Catholic leaders, including the papal nuncio to the Philippines, were ordered to leave the Balangiga town plaza in Eastern Samar minutes before President Rodrigo Duterte arrived for the turnover of the three church bells seized as war trophy by United States (US) soldiers more than a century ago, a priest in Borongan claimed.
“Priests, including the Borongan bishop, the Archbishop of the Military Ordinariate (AMS) of the United States, and the Apostolic Nuncio, Archbishop Gabriel Giordano Caccia, were earlier told to go out of the Balangiga plaza,” the Diocese of Borongan posted in its Facebook account on Saturday.
This was corroborated by Fr. Edmel Raagas, chairman of the Commission on Mass Media of the Borongan diocese.
“The instructions came from the Presidential Management Staff,” Raagas said in a statement.
The priest said PMS staff told them Duterte only “wanted” Davao Archbishop Romulo Valles, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines president, present in the ceremonial turnover of the Balangiga Bells.
“When the Nuncio was informed by another bishop to leave, the Nuncio said it would be improper and disrespectful,” he said, so the clergy and priests went back to their seats.
Minutes later, Raagas and another priest were instructed by the PMS to occupy the seats at the back. “Kasi alam niyo naman may issues ang presidente sa inyo (for as you know, the President has issues with you),” the PMS personnel told them.
But the priests refused to budge.
“We refused because as shepherds we carry in our hearts the joys and pains of the flock that we represent in that program who waited 117 years for the return of those bells which are owned by the Church,” Raagas said.
The “PMS” also “suggested” to the priests who graced the event to “remove their Roman collars so as not to offend the President,” Raagas added.
He said chairs were placed in front of the priests so that the President would not see them.
However, Presidential Communications Operations Office Secretary Martin Andanar on Sunday said he did not see any moves to take priests out of the sight of the President during the turnover of the Balangiga bells.
“All I saw was the President greeting the archbishop and the other priests present,” Andanar said.
He added that Duterte even mentioned the priests in his speech.
Duterte, in his speech on Saturday, said the return of the bells took long because it underwent “a long and tedious process.”
“But the long wait is over. The rest of the Filipino nation joins the Diocese of Borongan in celebrating this historic event,” he said.
The President did not attend the High Mass after the turnover of the bells.
Palace spokesman Salvador Panelo said the report is being investigated.
“I was present at the Balangiga turnover ceremonies before and after the President’s arrival at the venue but I did not see any occurrence as described nor hear any complaint coming from the Apostolic Nuncio and the [Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines] President whom I talked to just before the President arrived at the ceremonial place,” Panelo said.
However, he said that if indeed the incident happened, it was not authorized.
“Such unethical conduct can not be sanctioned” by the President, he added.
“It could have been done by someone who represented himself or herself as a staff from the [Presidential Management Staff],” Panelo said.
“His Excellency Gabriele Caccia, Apostolic Nuncio of the Philippines and Most Reverend Archbishop Romulo Valles, President of the CBCP, among others, were seated in the front row and PRRD approached them and exchanged pleasantries with them. He likewise acknowledged their presence in his brief remarks,” he said.
Duterte had frequently attacked the Catholic church and its leaders. He stirred public outrage when he called God “stupid.”
Early this month, he called on Catholics to stop going to church, adding that bishops were better off dead.
In a speech on Thursday last week, the President joked that if there were any priests in the event, he would push them off the stage, especially if they are bishops.