Cagayan prelate slams Duterte for ‘destroying’ slain priest’s name

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Tuguegarao Archbishop Sergio Utleg

TUGUEGARAO Archbishop Sergio Utleg has slammed President Rodrigo Duterte’s “uncalled for” scandalization of the killing of Thomasian priest Fr. Mark Anthony Ventura, saying Duterte’s besmirching of the young cleric was based on “mere speculations.”

“Puro haka-haka [ang] sasabihin niya (Duterte) sa publiko, I think it’s uncalled for and I think it’s destroying the memory of the good priest,” Utleg told the Varsitarian. 

Fr. Mark Anthony Ventura

In a speech during the annual town fiesta of Tabongon in Cebu last May 21, Duterte presented a matrix titled “Shooting to Death of Father Mark Anthony Ventura.” It was unclear how the information was produced.

In the presentation was a diagram titled “Possible Motive (Love Triangle),” accompanied with photos of the 37-year-old Ventura with several women. Previous matrices presented by the President were later found baseless and erroneous.

Utleg said the killing of Ventura, who was the parish priest of Gattaran town, was deeply mourned by Cagayan natives.

“We deeply regret [the slay] of Fr. Ventura, he was a dedicated priest, he did not mind himself. He was loved, he was loved by all,” he added.

Utleg said the slain priest was incapable of committing acts that would violate his priestly vows, as Ventura was always away for missions to help the marginalized in the mountains, where there was little to no electricity and technology.

Utleg said Ventura saw the need to administer the sacraments to those who could not regularly receive them in the parish church, which forced him to frequent the Sierra Madre mountain range to build chapels and offer Church services to the faithful living there.

The archbishop said this might have led the President to speculate that Ventura was aiding New People’s Army rebels in the mountains.

“I really regret that the [President] took that stance and hopefully ‘di masira ang memory ng isang tao na napakabait,” Utleg added.

Duterte said the government was not to blame for the priest’s death.

“Then why blame me? His fellow parish priest is married to a member of the NPA there in Cordillera… It was the NPA who reported first about his death,” Duterte said in Cebuano during his May 21 speech. 

“Look at the matrix. Would you not be killed? You had an affair with the wife of a vice mayor, a police officer, a soldier, a business tycoon. You would really get killed,” Duterte claimed.

Fr. Victor Emmanuel Quintos, Ventura’s friend and a priest in the Archdiocese of Tuguegarao, said that it was “heartless” of the President to conclude “unthinkable” things on Ventura’s life.

“[He] should have not said those words. Nobody deserves to die because he did something wrong. And to mar the memory of a dead man, a dead priest, at that is very insensitive,” Quintos told the Varsitarian.

San Isidro Labrador parish priest Fr. Ramiro Geronimo said that instead of focusing on Duterte’s allegations, the archdiocese would dwell on the results of the investigation. 

“Alam niyo naman we have a President who is a mad man, ‘di ba? Uncalled for pa ‘yong ginawa nya. Lalo na ‘yong pagkabanggit niya because he was invited as a guest speaker doon sa piyesta na ‘yon, tapos ‘yon pa yung sinabi nya,” Geronimo told the Varsitarian.

Ventura was shot dead by armed men riding a motorcycle after celebrating Mass in Gattaran, Cagayan, last April 29. 

Reports from Gattaran police showed that the driver of the motorcycle was linked to the murder of a councilor after the 2010 barangay or village elections. Authorities are now searching for the driver while the gunman remains at large.

Selfless Thomasian priest

Friends and colleagues of Ventura still find it hard to believe that he was killed, as he was a dedicated and selfless servant of the poor.

Ventura was the first priest that Archbishop Utleg ordained upon his appointment to the See of Tuguegarao. 

The archbishop said his dedication to the missions deep in the Sierra Madre mountains was unmatched by any other priest he knew, even himself.

“I know him as a priest, he is the first priest I ordained, very, very good priest, very friendly, he’s always smiling, [and] he’s dedicated,” Utleg said.

Quintos, Ventura’s classmate in San Jacinto Seminary and in UST, said many Cagayan priests admired his missionary spirit.

“I admire his missionary spirit, his willingness to work with the indigenous people and his love for the poor. He was a very affectionate man. From what I gather, Fr. Mark taught the Aetas how to hug,” Emmanuel said.

Ventura had served as director of the San Isidro Labrador Mission Station at Mabuno village in Gattaran. He was also rector of the St. Thomas Aquinas Major Seminary in Lyceum of Appari.

Ventura, who finished his philosophical studies in UST in 2000, was the second priest to be killed in the last six months. Fr. Marcelito Paez, 72, was slain in Jaen, Nueva Ecija also by unidentified gunmen last December 2017.

The killings happened as the Philippine Church marks the Year of the Clergy and Consecrated Persons, declared by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines to begin on Dec. 3, 2017 to and end on Nov. 25, 2018.

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