Supreme Court (SC)

The Supreme Court (SC) has affirmed the conviction of a teacher for lascivious acts and child abuse of his three female students who were all 13 years old in 2016 when the criminal acts were committed.

Affirmed with modification by the SC was the 2018 conviction of Michael John Sodela Dela Cruz handed down by the Court of Appeals (CA) which upheld the 2017 ruling of the regional trial court (RTC).

The names of three girls were denominated in the SC decision as “AAA,” “BBB,” and “CCC.” The SC redacted the place where the crimes were committed, some of the names of the witnesses, and the branch of the RTC which handed down the decision after trial.

DeLa Cruz was found guilty of two counts of lascivious conduct under Section 5(b) of RA 7610, the Special Protection of Children Against Child Abuse, Exploitation, and Discrimination Act, on the charges filed by “AAA.”

He was sentenced to jail term ranging from 14 years and eight months to 20 years. As modified by the SC, he was also ordered to pay P50,000 in civil indemnity, P50,000 in moral damages, and P50,000 in exemplary damages for each count.

In the two cases filed by “BBB” and one case lodged by “CCC,” Dela Cruz was found guilty of three counts of child abuse under Section 10(a) of RA 7610.

For each of the three counts, he was sentenced to four years, nine months and 11 days as minimum to seven years and four months as maximum. He was also ordered to pay P20,000 in civil indemnity, P20,000 in moral damages, and P20,000 in exemplary damages for each count.

In the five cases, the prosecution said the criminal offenses were committed by Dela Cruz “with lewd design, and with the use of force, coercion and his influence on the victims.”

In “AAA’s” complaints, the prosecution told the court that Dela Cruz “willfully, unlawfully and feloniously kissed her lips and caressed her breast against her will and without her consent…” two times on Jan. 26 and on April 20, 2016.

In “BBB’s” complaints, the prosecution said Dela Cruz also asked her to kiss him sometime first week of August 2016, and “touched her thigh against her will and without her consent’ on Aug. 18 2016.

In “CCC’s” complaint, Dela Cruz was indicted by the prosecution for “commanding her to kiss her boyfriend and do lascivious acts, against her will and without her consent” on Aug. 18, 2016.

Dela Cruz denied all the allegations in the criminal charges.

In convicting Dela Cruz, the RTC ruled that the three complainants had no ill motive to concoct such serious allegations against him.

The RTC said: “Even more repulsive is the fact that Dela Cruz was the teacher of ‘AAA’ who was proved in open court to be minor. Dela Cruz’s role as ‘AAA’s’ teacher was a component in allowing him to wield influence upon his student. By virtue of his ascendancy, and the probability of giving her a failing grade, ‘AAA’ had no choice but to submit to his sexual advances.”

In the cases of “BBB” and “CCC,” the trial court said that “the devious acts of petitioner (Dela Cruz) in making sexual advances upon his students, courting them, and encouraging them to perform sexual acts debased, degraded, and demeaned the intrinsic worth of ‘BBB’ and ‘CCC.’”

“Surely, such betrayal of trust from their teacher, who was expected to guide and nurture them, gravely threatened their normal development,” the trial court stressed.

When the CA denied Dela Cruz’s appeal, he elevated the case before the SC which denied his petition in a decision written by Associate Justice Jhosep Y. Lopez. The decision in GR No. 245516 was made public last Dec. 20.

“Once again, this Court is confronted with the opportunity not only to dispense justice to assuage the sufferings of child victims, but to also breathe life to the provisions of RA 7610… and its implementing rules,” the SC said in denying the petition.

Reiterating its 2002 ruling on the same issue, the SC said: “”As the highest court of the land, it is incumbent upon us to give life to all these covenants, agreements, and statutes by enriching and enhancing our jurisprudence on child abuse cases, bearing in mind always the welfare and protection of children.”

The SC also said:

“A child is deemed subjected to ‘other sexual abuse’ under Section 5(b) of R.A. No. 7610 when the child is subjected to lascivious conduct under the coercion and influence of any adult. Case law clarifies that intimidation need not necessarily be irresistible. It is sufficient that some compulsion equivalent to intimidation annuls or subdues the free exercise of the will of the offended party.

“This is especially true in the case of young, innocent, and immature girls who could not be expected to act with equanimity of disposition and with nerves of steel. Young girls cannot be expected to act like adults under the same circumstances to have the courage and intelligence to disregard the threat.

“It cannot be denied that the presence of coercion and intimidation is attendant in this case. As aptly found by the RTC and the CA, the fact that the accused (Dela Cruz) is the subject teacher of ‘AAA’ played a great role for the latter to satisfy his dastardly desires.

“Clearly, ‘AAA,’ a minor, was vulnerable and would have been easily intimidated by an attacker who is not only a grown man. but is also someone exercising moral influence or ascendancy over her. It is doctrinal that moral influence or ascendancy takes the place of violence and intimidation.

“In the same vein, the Court finds no compelling reason to overturn the ruling of the RTC and the CA in finding petitioner guilty of child abuse under Section l0(a) of R.A. No. 7610.

“Verily, a person who commits an act that debases, degrades, or demeans the intrinsic worth and dignity of the child as a human being, whether habitual or not, can be held liable for above-mentioned provisions of R.A. No. 7610.

“While it may be true that not every instance of laying of hands on the child would constitute child abuse, petitioner’s intention can be inferred from the manner in which he committed the acts complained of.

“It bears stressing that coercion and intimidation is not a material element for an accused to be held culpable under this section. On this score, petitioner’s acts of courting ‘BBB,’ and in another occasion, touching her thighs in front of her classmates, while also ordering ‘CCC’ and her boyfriend to kiss in front of him surely debase, degrade, and demean their intrinsic worth and dignity as children. These acts are manifestly prejudicial to their normal development, in light of their mental capacity and emotional maturity as minors.

“Given that the perpetrator was no less than someone who was expected to raise his students as responsible members of society, the incidents only made the school a hostile environment, where complainants are no longer able to freely learn and maximize their education.

“Even more perplexing, being asked to kiss or being subjected to inappropriate touching in a public place is a humiliating and traumatizing experience for all persons regardless of age.

“Aside from harping on the inconsequential inconsistences of private complainants’ testimony, petitioner interposes the defense of denial. It is an established rule, however, that denial is an inherently weak defense and constitutes self-serving negative evidence, which cannot be accorded greater evidentiary weight than the positive declaration by credible witnesses.

“Mere denial, without any strong evidence to support it, can scarcely overcome the unequivocal declarations by child victims regarding the identity of the accused and his involvement in the crime attributed to him.

“Here, the positive testimonies of the complainants, further bolstered by the narrations of… and … as the school’s guidance counselor, outweighs the denial proffered by petitioner.

“WHEREFORE, in view of the foregoing, the Petition is DENIED. The Decision dated Oct. 30, 2018 and the Resolution dated Feb. 21, 2019 of the Court of Appeals in CA–G.R. CR No. 40957 is AFFIRMED with MODIFICATION. SO ORDERED.”

Source: Manila Bulletin (