Seares: Not exactly a whodunit. More like, how did the perp do it? No record of Boljoon Church panels removed or conveyed. Archbishop Palma says it 'couldn't have happened'; they're 'sacred.'

Seares: Not exactly a whodunit. More like, how did the perp do it? No record of Boljoon Church panels removed or conveyed. Archbishop Palma says it 'couldn't have happened'; they're 'sacred.'
Photos from National Museum of the Philippines and SunStar Archive

[] There's a suspicion that in the 1980s, the then parish priest of Boljoon, Cebu sold them, along with other antiques from the Archdiocesan Shrine of Patrocinio de Maria Santisima, including a silver altar, a sanctuary lamp, a silver bed for the Belen, and other artifacts, prices ranging from P10,000 to P1 million each. The people of Boljoon, if not the church officials, must know how it was done.

[] On top of that mystery is what will happen next to the panels. Demands for their return -- from Boljoon town council and Catholic Church parish to Guv Gwen and the Provincial Government, and now the Cebu Archdiocese -- imply rejection of any sharing deal with the National Museum.

[] No official document about the disputed panels had been requested for removal or transfer. Not possible ("couldn't have happened"), Palma says, as they were church properties that were "tools for evangelization" and had to be deconsecrated if used for another purpose. Also there's no record of de-consecration.

PREVIOUSLY, ON BOLJOON'S SACRED PANELS. Panels -- depicting St. Augustine of Hippo of the 19th century -- reportedly burglarized from the Boljoon, Cebu parish church in the 1980s turned up last week, more than four decades later, at the National Museum of the Philippines (NMP) exhibit called "Gift to the Nation."

The four panels were reportedly donated by a bank chief executive officer and his wife. Official calls for the return of the stolen artifacts were quickly made by Boljoon Parish Church, Boljoon Municipal Council, the governor and the Cebu Provincial Government, and the Cebu Archdiocese. The museum's response: the panels were "legitimately procured." NMP would wish a dialogue on a possible "sharing" of the church treasures.

The latest voice on the issue -- that of Archbishop Jose Palma, the highest official of the Catholic Church in Cebu -- seemed to reject that course of action.

ALL WILLING TO TALK BUT... The stakeholders -- comprising of the Museum, the local government, the town parish church, the Cebu Provincial Government, and the Archdiocese -- are willing to hold a dialogue and negotiate.

Pitching that line more persuasively is the Museum, which argues that it has the "resources and expertise" to manage the panels. At the same time, NMP concedes that Boljoon is a "nostalgic and spiritual place" for the panels but NMP has also things to offer. Like, the town is the appropriate location for remembering and prayer but the Museum has the knowhow and means to study, preserve and display the panels, which Boljoon government and church don't have.

WHAT THE CHURCH PUSHES. While NMP's desire, pursuant to its mission, is to exhibit the panels to the public, Archbishop Palma said the church has "to assert the sacral nature" of the artifacts, "part of the church patrimony," "part of its missionary work." Their removal was a "sacrilege," he said.

Palma said the panels shouldn't have been treated, "then as now," as "mere artworks" for exhibition in a museum, obviously referring to NMP, or for "private appreciation by its collectors," here pointing to the donors who for several years must have been enjoying them exclusively in their private viewing rooms.

DIALOGUE MAY COME UP WITH COMPROMISE. In the heat of the finding of the panels after more than 40 years of being kept away from the Boljoon people and the rest of the public, each stakeholder understandably would stick to its role and mission and protect its interest.


Gwen: 'Return Cebu's cultural heritage' by Kaiser Jan Fuentes, Third Anne Peralta-Malonzo in SunStar

Panels stolen from church surface in National Museum by Max Limpag in Rappler

Boljoonanons are outraged by the "thievery" and the "hiding." The church talks of the panels' sacredness and being part of its patrimony. Capitol is concerned about the town treasures, which by extension are also its own. The NMP would like to keep the panels as part of its "gift to the nation." The museum talks of national interest to study, preserve and display the panels, not just the pride of a small town and a rich province but of the entire country.

Yet there could be a compromise. No harm and totally sound and prudent to thresh out complications in the controversy.

STICKING OUT IN THE BIG PICTURE of the controversy is how the Catholic Church dealt with the problem of "looting" of treasures in Boljoon and other parishes.

First, on the case of the parish priest who reportedly was the suspect in the disappearance of the panels. How did the suspect pull it off? And how did the Archdiocese deal with him and the alleged thefts? In four decades, they must have forgiven but not forgotten; they must have picked up some lessons.

Boljoon townsfolk reportedly ostracized the priest and shamed him by shunning his masses and other rituals he officiated. Apparently though, he wasn't prosecuted under criminal law or disciplined by the church: at least, the penalty, if any other than being stripped of the parish, was not publicized. The church is not known for announcing transgressions of its clergy and their consequences.

The public also has not been told of the safeguards the church took after the loss of the panels and other Boljoon artifacts. Neither similar losses in other parishes nor the protective measures taken afterwards were known.


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