University of San Carlos, priests deny Lumad children held captive in bakwit school

University of San Carlos (USC) president Fr Narciso Cellan Jr and members of the Societas Verbas Divini (SVD) Philipines Southern Province denied claims that Lumad children were held captive by "militant groups" in an SVD-owned retreat house located at the USC Talamban Campus in Cebu City.

At around 11:30 am on Monday, February 15, Central Visayas police entered the USC Talamban Campus to conduct what they called a "rescue operation" that involved at least 26 individuals, including at least 19 minors and 7 adults.

It was later found out that the police and the government agencies that entered the USC premises did not contact the school's administration before conducting the operation.

"As far as the Office of the President of USC is concerned, we did not receive prior information from PNP, or other government agencies for that matter, regarding their visit," Cellan said during a livestreamed press briefing.

The USC also released a joint statement with the Archdiocese of Cebu and SVD at around 6 pm Monday.

The statement clarified that the project of a bakwit school program with the Save Our Schools (SOS) Network was actually initiated by the Archdiocese of Cebu-Commission on Social Advocacies.

"The hosting of this group is inside the retreat house owned by the SVD, and the one who's really in charge of this, together with the Provincial Superior, is the people of the Archdiocese of Cebu," Cellan noted.

At least 42 Lumad students accompanied by 5 teachers and 3 community elders (Datu) were hosted by SVD on March 11, 2020.

The students were supposed to complete the modular schooling and return home on April 3, 2020, but were unable to do so due to COVID-19 quarantine restrictions.

During the lockdown, SVD provided the community with their daily needs and even allowed them to use the facilities in the retreat house for their recreation.

The statement said plans were already being made for the Lumad children's safe return to their communities once quarantine restrictions were loosened. At least 4 children had already returned home prior to the police's so-called "rescue operation," and another batch was scheduled to return this week.

In the statement, the USC, the Archdiocese of Cebu, and SVD said they were actually shocked by the police's plan to "rescue" the minors.

"Here, no rescue need ever be conducted because the presence of the Lumads in the retreat house was for their welfare and well-being, and all throughout, they were nurtured, cared for, and treated with their best interest in mind," the statement read.

The statement was signed by Cellan, Cebu Archbishop Jose Palma, and Fr Roger Baga-ao, superior of the SVD Philippines Southern Province.

USC has yet to get in touch with the concerned agencies regarding the incident but is hopeful for a peaceful resolution with the agencies and the Lumad community. ā€“

(Editor's note: A previous version of this story said 40 minors were arrested in the raid. Only 26 were taken into custody by police. This has been corrected)