of the victors.” Great words from a priest at the forefront of a peaceful revolt, but they would soon be challenged by insistent allegations of corruption in the new government.
He felt betrayed that although Cory Aquino may not have been directly involved in anomalies, the people surrounding her certainly were. It seemed a mere duplication of the Marcos dictatorship, if with more subtlety and less ostentatious greed
Something was obviously wrong in the new government, but there was something equally wrong with the people themselves. Now that previously oppressed members of the opposition were the new oppressors, the subject of oppression had not changed: the Filipino people allowing themselves to be let down. Dato recalls the stinging pain he felt that “the people and the leaders became selfish again. Only if we can have individuals who can graciously sacrifice for the service of the people can real change happen, including change in the Church.”
Though frustrated, his life was not static. Fr. Dato was NBI chaplain and a frequent lecturer at the National Defense College and other government agencies. He was also a parish priest in Pulilan, Bulacan, where he offered free baptism and wedding services, instituted public accounting of funds and empowered lay people to get involved in parish administration.
This priest began turning another corner in November 1991. Resigning from the Pulilan parish, he left for Manila to continue with his full time media ministry and political activities. Eventually he found himself actively campaigning for then candidate Fidel Ramos. When Ramos won, he appointed Fr. Dato Presidential Chaplain and Consultant on Interfaith Issues.
Despite these multifarious activities and appointments, however, a void was growing in his life. He wasn’t sure whether he was spoiling for a fresh challenge or really longing to have a family of his own in mid-life crisis. He also felt that despite a newly elected and credible president, the government and the people were being sucked into the same corrupt black hole that the Marcos years had been.
Fr. Dato suddenly left for the United States in December 1992 the way he abruptly left the UP to enter the seminary in 1969. He was hoping to find a resolution in distant America.
Longing for a Family of his Own
He was assigned Associate Pastor at the St. Thomas More parish in New York. Later, he would also be assigned to St. Raymond Parish in East Rockaway and St. John Nepomucene in Bohemia, both in New York.
A country with an already established democratic system did not have much use for his radicalism so Fr. Dato immersed himself in organizing the parish and outlying communities into a healthy congregation.
Older and calmer now, he also pursued further studies –
a Master of Science in Training & Human Resource Management at the University of Leicester in England, 12 credits in Pastoral Planning & Research in New York’s Fordham University, and the Leadership Education Program in Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.
His impact on the community in his first few years in the United States was summed up by a U.S. Assistant Deputy Commissioner who described Fr. Efren Dato as “a warm, charismatic and respected clergyman, a scholar and human being of rare and special merit.”
But Fr. Efren Dato still wanted a family of his own when friends introduced him to a beautiful Filipina, a recent immigrant working in Information Technology. When they were wed in a civil ceremony in June 1996, many of his former New York parishioners felt betrayed and angered. Thinking he had only fallen victim to the temptations of sex and other material concerns, family and friends shared his parishioners’ antipathy against his decision.
The former priest reflected, “Celibacy is a hallmark institution of the Catholic Church. If you cannot adhere to it anymore, it’s time to get out of the Church and live as a layman. That’s what I did, that’s what I honestly felt. Staying a priest while engaging in extra-marital and illicit sex would have been a grave sin no priest could or may ever be forgiven for.
“I left the priesthood because I respected the gift of celibacy, a vow I could no longer uphold. I respected the Church so much that if I cannot commit anymore to even just one of the priestly vows then I have to terminate my role as a priest. It wasn’t because of a woman or the irresponsible idea that women are temptresses. It’s nothing like that. It was about making a rational choice. Do I want to have a family of my own or not? I chose to have a family.”
Efren Dato’s decision can be contrasted with that of another former priest, the Fil-American Rodney Rodis, recently sentenced by a U.S. District Judge to 63 months in prison for stealing more than $600,000 in donations from the St. Jude Church and Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Louisa County, Richmond, Virginia.
He had used the stolen money in part to support his secret family – a wife and three children. He also used some of the money to wire to relatives overseas who used it to buy real estate.
“Why steal? Why raise a family without telling the Church? Why disobey the vow of celibacy without ending his vocation as a priest? I feel vindicated with my decision in 1996. Now people can say I made the right choice. Better a married layman than a priest with a secret family,” says Efren Dato, ex-priest.
Candidacy for Sheriff
He had entered the priesthood to fulfill his mother’s dying wish in 1968. But his first love was Political Science and he had dreamt of going on to the prestigious UP College of Law and then becoming an NBI Agent.
The call of the priesthood seemed to have snuffed out those dreams. After marriage in 1996, however, Efren Dato felt the urge to return to his boyhood dreams. Too old to re-enroll in Political Science or enter law school, he set his heart on becoming an elected U.S. official, specifically a County Sheriff, in 2004.
