Thursday, January 31, 2019

TBT: Remembering Jolo's slain Bishop de Jesus

Let me indulge in a TBT (Throwback Thursday) piece: On Feb. 4, 1997, almost 22 years to the day of last Sunday’s bomb explosion in the Jolo cathedral while Mass was going on, the bishop of the Apostolic Vicariate of Jolo, Benjamin de Jesus, was shot and killed right in front of the same cathedral named after Our Lady of Mount Carmel. His murderers gave him several bullets that killed him instantly.
Last Sunday’s murder in the cathedral — to borrow the title of T.S. Eliot’s famous work — was not a first in Jolo, the capital of the province of Sulu. Hand grenades had been thrown into the cathedral at least seven times. Three Filipino Oblates have been martyred in the Jolo vicariate in the last 23 years.

I asked Oblate Fr. Eliseo Mercado if the bishop’s killers have been brought to justice. His reply: “Nope, as in all murders here… we bury our dead, we remember and move on.”
Though predominantly Muslim, Jolo is where various ethnic cultures and religious faiths meet and coexist. It is also where a bitter battle raged between government forces and the separatist Moro National Liberation Front in February 1974, the tragic event now referred to as The Burning of Jolo.

Not again! I gasped when I learned of the bomb explosion inside the Jolo cathedral, which was followed seconds later by another blast near the entrance. Then the number of casualties started coming in. (The latest: 21 dead, 112 wounded.)
Suddenly the murder of Bishop De Jesus in 1997 came to mind. I thought, who remembers?
It was front-page news then, as he was the first Filipino bishop to be murdered, and in his own vicariate at that. It was shocking then, but perhaps not too surprising now considering that President Duterte wants bishops critical of him killed.
I was assigned to do a feature story on the murdered bishop, a member of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI), a congregation of priests founded in France by St. Eugene de Mazenod in the 1800s. I read up on OMI history.
The full feature story, “God’s commando in a faraway place” (Inquirer, 2/14/97), is included in my book “You Can’t Interview God: Church Women and Men in the News” (Anvil, 2013).

The Oblates arrived in the Philippines in 1939 with Jolo as their first base. I enjoyed reading the breathless, first-person accounts of the new arrivals in Jolo, written like they were straight out of the Wild West. Mindanao is OMI bailiwick.
Today, the Jolo cathedral is still run by the Oblates, who also run the Notre Dame universities in Mindanao where many Muslim and Christian Mindanaoans go for higher education. The Oblates have made great contributions not only in education, but also in Muslim-Christian dialogue.

Bishop De Jesus was himself involved in undertakings such as the Bishops-Ulama dialogues. He was sometimes referred to as “Imam of the Christians” and was, at one time, vice chair of the commission on interreligious dialogue of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines.
He was not a dazzling, starlike character; he was gentle, humble. When faced with decisions, he often sought the advice of others and took time to weigh things. Recalled an Irish Oblate: “You want to tell him, come on, shoot the guy and be done with it!”
And yet, when he was first weighing his religious vocation as a high school student in Malabon, De Jesus wrote that his dream was “to go to a faraway place, to an isolated and dangerous area, to bring God to the people and the people to God. The mountains and the seas fascinated and attracted me. When I was assigned in Esperanza, Sultan Kudarat, Cotabato, it was a dream come true. Some barrios we could only reach on horseback.”
A military commandant in high school, he thought his training would serve him well if he joined the men who wore a black sash and a big cross, men who were often called “God’s commandos” because of their daring. Pope Pius XI called these men “specialists in most difficult missions,” as they were the first “to brave the howling winds of the North Pole to reach the tiny encampments of neglected Indians, Metis and Eskimos.”
Well, De Jesus got to be in that faraway “North Pole” of his dreams. He died in a manner least imagined, like the many killed and injured in last Sunday’s bomb explosions.#

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Junior, 10, convict?

I was shocked, even horrified, when I read again, during the weekend, the two-part series I wrote in this paper 19 years ago on the debate on lowering the age of criminal liability, a debate that is raging again now, or almost two decades later, because some lawmakers think there should be a further lowering.
What do you know, three days ago, while I was starting this column piece, the House of Representatives’ justice panel approved a bill further lowering the age of criminal liability from 15 to 9 years old, despite strong opposition from child rights groups and concerned individuals. Monday afternoon’s Inquirer news online used the word “swiftly” to describe the approval. The House panel is to schedule plenary debates on the bill.

