Calling a spade
Business World, 6 February 2013


Two issues stand out with regard to the recent Celdran conviction in the Manila Cathedral incident that merit analysis and discussion. One is the poor quality of the decision made by Metropolitan Trial Court Judge Juan O. Bermejo, as Pairing Judge (more about this later); and the other is the seemingly Pontius Pilate-like (dissociation from any responsibility in the decision) stance of the Manila Archdiocese. This column discusses the former. But before that, I must state, in the interests of full disclosure, that my husband, Christian S. Monsod, was a witness for the defense, having been present at the Manila Cathedral during the occasion, and testified that he did not find Celdran’s actions offensive to his religious feelings. Furthermore, for all it is worth, I am a Catholic by choice, not by birth, and while I have been one for over 50 years, there are those in whose eyes I am a mere child in the faith, and should be more seen than heard.

Now for the decision. Carlos Celdran was charged with and found guilty of violating Article 133 of the Revised Penal Code: “Offending the religious feelings. — The penalty of arresto mayor in its maximum period to prision correccional in its minimum period shall be imposed upon anyone who, in a place devoted to religious worship or during the celebration of any religious ceremony shall perform acts notoriously offensive to the feelings of the faithful.” Art. 133 is one of two articles in the penal code (the other is Art. 132 on interruption of religious worship) dealing with “Crimes against religious worship.”

What exactly did Celdran do? Just to remind: during an ecumenical service/program (NOT during mass) at the Manila Cathedral commemorating the second anniversary of an ecumenical campaign to distribute five million Bibles in five years, he walked to the middle aisle of the church (from the side), genuflected before the main altar, and then raised a cardboard placard with the word DAMASO written on it in five-inch-high letters, rotating slowly for all to see. All in absolute silence. He was then approached by security guards of the Church, who led him (peacefully) away from the main aisle to the side of the Church, whereupon he broke his silence and shouted “Don’t meddle in politics” (or words to that effect) before he was hustled out.

Do Celdran’s actions fall under Article 133, as Judge Bermejo claims they did?

According to Justice Jose P. Laurel (he wrote the dissenting opinion in the SC 1939 case cited by Bermejo), two essential elements must be present under this article: (1) That the facts complained of were performed in a place devoted to religious worship or during the celebration of any religious ceremony; AND (2) that the said act or acts must be notoriously offensive to the feelings of the faithful.” (emphasis mine).

Celdran’s acts certainly satisfy the first element (being in a place devoted to religious worship). Do they satisfy the second essential element, i.e., they are notoriously offensive to the feelings of the faithful?

Well, now we’ve got to find out what “notoriously offensive” means. And this is provided in the 1939 SC decision itself (ponente J. Concepcion): “Justice Albert, commenting on the article, has this to say: ‘An act is said to be notoriously offensive to the religious feelings of the faithful when a person ridicules or makes light of anything constituting a religious dogma; works or scoffs at anything devoted to religious ceremonies; plays with or damages or destroys any object of veneration by the faithful.’ “Bermejo decision, quoting from The Revised Penal Code by Luis B. Reyes, reiterates the definition.

Did Celdran’s actions fall under any of the three instances mentioned above? Let’s take them one by one.

Did Celdran ridicule or make light of anything constituting a religious dogma (dogma is defined as a religious doctrine or system of doctrines proclaimed by ecclesiastical authority as true)? The answer has to be in the negative.

Did Celdran work or scoff at anything devoted to religious ceremonies? Again, the answer is no.

Did Celdran play with or damage or destroy any object of veneration by the faithful? The answer is still no.

As related in Bermejo’s decision, Celdran’s actions were at first thought (by both prosecution and defense witnesses, mind you) to be part of the program — there was nothing that gave rise to shock or awe, or offense, or even a general murmur of disapproval from the audience. My husband found it amusing.

So, if Celdran’s actions cannot be described as falling under the definition of “notoriously offensive” to the religious feelings of the faithful, how did Bermejo still manage to find him guilty beyond reasonable doubt anyway? Simple. He ignores the definition completely, and merely “submits” that the act of displaying the placard with the word DAMASO while an ecumenical service was going on was “offensive to the feelings of the faithful.” Period. No justification, no further reference to the definition of “notoriously offensive.” He just blithely uses “offensive” and “notoriously offensive” interchangeably.

And when is an act offensive? Since this happened in a Catholic Church, then it must be judged according to the feelings of Catholics themselves, says Bermejo, again quoting from the 1939 SC decision. Which Catholics’ feelings did Bermejo consider? Certainly not those of the two defense witnesses, but those of the four prosecution witnesses.

Three of the four, by the way were the Executive Secretary (a priest) and two staff members of the program organizers, the Episcopal Commission for the Biblical Apostolate (ECBA) of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, while the fourth was a friend of one of them.

According to Bermejo, “The testimonies of the prosecution witnesses here were delivered in a spontaneous, natural and straightforward manner. The truth of said testimonies conform to common knowledge, observation and experience of mankind.”

That would be fine, except for the fact that Bermejo was not presiding when the four witnesses testified. The term “Pairing Judge” after his signature on the decision means that he replaced the original judge (who had been promoted). In fact, Bermejo actually presided only over one hearing — the last of over 20 hearings in a trial that lasted for more than two years. And in that last hearing, the (only) witness he heard was Christian Monsod, who he obviously did not find to be credible, or at the very least as credible as the four prosecution witnesses whose testimonies he did not hear.

In sum: in order to be able to find Celdran guilty beyond reasonable doubt of violating Article 133 of the Revised Penal Code, Bermejo took liberties with the definition of “notoriously offensive” acts in particular, and took liberties with the facts in general. Not to mention taking liberties with the English language.