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Opinion | National

MEL STA. MARIA | Though deserving of censure, Carlos Celdran is no criminal
The online news portal of TV5

Atty. Mel Sta. Maria teaches at the Ateneo School of Law. He is the resident legal analyst of TV5.

As I said in my previous article, Carlos Celdran has a very legitimate advocacy. But I also think that the manner by which he manifested that advocacy was distasteful. He did it inside a church with priests, bishops and the faithful as witnesses while an ecumenical prayer service was going on. And I said too that it was crazy to say that no one was offended by his act. For me, Carlos Celdran definitely went beyond the boundaries of decent protest.

But is that enough to make Carlos Celdran a criminal under Article 133 of the Revised Penal Code? Though what he did was despicable to many, my answer is "NO". His criminal conviction, I believe, should be reversed.

First, in the commission of a crime pursuant to our 80-year-old- Revised Penal Code under which Celdran was judged, it is a basic rule that there is no crime when there is no criminal mind. Actus non facit reum, nisi mens sit rea. Thus in Bagajo vs. Marave decided by our Supreme Court where a teacher inflicted corporal punishment on a student resulting in injuries, the Supreme Court ruled that the teacher cannot be considered a criminal under the Revised Penal Code because her intention, which was duly proven in court, was to discipline the child. There was no criminal intent. Though liable administratively, the teacher was acquitted of the crime of physical injuries. (This case was decided prior to the modern RA NO. 7610 "Child Abuse Law" where intent appears to be immaterial.)

In the case of Carlos Celdran, I am convinced that it was farthest from his mind to commit a crime when he protested. Though his ways were intrusive, there was no premeditated desire to feloniously injure the feelings of the faithful. His actions may have been offensive to those present, but his intentions were only to relay his protest against the very strong and equally offensive stand of the religious on the RH issue. Like the teacher in the Bagajo case, Celdran may have overstepped the bounds of acceptability, but his intentions were not evil. Again, under the Revised Penal Code, there is no crime when there is no criminal mind.

Second, former United State Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren once said, "it is the spirit and not the form of the law that keeps justice alive." This statement was inspired by the biblical tenet that says "not of the letter, but of the spirit; for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life."

In the conviction of Celdran, the letter of the law was so literally applied without having regard to the law's true intention. Article 133 of the Revised Penal Code provides the penalty for imprisonment "upon anyone who, in a place devoted to religious worship or during the celebration of any religious ceremony, shall perform acts notoriously offensive to the feelings of the faithful."

Anything can be "notoriously offensive", but a broad interpretation of this phrase is not the spirit of the law. In fact, as early as 1939, Justice Jose Laurel, citing Spanish legal authorities interpreting the Spanish law from which Article 133 was patterned, already opined that an act,

"in order to be considered as notoriously offensive to the religious feelings, must be one directed against religious practice or dogma or ritual for the purpose of ridicule; the offender, for instance, mocks, scoffs at or attempts to damage an object of religious veneration; it must be abusive, insulting and obnoxious."

Celdran may have been "notoriously offensive" within the literal letter of the law, but it was not the kind of notoriety which was within the spirit of the law. Accordingly, the result, I believe, was a wrongful verdict against Celdran. What was applied to him was strictly limited to the law's words that "killeth" without regard to the spirit "that keeps justice alive."

If we are to apply Article 133 of the Revised Penal Code the way it was applied to convict Celdran, then the State might as well file criminal cases against those priests who were vitriolic in their homilies against pro-RH advocates.

The law cannot be one-sided. It must apply to all. Atty. Ampy Sta.Maria, my wife and a human rights advocate, had this eye-opening observation on her Facebook Timeline. She said:

"Some of my acquaintances and I, myself, should have thought about this law when we were hearing vicious attacks from the pulpit against those who supported the RH Bill while attending the mass because we, as part of the 'faithful', naturally found these attacks 'offensive' - especially those referring to us as being spawns of Satan and that we deserve to be ex-communicated. Did we count as members of the 'faithful'? Definitely. So could the priests and bishops qualify as 'offenders' even though they were the ones celebrating the mass? I should think so. And with all the feelings of hate and resentment generated by their ungodly attacks, I think they anticipated that something like what Celdran did could happen. Thus, the question is: did Celdran commit an act which is 'notoriously' offensive? Not all that is offensive should be dealt with with a criminal liability. What our laws should criminalize are acts within the purview of 'hate crimes' - those committed because of discriminatory sentiments, bias and prejudice.

The mass does not give them the blanket authority to be offensive in the homily. Discourse is one thing, being slandered is another. As a mass-goer, and listening to the homily, I do not expect to be labeled an anti-life, anti-family, anti-Mary, anti-Christ, and to be blackmailed with ex-communication. I am part of the Church, too, and have the right to engage them in issues where we do not agree. It is not proper for them to use the mass for uttering these scathing words. But some of us tolerate them out of reverence for the institution itself. Some of us think otherwise and strike back - in the very venue where the attacks started. And so my point is, having this as context, could the act of Celdran be considered notorious, because the law requires the act to be one before you become liable."

I agree with the observations of Atty. Ampy.

I still do not like what Carlos Celdran did inside the church. It was despicable. Everytime I see Celdran's picture where he, costumed and all and with an emoting face, appears to be in jail clutching its bars with both hands, I could only see hubris. True, he may have apologized, but I have always believed that the pre-requisite for an authentic apology is humility.

Civilly, a case for civil damages against Celdran could have been filed by those priests who were present during the ecumenical prayer service for disrespecting the exercise of their religion. But this has become irrelevant considering the acceptance of Celdran's apology by the Church hierarchy .

In the end, however, eventhough Carlos Celdran may be obnoxious to many, I believe he did not commit a crime - at least not under Article 133 of our 80-year-old Revised Penal Code. He should have been acquitted of the charge.