In my thought balloon: Junior, 10, convict. That is, after a speedy trial. Holy Infant Jesus!
Here are the first paragraphs of my 2000 series that still jolted me.

“On Aug. 17, 1999, so a congressman relates, several persons held up a balikbayan businessman at the corner of Pedro Gil St. and Roxas Blvd. The criminals took his van at gunpoint and shot him in the head. The victim died five days later. He was 28.
“But the robbery holdup did not end there. Later that same day, three young girls who were jogging at the Cultural Center complex were raped. Police arrested five suspects who were found to be in possession of the stolen van. The suspects —
all teenagers — were positively identified by two witnesses. While these teenagers were being paraffin-tested, they were said to have been laughing, joking, smoking, never showing any sign of remorse.
“If Cong. Roilo Golez could have his way, he would want the teenage suspects, if convicted, meted the death penalty and die by lethal injection.
“Golez is the author of House Bill 8286, which seeks to lower the minimum and maximum age for the death penalty. The bill seeks to amend Article 47 (as amended by Sec. 22 of Republic Act 7659), 68 and 83 of the Revised Penal Code (RPC).

“He wants the minimum age of 18 lowered to 17 and the maximum age of 70 lowered to 65. And “when upon appeal or automatic review of the case by the Supreme Court, the required majority vote is not obtained for the imposition of the death penalty… the penalty shall be reclusion perpetua.
“Senator Robert Z. Barbers has also filed Senate Bill 1701 that seeks to lower further the minimum age for the death penalty to 16. This, Barbers said, would ‘address the increasing crime incidents committed by youthful offenders.’ Existing laws, he complained, hinder the application of the stiffest penalty possible. He cited Pres. Decree 603 as amended, or the Child and Youth Welfare Code, which suspends the imposition of the penalty for crimes committed by minors. Moreover, he said, Art. 68 of the RPC considers minority as a mitigating factor that reduces the penalty by one level.

“Article 47 of the same law provides that the death penalty cannot be imposed on convicted persons below the age of majority or 18 years old.” (The revived death penalty was still in effect then. I even witnessed an execution.)
Barbers died in 2005, Golez in 2018.
That series entailed spending time at the Molave Youth Home in Quezon City and interviewing young inmates, a number of them facing rape cases and others already serving sentences. Going over the profiles of the youth offenders and the crimes they had allegedly committed baffled the mind. They were — all of them — from poor families.
I wish I could find just a couple of them, find out how they have become, where they are now, 20 years later. But who, in the so-called youth homes, cares to do a follow-up?
If the Filipinos’ earthshaking display of devotion to the Santo Niño (the Infant Jesus, whose feast was celebrated on  Sunday) could be a gauge of their devotion to children, there might be fewer young people in trouble with the law in this country. And no one would think of legally sending them to the slammer so early in their lives.#

Thursday, January 17, 2019

'Battle for Manila Bay' began 20 years ago

Yes, the battle in court began 20 years ago. The legal battle was, in fact, won 10 years later. It was a lonely battle, from the trial court to the Court of Appeals and finally with the Supreme Court no less ordering about 13 defendant government agencies to do a cleanup of Manila Bay.
The high court even gave its order a threatening ring to it — continuing mandamus, which means that the sued government agencies should report to the Supreme Court every three months until the bay was back to its fit-for-swimming state. Well, it’s been 10 years since that mandamus was issued. Was the “continuing” discontinued?

Today, what do we have here? A Manila Bay filthier than ever, its waters unfit for habitation by sea creatures and unhealthy for humans to swim in or gather food from. In other words, Manila Bay is in the throes of death, if it’s not already dead.
Site of historic epic battles, this body of water west of the Philippines has been defiled, befouled, turned into a septic tank, if not a toilet bowl (it is shaped like so). The world-famous sunset reflected on its waters since time began should take a leave or shroud itself in mourning.

Not that nobody cared. In January 1999, a group of concerned citizens, led by University of the Philippines law students and their teacher, environmental lawyer Antonio Oposa Jr., then fresh from Harvard masteral law studies, filed an ambitious lawsuit in a regional trial court. Oposa, a maverick lawyer who thought out of the box, included among the petitioners the tahong (mussels) and talaba (oysters).
“It is a lonely journey to have as clients the sea and the fish, that do not pay attorney’s fees,” he mused then.
“We sued practically the entire government,” recalls Oposa, a mutiawarded defender of Mother Nature and author. I spoke with Oposa the other day and he sounded gung-ho about the rehabilitation of Manila Bay, which he refers to as the Philippines’ “toilet bowl that has not been flushed.”
Talking to Oposa is always invigorating because of his no-holds-barred, out-of-the-box pronouncements, and also because he walks his talk. (I’ve written several articles on his quixotic pursuits. For his work, Oposa received the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award in 2009.)
The daunting cleanup of Manila Bay  is scheduled to begin on Jan. 27. Metro Manila and several provinces—Cavite, Laguna, Bataan, Bulacan and Pampanga—have areas along the coast and have tributaries that flow into Manila Bay.

Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu has not yet revealed the names of establishments by the bay that have been releasing pollutants into Manila Bay. Resettling some 200,000 informal settler families that defecate, urinate and dump their garbage into the bay would be a nightmare. The task is not for one government agency alone, but for the 13 that had been previously sued and more. Private citizens, business, the Church and nongovernment organizations better enlist in the cleanup and rehab.
In his paper, “In Defense of Manila Bay,” Oposa notes: “In January 1999 when the case was filed, the fecal bacteria in Manila Bay was 1 million units per cubic meter. Twenty years after, in January 2019, one would expect it to be a little lower. But guess what? It is now 330 MILLION UNITS… In some parts of Manila Bay, it is 1 BILLION. Wow, that is pure S**T. So much for the triumph of the Rule of Law. It is said that in the Philippines, laws are only suggestions.”

Oposa adds that the narrative of the law should change from being an enforcer to being an enabler.
Oposa offers three “practical pathways” where the cleanup could begin: solid waste or garbage that is the most visible, sewage/septage from humans which is the primary source of fecal bacteria, and relocation of informal settlers.
He cites models for the relocation of settlers, like the one in Puerto Princesa City in Palawan; he cites the Iloilo River restoration that took only about 1,000 days.
“Maybe there will be an alignment of stars,” he muses. “Emperors come and go, empires rise and fall, but a story lives forever. A story of the Sea.”

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Foil to evil brothers Abinicio and Quoranto

They are a foil to “Evil Stepbrothers Abinicio and Quoranto” (ab initio and quo warranto), if I may use a Grimmesque allusion to dark folklore or, why not, an allusion to Dostoyevsky’s characters.
In story plots, a foil is a character that is in contrast to another character, someone whose particular qualities contrasts those of another, especially the “kontrabida.”

The foil are the four brave judges who are the Inquirer’s 2018 Filipinos of the Year. The Sunday Inquirer article’s blurb said of them: “By their decisions on certain critical cases, Regional Trial Court Judges Rodolfo Azucena Jr., Arlene Lirag Palabrica, Andres Soriano and Alexander Tamayo have fired up the despondent imagination and provided leeway for the public to think that things can possibly get better, that there might be a way out of this slough.”
“This slough” being the legal morass that many cases have sunk into, cases that shout to this woebegone nation that might is right and that impunity rules.

Take the quo warranto case against Supreme Court Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno that led to her ouster, as decided by several of her own colleagues, no less. Take the ab initio case against Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV, President Duterte’s archcritic, that the former’s chief accuser is using to hark back to more than a decade ago… And so on, ad absurdum.
Last Sunday’s Inquirer article on Azucena, Palabrica, Soriano and Tamayo tells us about why they were picked and, in a side bar, how the Inquirer’s editors and subeditors chose them among the nominees, but the story bears repeating.
Still, I must note how the Inquirer did not even have a proper photo file of each of them, so that photos used in the article were “contributed photos,” with one photo from a Twitter account. None of them was in a judge’s robe, and except for Tamayo who was in a dark suit and cropped from a group photo, the rest were in casual clothes and caught in snapshots. They looked like anybody, unguarded, no frills. That said a lot, and I liked it.
This means that these four judges were not in the media limelight, so unlike most politicians, but unbeknownst to the four, the Inquirer was silently “profiling” them for consideration for 2018 Filipinos of the Year. They must have been stunned when they woke up to the news, though muttering under their morning breath that they were just doing their job, doing what was right according to their conscience.
Palabrica ordered the release on  Dec. 1, 2018, of ACT Teachers Rep. France Castro, Bayan Muna president Satur Ocampo and 16 others who were arrested, detained and absurdly charged with kidnapping, trafficking and abuse of “lumad” kids. Though the police balked, Palabrica insisted that, with no information filed in court and with respondents presumed innocent with bail posted, “their supreme right to liberty must be upheld.”

