The first time I met Sister Elen, she was inside a van on her way back to the convent after attending the same meeting I did.
I was standing by the gate waiting for a public ride. The car stopped and the nun, who was with two other sisters, offered me a ride. I accepted, and said I would just get off at a point where I could get a train ride. I knew their convent was in the eastern part of Metro Manila while my residence is out of the way in the far south side of the metropolis.
I wanted to make sure they understood that I did not expect to get off at their destination. But insisting quite vigorously, Sister Elen brought me home, saying it was not safe for me to travel alone. I didn’t even know her name yet then.
Twelve years later, we found ourselves co-accused in a perjury case.
During the period in between, I would often find myself at the receiving end of Sister Elen’s charity and generosity. When many others who were just as vulnerable as myself found themselves in need of support, assistance or assurance, Sister Elen would unselfishly provide help. Going about in her quiet, unassuming ways, she would subtly inject lessons on love for the least and the last while accompanying both the youth and adults in their distinct life journeys.
I later learned about this from my daughter-in-law who shared that their group in their formative teen years considered Sister Elen their “nanay (mother).”
Sister Elenita Belardo, an 83-year-old member of the Religious of the Good Shepherd (RGS), took the witness stand before the Quezon City Metropolitan Trial Court Branch 139 on June 13 to oppose the charge that she and her co-accused perjured and misrepresented the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines (RMP) as an organization duly registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).
A perpetually professed member of the RGS, Sister Elen is an advocate of peasants’ rights and of land reform. As the national coordinator of the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines in 2019, she represented the RMP in a petition for a “writ of amparo” and “habeas data” filed before the Supreme Court in May that year.
The petition named as respondents President Rodrigo Duterte, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, Presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo, military chief Benjamin Madrigal, and National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon, who is the private complainant in the perjury case.
Filed with the Supreme Court, the petition was referred to the Court of Appeals, which dismissed the same in June 2019, citing insufficient evidence to prove the violation of the petitioners’ right to life, liberty, privacy, and security.
A legal remedy, the “writ of amparo” requires government and its forces to provide protection to those whose life, liberty or security are threatened, while the “writ of habeas data” obliges public officials and employees to surrender documents, divulge data or any information that has to do with the security of those whose favor the writ was issued.
Two months after the dismissal of the petitions for “amparo” and “habeas data” in July 2019, Esperon filed the perjury raps against Sister Elenita Belardo, RGS, Roneo Clamor, Cristina Palabay, Gabriela Krista Dalena, Edita Burgos, Jose Mari Callueng, Rev. Wilfredo Ruazol, Elisa Tita P. Lubi, Sister Maria Cupin, Joan May Salvador, and Gertrudes Ranjo-Libang, the same personalities who filed the petitions for “amparo” and “writ of habeas data.” All the accused signed separate Verifications/Certifications for the “writ of amparo” and “habeas data.”
Four months after, in November 2019, a city assistant prosecutor cleared all the accused except for Sister Elen of perjury. However, in February 2020, the perjury charges against all the accused was revived by another prosecutor, stating that all the respondents “cannot feign ignorance” about RMP’s registration.
At the witness stand, soft spoken Sister Elen, contrary to her physical frailty, was firm and alert. Her legal counsel, Atty. Alnie G. Foja described the nun as “a sharp witness and a picture of perfect and dignified calm at the witness stand.”
Impressed by Sister Elen’s mental stamina and transcendent attitude during the three-hour testimony, Atty. Foja drew confidence from the fact that “no cross-examination tactic or technique will ever work against a religious who swore to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, not only before a court of law for the purpose of giving a testimony, but before a Supreme God, in this life and for eternity.”
Sister Elenita said that upon learning of the SEC’s revocation of their permit in 2009, the RMP worked on its re-registration by submitting a board resolution and its General Information Sheet (GIS) that it failed to submit and triggered the revocation of its SEC registration.
Since 2010, the RMP, a church-based organization that helps farmers, fisherfolk, and Indigenous Peoples, regularly submitted its GIS and Financial Statements to the SEC. Records show that the documents were duly received by the SEC.
Atty. Foja stated that clearly “the group only sought protection from the Court against state-sanctioned red-tagging, instead they later found themselves slapped with a criminal complaint for perjury not because their claims of harassment and red-tagging in their petition were tainted with perjury but because, according to Gen. Esperon, Sister Elen deliberately lied about the actual status of the RMP’s SEC registration.”
To this Sister Elen replied, “I am at peace because I did not lie.”
A religious and a good Christian takes his friendship with God very seriously. Speaking the truth or knowing the truth is basic in the growth of this friendship. And when there are forces that threaten this friendship, we take St. Paul’s counsel: “Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place.” (Ephesians 6:14)
Edita Burgos is a doctor of education and a member of the Secular Order of Discalced Carmelites. Gunmen — believed to be soldiers — abducted her son Jonas Burgos in Manila in April 2007. He is still missing.