Four former altar boys asked the Catholic Church in central Philippines to dismiss a priest whom they accuse of sexual molestation in 2000, adding that they will take the case to the lower court if no action is taken this year.

In a letter to Cebu Archbishop, Cardinal Ricardo Vidal, dated July 17, the accusers, now in their 20s, asked the Augustinian Order "to remove Father Apolinario Mejorada from any and all pastoral duties that involve contact in any manner with children until such time as he is certified to have been rehabilitated".

They also asked the accused and the Order of Saint Augustine, which was established in the 16th century, "to make a formal apology to each of us".

One of them, Christian "Dong" Bejedia, 21, told Gulf News in a phone interview that he was 16 when Mejorada, now 50, molested him, when he was an altar boy at the Basilica Minore del Santo Nino in Cebu City, from 1997 to 2000.

The same priest allegedly sexually abused three other altar boys, separately on different occasions from 1995 to 2000. They are Jun Duhaylungsod, Cerrone Dayo, and Michal Gathchalian. They were signatories to the letter sent to Cardinal Vidal.

Three of them were given $2,400 (P 120,000) each, or a total of $ 7,200(P 360,000), to keep silent when they brought the scandal to the attention of the local church hierarchy in 2000. One of them was in the U.S. when the amicable settlement was made.

"Father Mejorada paid us money to seek our silence. But the harm in body, mind, and soul that Father Mejorada brought to us can never be equated in monetary terms," said the victims. "Each of us went through very difficult periods in our lives from which we have not yet fully recovered."

"We are willing to face the world to tell the truth, no matter how shameful and humiliating it would be for each of us, if that should prove the only way we can stop the abuse of other young boys (in the church)," the victims noted.

The brother of the accused, Father Mario Mejorada, who also belongs to the same order, confirmed the payment to silence the accusers. The accused priest was sent recntly to a rehabilitation centre run by Philippine bishops in Lipa, Batangas, southern Luzon, 150 km south of Manila.

The Saint Augustine Church refused to comment on the latest scandal.