Cebu disputes legality of pulpit panels donation to National Museum

Max Limpag

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Cebu disputes legality of pulpit panels donation to National Museum

CONTROVERSY. Cebu Governor Gwendolyn Garcia (center) holds a press conference on the Boljoon church panels controversy with (from left) capitol lawyer consultants Benjamin Cabrido Jr. and Rory Jon Sepulveda, Provincial Legal Officer Donato Villa Jr., and Laila Arnaiz-Ortiz.

Max Limpag/Rappler

Cebu Governor Gwendolyn Garcia criticizes what she describes as the lackadaisical response of the National Museum to her call for the return of Boljoon’s old heritage church panels

CEBU, Philippines – The Cebu provincial government has questioned the legality of a donation made to the National Museum of the Philippines (NMP), involving four historical pulpit panels from Boljoon, Cebu, asserting that it was defective since the donors allegedly did not own the panels.

Lawyers of the provincial government argued that the NMP should have exercised caution in receiving the questioned donation from collector couple Edwin and Aileen Bautista, especially since the items originated from a heritage church in the province. 

“You cannot donate a thing which you do not own. Donation requires that the owner must have dominion over the property donated. You cannot give what you do not have,” said lawyer Benjamin Cabrido Jr., a consultant of the capitol, on Tuesday, April 3.

Another capitol legal consultant, Rory Jon Sepulveda, said the deed of donation should have made NMP “extra cautious” since it listed the panels as having come from the Archdiocesan Shrine of Patrocinio de Maria Santisima, a heritage church in Boljoon in southern Cebu.

Cebu Governor Gwendolyn Garcia criticized what she described as the lackadaisical response of NMP to her call to return the panels. She gave NMP officials until this week to visit her office for that “long-delayed” meeting.

“I would also appreciate that Archbishop (Jose) Palma will be present right here in the capitol together with all of our lawyers,” Garcia told a news conference.

Garcia urged the NMP officials to take the matter seriously and involve their lawyers even as she warned that if they don’t respond properly, she has the authority from the provincial board to sue to get the Boljoon panels back.

NMP is scheduled to meet with Palma by the middle of this month to talk about the panels.

Garcia and her legal team, led by Cebu Provincial Legal Officer Donato Villa Jr., also discussed an opinion by the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) written at the request of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts to look into the probable liabilities of the NMP. 

The OSG opinion listed four conditions that needed to be established for NMP to be liable for fencing.

The first was that a crime or robbery had been committed. Sepulveda said the statement by Palma that the removal of the pulpit panels was not authorized by the church is “a conclusive presumption of theft.” 

In a separate interview the night before the capitol press conference, however, NMP Director General Jeremy Barns said the allegation of theft should be proven first.

Another condition listed by the OSG was that the accused should have known that the item was stolen. Barns said that for the NMP, the panels were not stolen but sold by the priest. 

Sepulveda said that “any reasonable man” would have questioned how the donors possessed what were clearly church items. 

Father Brian Brigoli, who heads the Cebu Catholic archdiocese’s commission on heritage, earlier told Rappler the panels were considered stolen, whether thieves carted them away or a parish priest sold them.

Another condition was the “intent to gain.” Barns told Rappler that in accepting the donation, the NMP “is not in it for any gain.” Sepulveda, however, said that displaying it for public viewing showed there is “still gain in so far as there is public display and benefit being granted to the museum.”

Garcia pointed out the delay in the response of NMP to her letter sent last February 26. The response was received by the capitol last March 25, which local officials said violated government regulations on responsiveness. 

Barns, however, told Garcia that the visit by NMP Chairman Andoni Aboitiz was done as a response to her letter.

“Of course, we talked, we are old friends, and the subject of the panels was also mentioned. But I did not take that to be a formal reply because how could a formal letter dealing with an urgent and very serious issue be replied to by a visit of Mr. Andoni Aboitiz even if he is chairman of the board,” Garcia said.

She sent another letter on April 1, expressing her deep concern at the delay of the NMP reply and disappointment at the lack of answer to her invitation for key NMP officials to visit Cebu, meet with her, and visit the Boljoon church. Garcia said Barns quickly replied to that letter and offered to meet at the end of April.

“I was a little mystified how this has been dealt with. I’m sorry, but this is my impression. It’s like this is a trifling matter. The officials have trips abroad. It’s difficult for us to come together so maybe at the end of the month,” Garcia said.

Cabrido said, “April 30 is too long. We might have already filed cases against them. Let me tell you, this is a very easy case. So, I think they should take us seriously.” –

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