MANILA – The Supreme Court has suspended a law professor from the Xavier University in Cagayan de Oro City over text messages and sexist conduct which the Court deemed amounted to sexual harassment.
In an 11-page decision dated April 10 but released only on Monday, the Court unanimously barred lawyer Cresencio Co Untian from practicing law for 5 years and from teaching for 10 years.
“Wherefore, respondent Atty. Cresencio P. Co Untian, Jr. is suspended from the practice of law for five (5) years and ten (10) years from teaching law in any school effective upon the finality of this Resolution, with a stern warning that a repetition of the same or similar act will be dealt with more severely,” the Court said through SC Associate Justice Jose Reyes Jr.
The case stemmed from complaints from 3 law students accusing Co Untian of sexual harassment.
One student said Co Untian sent her flowers and romantic messages through text. He also invited her to go to Camiguin, which she turned down.
Another student complained that he showed her a photo of a naked woman that resembled her and teased her in front of other students.
The third student accused the professor of twisting her remarks during a class recitation, “Sir, come again,” to connote sexual meaning and repeating the joke in other classes.
In his defense, Co Untian said the 3 complainants were disgruntled students who flunked his classes in 2001-2002. He justified the text messages “luv u” and “miss u” as friendly messages without malice and his other acts as mere “jokes” to inject humor in class.
The Integrated Bar of the Philippines initially recommended Co Untian’s disbarment due to gross immoral conduct but upon appeal, it reduced the penalty to suspension for 2 years because the acts he allegedly committed do not amount to sexual harassment since there was no evidence that he demanded or requested sexual favors.
The Supreme Court however, disagreed, saying the law does not require that the victim accede to sexual desires of the abuser or that a demand or request for sexual favor be categorically made.
“In short, it is not necessary that there was an offer for sex for there to be sexual harassment as a superior’s conduct with sexual underpinnings, which offends the victim or creates a hostile environment would suffice,” it said, citing a 2000 case where the Court said that the essence of sexual harassment is not the violation of the victim’s sexuality but the abuse of power by the offender.
“What the law aims to punish is the undue exercise of power and authority manifested through sexually charged conduct or one filled with sexual undertones,” it explained.
The Court noted the effect of Co Untian’s conduct on the students: one was deeply distressed and humiliated that she was unable to participate in a moot court competition, another felt uncomfortable with the text messages, while the third student was embarrassed in front of the class.
“Clearly, respondent abused the power and authority he possessed over the complainants. His sexually laced conduct had created a hostile and offensive environment which deeply prejudiced his students. In what was supposed to be a safe place for them to learn and develop, they were instead subjected to unwarranted sexual advances,” the Court ruled.
The Court also reminded Co Untian of the ethical standards of the legal profession as well as his responsibility as a professor.
In a separate concurring opinion, SC Associate Justice Marvic Leonen said he would have wanted Co Untian disbarred, had this not been the first time the high court was required to penalize a law professor for sexually harassing his students.
“Respondent breached his professional relationship with his students when he took liberties with, trivialized, and then embarrassed them. By engaging in talk with undisguised sexual overtones, he forced himself on his students. He created an unnecessary burden on his students, who had to find ways to avoid both the unwanted advance and the embarrassment that they, to begin with, wanted no part of,” he said.
Leonen said the ruling is an acknowledgment that patriarchy in Philippine society exists when a powerful, dominant, molding attitude manifested in demeaning and distressing portrayal of any woman is disguised as jokes – entertaining for men but callous to women.
“That respondent coded his advances through jokes is aggravating. Not only were they means to trivialize, he also wanted to entertain others at the expense of women. He hoped to create an environment that normalized his act. Those who laughed were complicit. The more they laughed, the more his act appeared normal; the more, too, that his act directly caused unsolicited suffering upon his victims,” he said.
Any unsolicited sexual act, Leonen added, is not only uncivilized but also insulting to the legal profession.