Stolen pulpit panels controversy revives unrelated theft allegations vs late Cebu priest

Max Limpag

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Stolen pulpit panels controversy revives unrelated theft allegations vs late Cebu priest

BOLJOON CHURCH. The Boljoon church or the Archdiocesan Shrine of Patrocinio de Maria Santisima taken in 2015.

max limpag/rappler

Father Miguel Ortega allegedly stole rare religious antiques from the Archdiocesan Shrine of Patrocinio de Maria Santisima in Boljoon, Cebu, when he served as parish priest from 1976 to 1982

CEBU, Philippines – The recent resurfacing of pulpit panels that were stolen from the Archdiocesan Shrine of Patrocinio de Maria Santisima in Boljoon, Cebu, has revived unrelated theft claims against its former parish priest.

The late Father Miguel Ortega, who served as Boljoon parish priest from 1976 to 1982, was charged with estafa and qualified theft for allegedly stealing millions of pesos worth of rare church antiques. The cases did not prosper as the Parish Pastoral Council asked the court to dismiss the charges.

Adjusting for inflation and without considering the increase in value of antiques through time, the amount involved is estimated at P81.62 million in 2022, according to an online Philippine inflation calculator tool that uses Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas data.

Ortega’ contentious term in Boljoon parish was again put in the spotlight after the controversy over wooden relief panels stolen from the pulpit of the Archdiocesan Shrine of Patrocinio de Maria Santisima. Those panels, however, were lost long after Ortega left the town.

According to the book The History of Boljoon by Ruel Rigor published as part of the history books project of the Cebu provincial government, civil disobedience broke out in the town in 1977.

“Boljo-anons revered their priests and the priesthood. The events of 1977 showed just how much they revered the sacred treasures of their church as well. A band of parishioners rose up against the parish priest and demanded for his ouster,” Rigor wrote. “They accused the cura parroco of selling the antiques and gold relics of the church.”

Archdiocese of Cebu officials, however, “demanded proof and challenged the accusers to bring the case to court.”

‘Distinct memory’ for townsfolk

Several Boljoon residents recalled that the townsfolk ostracized Ortega and attended masses in nearby Caceres.

COPY. This drawing depicts the altar in Boljoon. According to this document displayed in the Kabilin Museum of the late Monsignor Constantino Batoctoy, the drawing and its measurements were used as reference to counterfeit the altar using inferior materials. It was then switched, Batoctoy said in his complaint against the late parish priest Father Miguiel Ortega. Photo by Victor Kintanar

“That’s really a distinct memory for many people in our hometown. That time, we went to Caceres,” said heritage lawyer Kay Malilong. She said people would crowd a repurposed truck to travel from Boljoon to Caceres.

“I remember one Mass we, the children, were all bundled up in my aunt’s pickup and we left before dawn so we could make it to the early mass at Caceres,” she said in a mix of English and Cebuano.

Several Boljoon residents interviewed by Rappler said that matters came to a head when members of a church group, the cursillistas, were detained after being sued for slander over their accusations against Ortega. Retired police Archimedes Villanueva, 79, said he was the one who detained the cursillistas because he was on duty at that time.

He said a large crowd accompanied the detainees, who even managed to “laugh” at their situation. Villanueva said then-Cebu Governor Eduardo Gullas had to go to the town to pacify the people. The detained parishioners were released the next day but their anger simmered for years. When Rappler tried to reach out to a few, including a couple who left the church, they declined to be interviewed.

Ortega was eventually “relieved of his duties sometime on August 17, 1982,” the late Monsignor Constantino Batoctoy said in his affidavit to support the charges against the priest.

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
What went missing?

In the affidavit retrieved from Boljoon court records, Batoctoy enumerated the following items as having been taken away by Ortega: (These are 1982 price estimates.)

  • Silver altar – P1 million
  • Silver sanctuary lamp – P1 million
  • Miniature silver bed for the Belen – P1 million
  • Ivory crucifix – P50000
  • Gold ciburium – P1 million
  • Painting of our Lady on canvas – P10,000
  • 4 old Missals with Latin text – P20,000
  • Painting of the baptism of St. Augustine by St. Ambrose on canvas – P500,000
  • 3 silver holy oil containers – P30,000
  • Silver arrhae – P5,000
  • Gold plated chalice – P100,000

Batoctoy said Ortega did not show up for a scheduled ocular inspection by Archbishop Manuel Salvador to do an inventory of the museum in preparation for the turnover to the new parish priest.

Ortega “left hurriedly in a huff after he secretly delivered the key to the museum to the new parish priest, Reverend Father Faustino Cortes.” Cortes recently became controversial because it was in his term that the pulpit panels were lost, Cebu Archbishop Jose Palma said in his statement.

Batoctoy said that upon inspection, they found imitations and poor copies in place of the church antiques. Except for the painting of Our Lady on canvas, none of the items were recovered, said Batoctoy.

Batoctoy also recovered a sketch of the altar that was used as reference to copy it using inferior materials such as aluminum. The replica was then switched with the antique, he said.

In his paper Reading Boljoon, National Commission for Culture and the Arts Chairman Victorino Mapa Manalo noted that there are three sets of inventories in the parish that date back to 1795 and updated through the years. An 1837 update mentioned the painting of St. Augustine for the baptistry. The inventory also mentioned the missals, ciborium, and other items.

“There is one object whose presence in the inventories makes its absence in the museum even more palpable: the Niño Dormido of ivory and its silver bed,” Manalo wrote.

Monsignor Cayetano Gelbolingo, a relative of Ortega who was one of those asked to look into reports of the disappearance of church antiques in Boljoon, confirmed that many items went missing.

“Many items were lost,” Gelbolingo said in Cebuano during an interview on Thursday. He couldn’t give a number but said he discovered many antiques were missing when he checked the room where they were kept.

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

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

Gelbolingo, who is now 89, said he was also accused of stealing church antiques during his time in southern Cebu. He denied to Rappler that he stole them, switching the blame to people who accused him of theft But in Ortega’s case, he said the latter was to blame for the loss.

Importance of inventories

In Monday’s press conference to announce that the Capitol was asking for the return of the pulpit panels from the National Museum, Cebu Governor Gwendolyn Garcia said she would like to compare the inventory reports, especially during turnover of priests. She said the Capitol would work to protect and recover the items but said focus should first be on the pulpit panels.

“I’d like to compare the inventories to narrow down who is responsible. I am not saying it was stolen but if it is under your watch then you are responsible. The buck stops with you. You’re responsible for its protection,” Garcia said.

“But let’s not preempt the whole thing. We lose focus. We’ll first start with the four panels,” she added.

The charges against Ortega were dismissed, according to Rigor’s book, when the “Parish Pastoral Council of Boljoon, with Parish priest  Rev. Fr. Apolonio Jumawan, issued a resolution asking the court to dismiss the case.” Batoctoy, who shared the information on how the case was dismissed, told Rigor he “was not informed of such a resolution.”

In an interview with MyTV Cebu in his house in Boljoon while on vacation from his parish duties in Danao City, Jumawan denied issuing such a resolution.

Asked about Father Ortega, his relative Argao Vice Mayor Orvi Ortega told Rappler that he was too young to remember the incident, and that his family left for Manila when he was 10.

The vice mayor said Ortega officiated Mass at Santo Rosario Parish in his old age, and that he died in the mid-1990s. –

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