Tamayo presided at the trial of Maj. Gen. Jovito Palparan Jr. and his coaccused in the abduction and disappearance of University of the Philippines student activists Karen Empeño and Sherlyn Cadapan. The text of his decision narrated in blood-curdling detail how Palparan acted in relation to the “most degrading and inhumane tortures done to Karen and Sherlyn….”
After a speedy six-month trial, Azucena sentenced PO3 Arnel Oares, PO1 Jerwin Cruz and PO1 Jeremias Pereda to up to 40 years in prison with no possibility of parole for killing 17-year-old Kian delos Santos who, according to witness accounts, begged the cops to spare his life. Delos Santos gave a name and a face to the brutal drug war of the Duterte administration.

Soriano ruled that Trillanes had indeed filed a proper application for amnesty and had admitted guilt for the military mutiny he led in 2003, 2006 and 2007. This was contrary to the reopening of cases filed by the Department of Justice against Trillanes, Solicitor General Jose Calida’s ab initio idea.
These were cases that people followed with keen interest but thought would go the way of most that involved government and underdogs, the powerful and the powerless.
Fiat justitia ruat caelum. Let justice be done though the heavens fall.#

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Flashing his manhood, so to speak

The EveryWoman page on Facebook is described as “a safe and open channel of expression for empowered women and youth. It also serves as a platform to inform and educate. It seeks to empower like-minded women and youth to defend democratic political space and uphold women’s rights.” It has 108,570 followers.
Several hours ago before I sat down to write this column piece, EveryWoman issued a statement on President Duterte’s confessing publicly about what he did to his family’s housemaid when he was a schoolboy, and for which he later went to confession to a priest. In a recent speech. he regaled his titillated listeners with the how of it, flashing his (in-the-cusp-of-) manhood story, so to speak. (Flashers have castration anxiety, Freudian psychoanalysts seem to think.)

Excerpts from EveryWoman: “Jesus was born with the gospel promise of life abundant for all, but most especially for the last, the least and the lost. It is no wonder that the word was made flesh among the stench of goats and the braying of sheep. And as we greet the new year, let us remember that Christmas is climax to the year that ushers in the new.
“But Rodrigo Duterte caps the year with a tale as old as time: of man’s inhumanity to woman, of sexual violence so commonplace and yet so stunning, of fingering the housemaid ‘under her panty’ not once but twice, and rushing to the toilet not once but twice, for sexual release.

“Like the unschooled and unskilled (mostly) youthful male EJK (extrajudicial killing) victims, housemaids or domestic helpers belong to the margins of society (“laylayan ng lipunan” as Vice President Leni Robredo puts it). The Kasambahay Law seeks to redress this but then (as probably now), males in the household, junior and senior, felt free to flirt with, finger and, finally, rape the housemaids. In the male continuum of sexual violence, fingering is no big deal.
“The babe in the manger came to stand logic on its head so that the last shall be first, and the first, last. But the man in Malacañang has consigned the last, the least and the lost to perdition. Jesus said men and women are equal, honoring women as apostles, persons in their own right including Mary of Magdala, the sisters Martha and Mary, and Mary his mother. But the man in Malacañang says men and women are not equal. Men can slander, finger, jail, brutalize and rape women—
that’s just how it is.
“EveryWoman says NOT ANYMORE. Standing at the crux of class and gender, the housemaid represents the last, the least and the lost of EveryWoman. And it is for her, most especially, that the babe in the manger was born.
“…As we ring out the old and pay homage to a babe who makes all things new, EveryWoman harks back to the prophet Amos’ words: ‘Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.’ May the New Year bring justice to the men crushed by EJK and the women profaned by the man in Malacañang.”
Excerpts from Sen. Leila de Lima’s Dispatch from Crame No. 444:

“Shame on you, all of you who, by your apathy, silence or plain cowardice have become enablers of this new order of political turmoil and moral decay.
“Shame on you, those of you in the audience who would gleefully applaud the offensive rantings, sick non-‘jokes,’ vile and odious sexist remarks and blasphemies of this madman…

“Shame on you, Bedans, those of you who, by your self-serving and hypocritical act of bestowing accolades to this first Bedan president as ‘Bedan of the Decade,’ have, in fact, glorified infamy, bringing dishonor to our alma mater.”
From Sr. Mary John Mananzan, OSB, of the Institute of Women’s Studies of St. Scholastica’s College, “a statement of disgust”: “What is even more disgusting is, as usual, his audience that looked like educated people laughed at his ‘joke.’ How could people have descended so low in such a short time? Was there no one there with the decency and courage to get up and leave????”
I pray and hope for a safer, bolder year ahead for Filipino journalists and truth-tellers all over the world.#