By Raïssa Robles
Celdran was neither obnoxious or offensive. And Christian Monsod should know — he was there when Carlos Celdran staged his protest before some 20 senior Catholic bishops.
“He looked like Charlie Chaplin to me”, Monsod said laughing, when I asked why he did not find Celdran’s action offensive. Chaplin is a well known American comedian and mime artist in the era of silent movies.
Monsod was one of the two eyewitnesses presented by Celdran’s lawyer Marlon Manuel in the criminal case accusing his client of “offending the religious feelings”. Attorney Manuel found out Monsod was there and asked the former Comelec chairman whether he was willing to testify on what he saw inside the Manila Cathedral that mid-afternoon of September 30, 2010, while seated on the third row just behind the bishops.
I asked Monsod whether he was deeply offended by Celdran’s action. I asked him because he is one of the very few laymen and businessmen who has been physically working closely with bishops for the last 40 years in the Bishops-Businessmen’s Conference (BBBC) where he is currently a co-vice-chair.
I asked him because he is one ex-public officials who did not make money for himself while in office as Commission on Elections chair. It was Monsod who had repaired Comelec’s tattered reputation after the Marcoses fled.
No I was not.
I asked him why.
Well actually, at the beginning even the organizers – when he (Celdran) first appeared – (they) thought he was part of the program.
Unobtrusively, he just walked there in the middle. He didn’t say anything. He just stood there and then he took out this placard. He raised it. He did not say anything.
He (Celdran) showed the placard left side, middle, right side and all that, and the bishops were there. But you know, not a single bishop testified to say he was – that it was a notoriously offensive gesture. Not a single bishop. There must have been 20 bishops there.
In fact, I don’t know if others missed him.
Maybe after two or three minutes, two policemen approached him quietly. Said something to him and he quietly went with them. There was no commotion. No disruption.
The mass was not going on.
I thought it was a little funny because when he came on, he was just like Jose Rizal – well actually, he looked a little also like Charlie Chaplin. And so I thought it was amusing.
And then I saw “Damaso” (written on the placard) and that was the message. Everybody knows about Fr. Damaso in Rizal’s book.
And that was it. And as he was being led out, when he was already on the side, he raised his voice and he said, “Don’t interfere on matters of state or something like that.”
That was it.
No commotion. No disruption.
But did Celdran, at any time, brandish the placard at the bishops inside the Cathedral, I asked Monsod.
No. The bishops were on the first two rows. I was on the third or fourth row.
I kidded Monsod who is also a lawyer that “apparently, the judge did not give much weight to your testimony.”
No,no, but if you read the decision, the judge was saying – as long as there were members of the religion who felt offended, then a crime has been committed.
In other words, there may be 10, 20 people who said they were not offended but the organizers said they were offended and he took that. In other words, he (Judge Bermejo) said as long as there were people who felt offended –
My ano on this – was it a notoriously offending gesture? I don’t think it was.
In fact, he (Celdran) was trying to send a message but he was not obnoxious or anything.
I did not feel offended. In fact I thought it was a little funny.
You know, it was not as if he was deliberately provoking something. You know in the other cases involving this (crime of offending religious feelings), somebody threw something at a priest or somebody was drunk or –-
There was no – I was asking myself, were there Catholics there who were offended? But then the law says ‘notoriously offensive’.
Curious, I asked Monsod: Who asked you in court if you were offended?
Nobody . The lawyer said (to me) is it possible the faithful there were offended? I said it’s possible. But I did not see that. There wasn’t any action on the part of the bishops. They did not stand up. They were just there. And then after that when he (Celdran) left, the ceremonies continued.
By the way, it wasn’t during mass. It was before mass.
And it was interdenominational. Not just Catholic.
The occasion was the Second Anniversary of the “May They Be One Campaign” and the launching of the “Hand Written Bible” – a joint project of Catholics and Protestants to distribute five million bibles in five years. Besides the bishops, the Papal Nuncio, a rabbi, Manila Mayor Alfredo Lim and police and military officers were there.
Four witnesses were presented by the prosecution:
- Teresita Azurin – a long-time Theology teacher
- Marcelina and Angelito Cacal – both employes of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP)
- Catholic priest Oscar Alunday SVD who also works in a unit under the CBCP
I found a curious passage in Fr. Alunday’s testimony. He said Celdran “genuflected before the altar” just before showing the “Damaso” sign to the bishops. Was Celdran’s act of kneeling a way of respecting the Lord or mocking Him?
In his decision, Metropolitan Manila Court Judge Juan Bermejo Jr. described what Father Alunday said:
Not one of the witnesses testified that Celdran shouted before the altar. They said Celdran shouted when he was already far away from the altar, being led away.
Can the Church say it had nothing to with the Celdran case?
