Loyal friends of Msgr. Cris wish him strength
In the furor over ivory icons and a priest’s dark past that has resurfaced after 28 years, close friends and supporters of Msgr. Cristobal Garcia wait for the storm to pass.
Santiago “Sonny” Academia, head of the Bukas Loob sa Diyos community in Cebu, said their members were alarmed to read about the controversies in the newspapers this week.
But after the initial shock, they have banded together to hold prayer vigils for Garcia, withhold judgment, and stay in touch.
“We are communicating with him through e-mail. He is talking about the cross that he has to carry,” said Academia in an interview.
“We do not believe in all these things being said. Personally, between 1,000 accusations and one word from Cris, I still believe in Cris. He has been a good shepherd to me,” said Academia who is “shepherding” five BLD districts in Cebu, Dumaguete, Tagbilaran, Ormoc and Cagayan de Oro
The BLD Covenant Community is an association of Catholic lay members which started in Manila in 1985 and has since grown into an international organization. Its members draw heavily from the middle class, professionals and the well educated.
Garcia hasn’t been seen in Cebu since June. Cebu Archbishop Jose Palma last Wednesday said the diocesan priest was “sick” and in a Makati hospital for a checkup for various ailments, and that an investigation would have to wait until he is in better health.
The monsignor, whose booming voice, jovial personality and mastery of liturgy made him well suited as chairman of the Commission on Worship of the Cebu Archdiocese, was replaced as BLD Cebu’s spiritual director in June by Fr. Ramon Ofredo. But the change announced after Mass in church on July 3 by Archbishop Palma, came with no public mention of a scandal behind it.
A certificate of appreciation was given to Garcia for his serving as BLD’s spritual director for 23 years. His mother Nena received it in his absence.
“I have been under Msgr. Chris. I have become a better Christian, better father and husband. I have not encountered any questionable dealings with Msgr. Cris. I would vouch for him,” said Academia, who confirmed that no one suspected anything was amiss and even thought Garcia went to Manila for a medical checkup and for a “higher assisgnment”.
On Sept 22, National Geographic magazine’s October cover story about ivory smugging “Ivory Worship” was released online, and thrust Garcia in the limelight.
The writer who interviewed him said Garcia revealed his “favorite ivory carvers” in Manila and gave him tips on how to smuggle an ivory icon to the United States, aside from showing several ivory religious statues in his convent in Talisay.
The same article mentioned that Garcia had a lawsuit over a complaint that he sexually abused a teenage altar boy in Los Angeles in the mid 1980s, for which he was dismissed by the Dominican order only to return to Cebu where he was promoted to monsignor.
The California lawsuit (which ended in a financial settlement) and Garcia’s exit from the Dominicans was no secret to his family, some of his followers and close church observers in Cebu but what shocked everyone was Archbishop Palma’s announcement this week, in response to the NatGeo story, that the Vatican was investigating Garcia for a charge of “pederasty” – sexual relations between a man and a boy – arising from the California case in the 1980s. He said the inquiry started before the magazine story broke, hence Garcia’s removal from all posts in the Cebu Archdiocese since June and the suspension of his “priestly faculties” to celebrate Mass in public and administer the sacraments. No other details were given.
Garcia’s well known extensive collection of religious icons housed in a shrine in barangay Cansojong, Talisay City, where he founded the Society of Angel of Peace, is the first target of investigation of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). Undersecretary Ernesto Adobo flew in from Manila but a surprise visit to the compound on Friday afternoon saw them turned away at the gate for lack of a search warrant.
“To hear accusations like that,” said Academia in an interview, “in a Christian community, we are expecting what we call ‘oppression’.”
“In other words, we will have a cross for you to carry. Our master, who is Jesus Christ, had to be nailed to the cross for what he believed. If this is the cross that one has to carry as a Christian, we carry it joyfully.”
The leader of the Catholic charismatic community didn’t seem put off by the grave accusations against the monsignor.
Garcia is also well respected by Sto. Niño devotees in Cebu, who look forward to Garcia presiding over major Catholic celebrations in the annual Feast of the Señor Sto. Niño in January, including his annual exhibit of icons of the baby Jesus in all sizes and materials.
“It doesn’t matter to us. Everybody has a past,” said Academia. “Everybody has an option to renew one’s life for the better. Who is that one who has no past? Everybody is a sinner. We can always turn around. ‘Wash me, Lord and lead me.’ That is what Msgr. Cris did to us.”
The BLD leader said lay members are organizing vigils for Garcia, and have “synchronized prayer brigades” for the accused priest, trusting that “God will intervene”.
“We are praying for strength, that he will be able to weather the trial and burdens that come his way,” said Academia.
Meanwhile, lawyer Johnson Hontanosas, a BLD member, lamented that the belated suspension of Msgr. Garcia by the Vatican was “unfair and disappointing” as it comes more than two and a half decades of “inaction”.
He said there was “scant basis in temporal and canon law” for it as well as “common sense.” (See his full commentary in Opinion page 14.)
Hontanosas said that under universal legal principles, an offense can, over a period of time, no longer be subject of legal action and that liability can be wiped out.
In the Revised Penal Code of the Philippines, which he cited, the worst crime or a capital offense prescribes in 20 years and is extinguished in 25 years.
He also pointed out that in Canon law, forgiveness of a sin and the sinner who repents is instantenous.
The lawyer said the Holy See, instead of acting immediately on the case of an erring priest, “allowed him to move on and become a very successful evangelist who touched lives as he touched mine and the BLD flock of Cebu, which is the core of BLD flocks in Central Visayas and Northern Mindanao, as well as the lives of faithful believers and countles Sto. Niño devotees all over!”With INQUIRER, Ador Vincent Mayol and Eileen Mangubat
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