Catholic Church

Cebu archbishop, governor ask National Museum to return stolen church panels

Max Limpag

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Cebu archbishop, governor ask National Museum to return stolen church panels

PROTECT HERITAGE. Cebu Governor Gwendolyn Garcia reads the General Welfare clause of the Local Government Code to cite as one of her legal bases in the Capitol’s push for the return of panels stolen from the heritage church of Boljoon, Cebu. With her are (right) Capitol consultant for heritage and museums Jose Eleazar Bersales and consultant lawyer Ben Cabrido Jr.

Cebu Archbishop Jose Palma says the four stolen panels are sacred objects because they were on the pulpit 'where for centuries, Augustinian friars delivered sermons to the faithful'

CEBU, Philippines – The removal of four wooden relief panels from the pulpit of the Archdiocesan Shrine of Patrocinio de Maria Santissima in Boljoon, Cebu constitutes sacrilege, said Cebu Archbishop Jose S. Palma. It also robbery and not just theft, said lawyer Ben Cabrido Jr., a consultant of the Cebu provincial government.

Leaders of Cebu have issued separate calls for the immediate return of the four panels stolen in the late 1980s and thought lost for decades before they reemerged when they were donated to the National Museum of the Philippines by private collectors Edwin and Aileen Bautista.

“They are integral to the patrimony of the church as part of her missionary work and thus considered sacred,” Palma said in his statement released Tuesday, February 20. “They should never have been treated, then or now, as mere artworks for exhibition in museums, much less for private appreciation by the collectors who purchased them. For these panels are considered in the ecclesial rite as tools of evangelization.”

The panels are sacred objects, Palma said, because they were on the pulpit “where for centuries, Augustinian friars delivered sermons to the faithful.”

“(T)the Archdiocese of Cebu hereby asserts its ownership of these panels and requests their immediate return to Boljoon at the pulpit where they were surreptitiously removed,” Palma said in his statement posted on the official Facebook page of the Archdiocese of Cebu.

Palma also requested that “a proper venue for constructive dialogue be provided” on the terms of the parties.

Cebu Governor Gwendolyn Garcia on Monday invited National Museum officials to come to Cebu so that she can bring them to the Boljoon church and start a “constructive dialogue” on the return of the panels.

Panels stolen from Cebu church surface in National Museum; Cebuanos want them back

Panels stolen from Cebu church surface in National Museum; Cebuanos want them back

“We extend our assurance to Governor Gwen Garcia, Mayor Jojie Derama, Archbishop Jose Palma, and the community of Boljoon that the NMP is eager to engage in constructive dialogue and exchange of technical assistance to facilitate sharing the four panels with the people of Cebu as soon as possible,” the NMP said in a statement released on Monday afternoon.

Palma, Garcia, Derama, the Cebu Provincial Board, and Boljoon Municipal Council all agreed the panels should be returned to Boljoon and installed on the pulpit.

Garcia welcomed the offer by NMP for a “constructive dialogue” but said that the Capitol’s position was that these panels should be returned to their “rightful place,” installed on the pulpit in the Boljoon church.

“These are supposed to be immovable objects that should not have been extricated from the pulpit, part and parcel of the pulpit itself,” she said. Garcia said she will send a letter to the NMP to ask for the return of the panels.

Capitol consultant for heritage and museums Jose Eleazar Bersales said that when the panels are returned, they will be installed in place of the copies that have been put up there.

In its statement, the NMP said “our donors procured these specific panels through legitimate means, highlighting their commitment to ethical acquisition.” The agency also said that church artifacts have “dynamic ownership and circulation.”

There is no such thing, Cabrido said during Monday’s press conference called by Garcia at the Capitol. Since there was an act of force in detaching the panel, it is considered robbery “that is continuing until such time it was discovered in February 2024.”

Those who possess the panels can be held liable for fencing or robbery, Cabrido said.

“There is no such thing as dynamic ownership because ownership cannot be transferred through theft or through robbery,” he said. “Even if they will say that we bought this from this person, it will not change the character of that thing and make it a valid object in a contract. There was no point in the dynamic transfers of these four artifacts that would convert these into a legal object.”

Even NMP officials can be held liable, he said. “Illicit acts are not state acts. You cannot invoke that these things are acts of the state, it will be accounted to you personally. Therefore I would like to warn National Museum officials to take heed of this warning from the Provincial Government,” Cabrido said.

On the NMP’s statement that it would “continue to pursue preventive conservation measures necessary to prepare them for public display in due course,” Garcia said this expertise was not exclusive to the agency.

“The conservation of heritage sites, structures, relics, the tangibles and intangibles is now part of our own Cebuano culture as well. It is a way of life for us,” Garcia said, enumerating Capitol programs throughout her term in promoting culture and heritage.

Garcia also assured the NMP that these relics will be protected when they are installed at the pulpit. Derama said the municipal government will help the parish in protecting its properties. He said that the town spent what it won from a Capitol tourism program to help improve the parish museum. He said in an interview Monday that they would also help in improving its security.

The panels were stolen during the time when Fr. Faustino Cortes was the parish priest. Palma said there were no records in the archdiocese of Cortes “requesting approval to deconsecrate them for removal, much less conveyance to third parties in exchange for monetary purposes of the parish.” If there were one, this wouldn’t have been approved.

Fr. Brian Brigoli, chairman of the Cebu Archdiocesan Commission for the Cultural Heritage of the Church, said conditions today are different from the time when the panels were stolen.

This will not happen again, he told Rappler. There are laws, both civil and ecclesiastical, and implementers of laws to make sure Church heritage is protected, Brigoli added. –

1 comment

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  1. ET

    If this story reaches the courts, it will be well worth readers’ attention. It will be a legal battle between the Provincial Government of Cebu and the Archdiocese of Cebu versus the National Museum of the Philippines.

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