The Church said it had long forgiven Celdran and actually decided not to pursue the case. A statement from Peachy Yamsuan, communications chief of the Archdiocese of Manila said”
“The Archdiocese of Manila did not pursue the case against Mr. Carlos Celdran for violation of Article 133 of the Revised Penal Code. While deeply disturbed by the incident, (Cardinal Rosales) gave instructions for the Archdiocese to no longer pursue the case.”
She said it was actually the government, through the prosecutor, who filed the charge against Celdran for “offending religious feelings.”
I asked University of the Philippines law professor Carmelo Sison whether the Church could wash its hands and say it had nothing to do with the case. Professor Sison used to teach Constitutional Law for a long time and was part of the Criminal Law Reform Project. He told me the Church statement was correct. Once a complaint is filed with the fiscal or prosecutor, it is out of the complainant’s hands:
It is up to the prosecutor to determine whether there is probable case to warrant the filing of information. Probable cause is based on a finding, on testimony, on evidence. If no witness appears, what other evidence does he have for finding probable cause?
If he finds probable cause, he files the information. Then a warrant of arrest is issued.
I asked Sison at what point a complainant could withdraw his complaint so that there would be no case at all. Sison explained:
This can be done before the finding of probable cause. Puwedeng mag affidavit of desistance. Pero kaso criminal case ito. Bawal yon. You can’t compromise a criminal case. Ang nangyayari lang, pag hearing of probable cause, the witness does not appear. That is what happens to criminal cases here. But you really can’t compromise a criminal case.
I pointed out to him that in Celdran’s case, the complainant was the rector of Manila Cathedral. Doesn’t that make the Church the complainant?
They (the Church) consider the priest as just a witness, not a representative of the Church.
I asked Prof. Sison whether he thought the crime of “offending the religious feelings” was unconstitutional.
He said it would be up to the Supreme Court to decide this:
The state has the power to make it a crime as against the right of a person to invoke his freedom of speech. The SC will balance this. If it finds out the interest of the individual is higher than the power of the state to keep public order to make it a crime, then it will consider the statute unconstitutional.
To my mind, the issue is simple. People get killed over religious beliefs. Will offending religious beliefs lead to disorder? I think it will. In Islamic countries this has led to burning and looting. I say it’s the exercise of the state to promote public order. They balance that usually with the Bill of Rights.
He also said President Benigno Aquino III can give Celdran a presidential pardon, but only after his conviction is final.
How I feel as a Catholic
Some commenters on my site as well as those on Twitter and Facebook share the sentiments of @Joey who said:
try doing that in a Muslim religious gathering and see where it will lead you — downunder the ground coz you’d be killed for sure, not jailed!
First of all, Celdran was a Catholic staging a protest inside a Catholic Church against Catholic clerics. Celdran would be stupid to do that inside a mosque because there is no logical reason for him to do it. His message – for bishops to stop meddling in politics – would be lost there.
I believe Celdran knowingly crossed the line when he staged his one-man lightning rally inside the Manila Cathedral.
His message would have been muted had he done it outside the Cathedral.
I was shocked when I heard he had done such a thing. But I was not deeply offended because Celdran was delivering a political statement to senior clerics who had become quite political – who had also crossed the line separating the Church from the State during the previous administration.
Celdran is an artist at heart. An artist has to rebel and break the boundaries of our sensibilities to make us think about the issues he is confronting us with.
With Celdran, however, the ego also seems to stand in the way.
I believe Celdran should be monetarily fined for what he did, made to do community service, made to clean latrines, made to say 30 novenas. But a jail term is too harsh a punishment and a mismatch to the crime.
Judge Bermejo’s curious background
In closing, I would like to share with you a Supreme Court case that Alan found. It showed that in 2004, Judge Bermejo was judged guilty by the Supreme Court of violating specific parts of the Code of Judicial Conduct — he grossly delayed a case and tried to cover up proof that the accused had received his order of judgment. The court said:
ACCORDINGLY, the Court finds respondent Judge Juan O. Bermejo, Jr., of Branch 3 of the Metropolitan Trial Court of Manila guilty of delay in the rendition of judgment in violation of Rules 1.02 and 3.05 of the Code of Judicial Conduct for which he is fined the amount of P5,000.00. Respondent Judge is also declared guilty of impropriety in violation of Canon 2 of said Code and is fined the amount of P10,000.00.
It appears that Judge Bermejo had issued a judgment against a defendant but kept delaying and delaying the execution of judgment, prompting the complainant Dr. Conrado T. Montemayor to filed an administrative case against him. You can read all about the case here.
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I’d like to thank law professor Oscar Franklin Tan for uploading the actual eight-page decision of of Metropolitan Court Judge Juan Bermejo Jr. on the website sharing-platform SCRIBD. For easier reading, I have re-uploaded the document on Slideshare.