The popular image of a Sheriff in old Western movies is a gun-toting, booted, silver badge-flashing officer in a cowboy hat. In modern-day New Jersey, the Sheriff is not an actual police officer but a formal authority in charge of protecting the courts, implementing warrants of arrest, managing jails and, if need be, patrolling the streets and arresting criminals.
The Sheriff position was consistent with Efren Dato’s youthful NBI Agent dream, a “dating paring gustong magpulis-pulisan” (a former priest wanting to play cop).
How he managed to become the Democratic Party candidate for Sheriff in 2004 after becoming a U.S. citizen only in 2001 was a feat in itself. Campaigning on the slogan “New Leadership for New Challenges,” he emphasized that much had changed after 9/11 and society must respond appropriately to these changes.
He cited his past leadership roles and counter-terrorism experience. He banked on his experience as NBI Chaplain, education in Harvard and England, training in Community Policing at the Somerset Police Academy and District Chaplaincy of the Franklin Township Fire District 3.
Nor did Efren Dato rely merely on the Asian vote; many Caucasians and African-Americans voted for him as well. At certain points in the campaign, he also told voters of his former vocation as a Catholic priest, his being a man of God and a man of the people.
At that stage of his uniquely evolving life, Dato’s love for educating and organizing people had not waned. It may have in fact gotten stronger with transplanting to a contrasting environment.
He lost the election but not without a good fight. Contending with a Caucasian and an Italian-American ex-policeman candidate, a Filipino ex-priest, who was also the first minority to contest the position, came in an astounding second to the Italian-American winner, who was both the incumbent and a policeman for 30 years.
Despite electoral loss, Efren Dato had established a strong Filipino presence in New Jersey township society. Belonging to a minority was never a disadvantage; he brandished it like a sword. He also remained a politician in his New Jersey township of Franklin. Now he’s Third Vice-Chairman of its Democratic Party and an ardent supporter of presidential hopeful Barack Obama.
Leadership, Family and Friends
Efren Dato has been Deputy Director of the Office Economic Development in his township and presently manages his own consultancy while serving as Executive Director of Hamilton Street Business & Community Corporation. He is involved in economic development, program planning, budget development, public relations, training and marketing. He also helped establish the Minority Business Alliance and is a Commissioner of the Franklin Township Sewerage Authority.
He says he has no regrets whatsoever in his life. It does not matter to him that he needed to uproot himself from the Philippines to get a balance on things. “I am very content with how my life has evolved … so far,” he says with a chuckle. “I’m proud of my family, especially my daughter who is a blessing from God as she was at one point clinically dead for 20 minutes, spent a month at ICU, and still needs constant medication.
“I’m happy as well with my current accomplishments in the United States, particularly in Somerset County. I’ve done a lot of work, made the Filipino-American and Asian communities proud, and have even run for an elective position which I almost won – well, nearly.”
Four years ago, he was given an Achievement Award by the group Pakistanis for America for assisting them in their concerns. He was also the recipient of a U.S. Census 2000 Award, elected President of the UP Alumni Association of New Jersey, and has been appointed or elected in many other organizations.
Looking back at EDSA I, he says, “Certainly it would have been better if the role I played as an instrument of God himself was accorded better attention, not because I wanted more publicity or awards for myself but because I was doing it in the spirit of humanity and the common good. In the EDSA book of Fr. Reuter, the emphasis was on a lot of personalities – the important ones and also the people who just suddenly showed up at the end. There was a mere one-liner on me.”
He was cited by the Armed Forces of the Philippines with an Outstanding Civilian Award and given a Special Award for Press Freedom by the Rotary Club of Manila in 1986. But he was never considered for an award by the Edsa People Power Commission.
Efren Dato is relatively unknown as a crucial participant in EDSA I today, but old friends, among them his fellow progressive priests, remember. Former President Fidel Ramos, Supreme Court Justice Leonardo Quisumbing, Manila Mayor Alfredo Lim, ex-DOJ Secretary Silvestre Bello and Representative Neneng Nicolas were also principal sponsors of his church wedding in the Philippines December 2007. That wedding was canonically facilitated with the timely arrival of Pope Benedict XVI’s Dispensation that formally allowed a former priest to marry in church. He has long dropped the title “Father” but you can also still see a parish priest in Efren Dato’s face and hear the Radio Veritas broadcaster in his voice.
27 febbraio 2008
Da Radio Veritas alla stella di sceriffo, Efren-2
Ecco la seconda parte, dall'Inquirer delle Filippine, della biografia di Efren Dato, pacifico rivoluzionario di Radio Veritas. Carlo Osi racconta che Efren ha gettato la tonaca, ha messo su famiglia adottando una figlia ed è diventato cittadino americano candidandosi poi all'ufficio di sceriffo di contea.