Malilong: A basketball game, stolen antiques and a people’s fury

The Other Side
Malilong.SunStar file

Sometime in the early eighties, we were invited to play an exhibition game against the Cebu clergy in Boljoon as part of the town’s fiesta celebration. Our team, the Integrated Bar Cebu Chapter, had a history with the basketball-playing padres, dating back to a rough game in the city that could have deteriorated into something uglier if not for the intervention of the proverbial cooler heads.

I vividly recall that game because of the reaction of our non-lawyer friends when I told them about what happened. We were to blame, that was the near unanimous verdict. Why? “You’re lawyers and they are priests,” a co-worker at the pier told me. It was true, we started the trouble but don’t they teach in the seminary the principle of turning the other cheek?

Anyway, we were determined to avoid a repeat of the unfortunate incident and agreed to take the high road. We will not respond violently to any provocation, we said. Instead, we will do what we thought they would but did not do in our first game. We will turn the other cheek.

Unfortunately, only seven of us made the 102 km. drive to Boljoon. We could not possibly stay competitive and make the game interesting against the younger and quicker clergy squad without a complete team. We thus enlisted some locals as reinforcements.

The clergy immediately raced to a comfortable advantage in the early part of the game. Unable to keep pace with them, we had ourselves substituted by our reinforcements. This was when the trouble began. The game became more physical.

The temperature rose as bodies clashed and words were exchanged. After one particularly heated moment, one of our substitutes angrily blurted: “Di mi mahadlok og pari kay ang among pari kawatan og ulo sa Birhen.”

However you translate that, the comment was unfair, uncalled for, deeply hurting and embarrassing. We apologized to our opponents and both teams agreed to discontinue the game.

Going home, we shared a sense of guilt and shame, knowing that we committed two mistakes that, together, led to the deterioration of the game. One was that we did not inform our late additions of our desire to keep the game clean but competitive. The other was that we failed to reckon with the boiling anger of the townspeople towards their priest over the recent loss of priceless church antiques.

The stolen antiques, according to rumors at that time, included the head of the image of the town’s patron saint. The people accused their priest of an inside job. Although the accusation remained unproven because there were no eyewitnesses to the actual taking, almost all the people I spoke to at that time were convinced that the priest did it. One of them was my wife’s cousin, Dr. Renato Amper, who led the “mutiny” against the cura parroco. Both of them are now dead.

That the antiques have not been recovered remain a sore point among the people of Boljoon. I know because my wife is from the town and I consider myself a Boljoanon by choice.

It is in this context that we should view their reaction to the recent appearance in the hands of the National Museum of four panels stolen from the pulpit of the same Boljoon church. The discovery touched a raw nerve because it reminded them of the impunity with which their beloved church was stripped of many of its priceless antiques. At the same time it offered hope that the mystery of the disappearance of these treasures will finally be unraveled, the thieves and their accomplices and accessories unmasked, and the treasures recovered.

The National Museum is and was, from the very beginning, aware that it was dealing with items that were stolen. The decent thing to do is to return them to their lawful owner.

But it should not end there. The Museum should enlist the assistance of the police or the National Bureau of Investigation to trace how the panels came into the possession of the couple that donated them to the Museum. Who knows if we will finally be to locate and recover the rest of Boljoon’s stolen antiques and identify the criminals who stripped the church of its possessions and their fences and enablers.


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