Cebu Capitol set to file case against National Museum officials over church panels

The Cebu Provincial Government is preparing a case against officials of the National Museum of the Philippines (NMP) on the issue over the four pulpit panels stolen from the heritage church of Boljoon in southern Cebu.

The Cebu Provincial Board (PB) approved via a unanimous vote in its regular session this afternoon, Monday, the authorization for Cebu Gov. Gwendolyn Garcia to file the “appropriate case” against NMP officials and “any person who kept the said panels after it was stolen.”

There is no information yet on the nature of the case and how many will be filed but a source told me it will be related to the Anti-Fencing Law and the Anti-Red Tape Act. Apparently the NMP never answered Gov. Garcia’s letter. (Disclosure: I haven’t been able to verify this piece of information with the governor’s legal team. The person who shared this, however, is an insider.)

The resolution, filed by 5th District PB Member Andrei Duterte, had the title “Resolution authorizing Governor Gwendolyn F. Garcia to file the appropriate case against National Museum of the Philippines officials who refused to return the stolen pulpit panels to the Archdiocesan Shrine of Patrocinio de Maria Santisima Church in Boljoon. Cebu and against any person who kept the said panels after it was stolen.”

The PB resolution said Gov. Garcia sent a letter to the NMP last February 26, 2024 “urgently requesting for the return” of the panels. The NMP never responded to that letter, according to the resolution.

Officials of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) led by Chairman Ino Manalo, Commissioner for Cultural Heritage Ivan Henares, and Cultural Properties Protection and Regulation Division Chief Joseph Patrick Lee met with Gov. Garcia at the Capitol last March 13, 2024. During that meeting, Gov. Garcia was told that a commitment was made to return the panels.

“There was a commitment to return” the panels, Dr. Jose Eleazar Bersales told Garcia at that meeting. Bersales is the Provincial Government’s Consultant on Museums and Heritage. He accompanied NCCA officials during their visit to Boljoon to talk to town officials about the panels.

Manalo, however, told Garcia that the final decision will be made by the NMP.

NMP Board of Trustees Chairman Andoni Aboitiz is scheduled to meet with Cebu Archbishop Jose S. Palma in the middle of April to discuss the panels.

Aboitiz met with Gov. Garcia last February 27 at the Capitol. In an interview with Rappler, Aboitiz said they wanted to look into how the panels were lost from the church and ended up in the hands of private collectors Edwin and Aileen Bautista.

The Bautistas donated the panels to NMP and its exhibition as a “Gift to the Nation” triggered the outcry for its return to Boljoon. Both Palma and Garcia, along with legislative councils in Cebu, said the panels were stolen and should be returned to Boljoon.

Garcia told NCCA officials during the March 13 meeting that the panels were stolen because they belong to the church. “So any stolen item, even though years may have passed and these are eventually officially donated, are still stolen items.”

Palma, on the other hand, said in a statement he released to call for the panels’ return that these were not works of art but sacred objects of the church.

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