MEXICO CITY -- When a Mexican bishop declared that drug traffickers often donate to the church, shock waves ran through this predominantly Roman Catholic nation -- not because the news was a surprise, but because admitting it was tantamount to confessing that nothing, not even God, is sacred when it comes to organized crime in Mexico.
Provoking the uproar were Bishop Ramon Godinez's comments to reporters that donations from drug traffickers are not unusual and it's not the church's responsibility to investigate. He argued that the money is ''purified" once it passes through parish doors.
''Just because the origin of the money is bad doesn't mean you have to burn it," Godinez, of the central state of Aguascalientes, said last month. ''Instead, you have to transform it. . . . We live on this, on the offerings of the faithful."
Organized crime, especially drug trafficking, and the threat it poses to public safety are among Mexicans' highest concerns. And it's not just the criminals they worry about. They also distrust the public agencies responsible for tackling crime -- prosecutors, police, the judicial system, politicians -- all of which are perceived to be corrupt to some degree.
The church, on the other hand, is still held in high esteem.
''Of all the institutions in Mexico, the church is ranked No. 1 in terms of people's confidence," said Roderic Ai Camp, a specialist on Mexican religion at Claremont-McKenna College in California. It is ''the one institution they find morally superior and basically honest and serving the interests of the average Mexican."
That trust holds steady even though it is common knowledge that ''many towns and chapels in Mexico have been remodeled and restored thanks to the generous contributions of people who work in drug trafficking," Mexican religion specialist Roberto Blancarte wrote in the Milenio newspaper.
Especially in poor, outlying rural areas, drug traffickers have taken on a kind of ''Robin Hood" role, Blancarte said.
''It's not official, but it's probably fairly accepted," Camp added. ''You don't want to legitimize it . . . because it's such a contradiction to the church's whole philosophy. People are looking to the church for moral leadership."
The Vatican had no comment on the matter yesterday. But a Vatican official noted that the church has general principles based on the Bible which would prevent it from receiving the ''fruit of an injustice."
Godinez's admission has drawn into controversy one of Mexico's most prominent, revered -- and criticized -- institutions.
For more than 300 years after the Spanish conquest of 1521, the Catholic Church was at the heart of Mexican power socially, politically, and economically. Although the mid-19th century Laws of the Reform put an end to that dominance, the country has remained -- at least nominally -- 90 percent Catholic.
''There are many . . . who want to scare us with the idea" that the church once again could become an all-powerful presence, said Jaime Septien Crespo, editor of the Catholic weekly newspaper Observador in the central state of Queretaro. ''There is an interest in discrediting this presence, so when a minister of the church says something clumsy, he becomes an easy target."
As next year's presidential election race heats up, the scandal has been exaggerated by political parties ''looking to destroy potential alliances, in this case an alliance of the National Action Party and the church," Crespo said, referring to the alleged links between President Vicente Fox's conservative party and the clergy.
The church has been accused in the past of links to drug traffickers, but the allegations have never been proven. Camp say that while there are ''numerous examples of drug traffickers donating money to the local parish . . . I don't think there has ever been any known case of collusion between any high-level Mexican religious officials and drug traffickers."
The Mexican council of bishops issued a statement recently saying that whenever large donations are received, they are investigated and rejected if found to come from criminals. Godinez and other clergy argue that while they don't knowingly accept tainted money, they can't rule out that some of the numerous anonymous donations they receive come from drug traffickers.
That's not good enough, Blancarte says. ''They should have a policy to monitor scrupulously that bad money doesn't make it into the institution," he wrote. ''But that would mean that some of the money would stop arriving . . . and it's not clear this is something they would want."
Although the church often finds itself at the center of controversy, it usually emerges unscathed. Precisely because of its ambiguous role in Mexico -- forbidden legally from participating in politics and government, but tacitly allowed to -- it escapes accountability, said Luis Alberto de la Garza, a religion specialist at Mexico's National Autonomous University.
''There is no instance in which the citizen can make the church take responsibility for its actions, so they always emerge as if nothing had happened," he said. ''They are like judges, above all suspicion."