A.C. No. 5900 — April 10, 2019
RE: ANONYMOUS COMPLAINT AGAINST ATTY. CRESENCIO P. CO UNTIAN, JR.
A complaint was filed requesting the Court to investigate the alleged sexual harassments that respondent had committed against students of Xavier, particularly Antoinette Toyco, Christina Sagarbarria and Lea Dal.
Toyco claimed that respondent initially expressed amorous interest when he sent her flowers anonymously through another law student. She stated that thereafter, respondent would often text her through the phone of another law student. Toyco noted eventually that respondent texted her through his own phone where he would send romantic messages, poems, love notes and sweet nothings. She said that respondent also invited her to go to Camiguin with another law student but she turned it down. Toyco explained that while she was never sexually assaulted, respondent’s unwelcome advances made her feel degraded as she could not easily ignore respondent for fear of reprisal.
On the other hand, Sagarbarria narrated that respondent showed her a photograph revealing only the face of a woman and asked her if she knew who the woman in the picture was. After she realized that the woman in the picture looked like her, respondent revealed the entire photograph revealing a naked woman and teased her within hearing distance of other law students. Sagarbarria denied that she was the woman because she had a distinctive mark on her back for the past six years. She averred that the incident caused her depression, fearing what other law students may think of her. Sagarbarria highlighted that she was unable to participate in a scheduled moot court competition because she broke down in the middle of practice and cried uncontrollably.
Meanwhile, Dal recounted that in one of her recitations during respondent’s class, she clarified a question propounded to her saying “Sir, come again?” Respondent retorted “What? You want me to come again? I have not come the first time and don’t you know that it took me five minutes to come, and you want me to come again?” She later learned that respondent would narrate the said incident to almost all of his classes. Dal felt offended that she was subjected to such sexually charged language and the fact that her embarrassment was retold in other classes.
The Committee on Decorum made a resolution recommending the respondent’s teaching contract not be renewed on account of the accusations of sexual harassment against him. It explained that respondent was guilty of violating Xavier’s anti-sexual harassment guidelines. The Committee on Decorum noted that respondent’s unwanted sexual advances or innuendos caused distress to the complaining students as it created a hostile or offensive environment.
The respondent lamented that the complaints for sexual harassment was made by disgruntled students who failed their classes for the 2001-2002 school year as manifested by the fact that the incidents happened years apart but the complaints were made all at the same time. He denied sending flowers and text messages with romantic undertones to Toyco. He highlighted that it was in fact her who gave him gifts during Valentine’s Day in 2002. He added that he texting “luv u” and “miss u” are friendly text messages sent without malice especially considering that they were misspelled. As to Sagarbarria’s allegations, respondent countered that he confiscated the photograph from another student and jokingly showed it to her in the spirit of their open and uninhibited relationship. He noted that Sagarbarria is his niece and they were previously close as they would oftentimes exchange discussions on sensitive and mature matters as adults without any malice. Respondent claimed that she was never humiliated when he showed her the photograph because she even gamely lowered down her pants to prove that it was not her in the photograph because unlike her, the naked woman did not have any tattoo. On the other hand, respondent explained that Dal answered disrespectfully when she was called for recitation uttering “Come again?” He posited that to inject humor during class, he responded “Never use slang language in my class because you might be misinterpreted. What do you mean by ‘come again?’ It takes me several minutes before I come again.” Respondent expounded that the joke was directed at himself and that Dal never showed any resentment or showed any sign of humiliation as she even laughed at the joke and continued to sit in front of the class.
Commissioner Salvador B. Hababag recommended that respondent be suspended from the practice of law for two years. Integrated Bar of the Philippines-Board of Governors (IBP-BOG) affirmed with modification the recommendation of Commissioner Hababag. It resolved to disbar respondent on the ground of gross immoral conduct.
Director Ramon S. Esguerra in his Extended Resolution explained that respondent was not guilty of sexual harassment as defined under Republic Act (R.A.) No. 7877 or the “Anti-Sexual Harassment Law of 1995.” He noted that there was no evidence to show that respondent demanded or requested sexual favors from Toyco, Sagarbarria and Dal. He postulated that the penalty of two years suspension is a sufficient sanction to protect the public and the legal profession.
Whether or not respondent violated the Code of Professional Responsibility.
Rule 1.01 of the Code of Professional Responsibility (CPR) provides that a lawyer shall not engage in an unlawful, dishonest, immoral or deceitful conduct. On the other hand, Canon 7 mandates that lawyers shall, at all times, uphold the integrity and dignity of the legal profession. Further, Rule 7.03 of the CPR commands lawyers not to engage in conduct that adversely reflects on his fitness to practice law, or behave in a scandalous manner to the discredit of the legal profession.
Much is expected of lawyers in that it does not suffice that they are persons of integrity and values, but must also appear to be so in the eyes of the people, and of God. Notwithstanding the relativity of morality, lawyers, as keepers of public faith, are burdened with a high degree of social responsibility — they must handle their personal affairs with greater caution. In other words, members of the bar are measured in a more demanding light because their actions or inactions not only affect themselves, but also the legal profession and the public’s trust and respect for the law. As such, any errant behavior on the part of the lawyer, whether in a public or private capacity, which tends to show deficiency in moral character, honesty, probity or good demeanor, is sufficient to warrant suspension or disbarment.
It must be remembered that lawyers are both preachers and stewards of law, justice, morals and fairness in that they are duty-bound to propagate observance and deference thereto. It is not enough that they know right from wrong, just from unjust, moral or immoral, because they must not only speak of such ideals, but must also live by them. Lawyers, aside from being competent and adept in dealing with the intricacies of the law, must also be individuals of honor and virtue. Legal knowledge and ability, without the guidance of morals and justice, is a dangerous tool, which may harm, instead of uplift others.
Respondent’s responsibilities and expectations are even more heightened because he is a law professor. He should be a beacon of righteous and conscientious conduct. Respondent, as a molder of minds of soon-to-be lawyers, should guide his students to behave and act in a manner consistent with the lofty standards of the legal profession. Instead, he abused his position of authority creating an offensive and uncomfortable atmosphere in school. Again, what should be a place of learning and growth had become a place of fear and distrust for the affected students.
Further, it is even more disappointing that respondent fails to acknowledge the consequences of his actions and disregard the hurt Sagarbarria, Toyco and Dal may have felt. He generally claimed that they did not express any distress, embarrassment, or humiliation during the incidents complained of. It must be stressed that as their law professor, respondent exercised moral ascendancy over them. Thus, it is within reason that the concerned students could not have readily expressed disgust or annoyance over a person in authority. It takes courage and strength to stand up and speak against any form of sexual harassment. This is especially true considering that in most cases, the offender wields power, authority, or influence over the victim.
A Nexus alumni writer and contributor.