CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY, Philippines – It was a scene like in the Dark Ages when people accused of witchcraft and heresy were burned at the stake.
A town in eastern Misamis Oriental was horrified after 11 cult members threw their 84-year-old matriarch into a pile of burning wood as part of a ritual to purge her of her “great sins” in the village of Baliwagan in Balingasag town, more than 50 kilometers from Cagayan de Oro City, on Sunday, August 28.
The ritual murder evoked horror that religious leaders on Monday condemned the act, and local officials called on the police to start a campaign to bring the crime rate down, especially the cases that involve young people.
Cagayan de Oro broadcaster Magnum Radio, which broke the news story, was flooded with messages from people infuriated, decrying the ritual killing, and calling for swift justice.
“We demand strong-willed efforts from the police as crimes in the province have worsened,” said provincial board member Gerardo Sabal III.
Police arrested seven suspects, including 21-year-old cult leader Crisanto Ercilla, for allegedly throwing their matriarch into a pile of burning wood.
Staff Sergeant Robert John Galdo, a town police investigator, said four other members of the clan were still at large as of this posting.
The suspects included children and grandchildren of the victim, Teofila Camongay.
Galdo said he has never seen a crime committed by people against a helpless and aging family member the way Ercilla’s cult did to their clan matriarch.
“A crime like this is hard to believe. Eleven relatives – her children and grandchildren included – were the ones who did it to her,” said Galdo.
Realizing what was being done to the old woman, neighbors rushed to the crime scene, stopped the cultists, and took the victim to the town hospital where she subsequently died of third-degree burns all over, police said.
A shocked Cagayan de Oro Archbishop Jose Cabantan called the crime “unimaginable.”
Aside from the fanaticism, Cabantan said, the crime suggested deep-seated anger toward the victim, and that the suspects were not thinking clearly.
The Reverend Father Vic Arellano, Tablon parish priest and the coordinator of the Iglesia Filipina Independiente (IFI) in Cagayan de Oro, said it looked to him like the suspects were “influenced by an evil spirit.”
Investigators said it was Ercilla who gave his relative followers the order to throw his grandmother to the fire they set after he beat her up for her “great sins.”
Ercilla, according to the police, had proclaimed himself a spiritual guru supposedly possessed by the spirit of the late Philippine Benevolent Christian Missionaries (PBCM) founder and master Tomas Eugenio Sr.
Eugenio, who had taught his followers that he was the embodiment of the Holy Spirit, died in 2004.
It remains unclear if Ercilla and his followers are affiliated with the Jasaan, Misamis Oriental-based PBCM which is now led by Eugenio’s son and successor Charlie.
The PBCM is a spin-off of the powerful Ecleo political dynasty’s Philippine Benevolent Missionaries Association (PBMA) in the Dinagat Islands and Surigao del Norte. Like Eugenio, the PBMA’s late founder, Ruben Ecleo Sr., had claimed divinity.
Major Teodoro de Oro, Balingasag town police chief, said the seven arrested suspects belonged to the Camongay, Cabusas, and Ercilla families – all members of a clan.
The suspects and the victim lived together in the small and close-knit community in Baliwagan, Balingasag town.
De Oro said police were looking for two other male and two female members of the clan who allegedly had a hand in the gruesome ritual.
Police said they would press parricide charges against Ercilla and the other suspects before the prosecutor’s office on Tuesday, August 30, the same day that their matriarch’s remains are set to be laid to rest in a Balingasag cemetery, according to De Oro.
Provincial board member Sabal said he was alarmed by a string of crimes allegedly committed by young people in the province.
“Juvenile crimes are on the rise,” said Sabal, adding that the matter would be taken up by the Misamis Oriental Peace and Order Council.
At the Balingasag municipal jail, authorities cuffed Ercilla after he showed a tendency to be violent even toward other inmates. – Rappler.com