Supreme Court Clarifies Section 10(a) of Child Abuse Law
August 11, 2023
Section 10(a) of Republic Act No. 7610, or the Special Protection of Children Against Abuse, Exploitation and Discrimination Act (RA 7610), applies to acts covered by the Revised Penal Code (RPC).
Thus ruled the Supreme Court En Banc in a 24-page Decision penned by Justice Jhosep Y. Lopez, denying the petition by Marvin L. San Juan, which challenged the convictions issued by the Regional Trial Court (RTC) and the Court of Appeals.
The case stemmed from the Information filed against San Juan, a police officer, charging him with subjecting 15-year-old AAA to “psychological cruelty and emotional maltreatment” for pointing a gun at the minor.
San Juan was convicted by the RTC of child abuse under Section 10(a) of RA 7610. The Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction but modified the designation of the offense as “grave threats in relation to Section 10(a) of [RA 7610].”
In sustaining the conviction, the Supreme Court adopted the factual findings of the lower courts. However, the Court further resolved whether San Juan should be held guilty of grave threats under the RPC or for violation of RA 7610.
In resolving the issue, the Court clarified how Section 10(a) of RA 7610 should be interpreted, the text of which reads:
Section 10. Other Acts of Neglect, Abuse, Cruelty or Exploitation and Other Conditions Prejudicial to the Child’s Development. –
(a) Any person who shall commit any other acts of child abuse, cruelty or exploitation or to be responsible for other conditions prejudicial to the child’s development including those covered by Article 59 of Presidential Decree No. 603 [or the Child and Youth Welfare Code], as amended, but not covered by the Revised Penal Code, as amended, shall suffer the penalty of prision mayor in its minimum period. [Emphasis supplied]
Citing its previous ruling in Araneta v. People, the Court noted that Section 10(a) contemplates four distinct acts: (a) child abuse, (b) child cruelty, (c) child exploitation, and (d) being responsible for conditions prejudicial to the child’s development.
The Court held that in order to determine what crime San Juan is guilty of, the phrase “but not covered by the [RPC], as amended” in Section 10(a) of RA 7610 must first be clarified.
The Court noted there are two possible interpretations of this phrase: (1) that the phrase qualifies only the immediate words, i.e. “including those covered by Article 59 of Presidential Decree No. 603 [PD 603], as amended”; or (2) that the phrase qualifies all of the four acts enumerated in Section 10(a).
Under the first interpretation, Section 10(a) applies to acts covered by the RPC as well as acts under Article 59 of PD 603 that are not covered by the RPC. The second interpretation, on the other hand, precludes the application of Section 10(a) to acts already covered by the RPC.
The Court ruled that the correct interpretation is the first, following the doctrine of last antecedent and the rule of ad proximum antecedens fiat relatio nisi impediatur sentencia (relative words refer to the nearest antecedent, unless it is prevented by the context).
Under the doctrine of last antecedent, qualifying words, clauses, and phrases refer only to the next immediate antecedent and not to the remote antecedents, unless such interpretation is prevented by the context, held the Court.
The Court thus ruled that applying this doctrine, the phrase “but not covered by the [RPC], as amended,” only qualifies the immediately preceding antecedent phrase “including those covered by Article 59 of [PD 603], as amended” and not the acts enumerating the offense under Section 10(a) of RA 7610.
The Court also noted that this interpretation is supported by the intention of Congress in introducing Section 10(a) of RA 7610 to increase the penalties for acts committed against children as enumerated under the RPC and PD 603, consistent with the goal of the law to protect children and serve as a deterrence against abuses committed against them. “This signifies the intention of the legislature to bring within the ambit of [RA 7610] the provisions of Article 59 of [PD 603] that are not covered by the RPC, as well as those falling under the RPC,” said the Court.
“An interpretation of the phrase ‘but not covered by the [RPC], as amended,’ that would render the application of RA 7610 only when the act is not covered by the RPC would be contrary to the intention of the legislature,” the Court ruled.
Applying this interpretation to the case of San Juan, the Court held that San Juan’s threats to the life of AAA “must be examined under the auspices of [RA 7610], especially that the Information alleges psychological harm and cruelty committed against a child, which clearly falls under Section 10(a) of [RA 7610].”
In relation to the examination of Section 10(a), the Court also discussed the distinction between Section 3(b)(1) and Section 3(b)(2) of RA 7610, which read:
Section 3. Definition of Terms. –
(b) “Child abuse” refers to the maltreatment, whether habitual or not, of the child which includes any of the following:
(1) Psychological and physical abuse, neglect, cruelty, sexual abuse and emotional maltreatment;
(2) Any act by deeds or words which debases, degrades or demeans the intrinsic worth and dignity of a child as a human being; [Emphases supplied]
The Court held that Section 3(b)(1) focuses on the act and the general criminal intent to commit the physical or psychological abuse, while Section 3(b)(2), in addition to general criminal intent, requires specific criminal intent to debase, degrade or demean the intrinsic worth of the child as a human being.
“Unlike in cases where the surrounding circumstances of the act were examined to determine the specific intent to degrade, debase or demean the intrinsic worth and dignity of the child, an act that is intrinsically cruel may already be examined based on Section 3(b)(1) of [RA 7610]. When the act itself is examined based on the inherent characteristic of the act itself and the manner of its execution, and it later turns out to be intrinsically cruel, there should be no need to look into the specific intent,” explained the Court.
“[T]he term cruelty, when not qualified by the terms “to debase, degrade or demean the intrinsic worth and dignity of the child, may still be utilized based on its common usage,” the Court said.
In the case of San Juan, the Court found that the Information against him does not carry the qualifying allegations of “debased, degraded or demeaned the intrinsic worth and dignity of the child.”
Thus, the term “cruelty” as found in Section 3(b)(1) cannot be automatically associated with Section 3(b)(2), which requires an additional requirement of proof of specific intent, especially when it does not contain the material allegations of “debased, degraded or demeaned the intrinsic worth and dignity of the child,” said the Court.
The Court hence analyzed the allegation of “cruelty” in the Information against San Juan based on the term’s common usage, finding San Juan’s use of firearm as inherently carrying a malicious intent liable for violation of Section 10(a) in relation to Section 3(b)(1) of RA 7610.
“[C]hildren, recognized as the most vulnerable members of society, can offer no resistance against an armed officer, and in all likelihood, would be scarred by trauma long after the incident. A gun, when used to threaten an individual, moreso a minor, would undoubtedly create a lasting fear that could persist throughout the minor’s life; worse, such an incident could further erode and even endanger the minor’s psychological state and normal development,” stressed the Court. (Courtesy of the Supreme Court Public Information Office)
Full text of G.R. No. 236628 (San Juan v. People, January 17, 2023) at: https://sc.judiciary.gov.ph/236628-marvin-l-san-juan-vs-people-of-the-philippines/
Text of the Concurring Opinion of Senior Associate Justice Marvic M.V.F. Leonen at: https://sc.judiciary.gov.ph/236628-concurring-opinion-justice-marvic-m-v-f-leonen/
Text of the Dissenting Opinion of Justice Alfredo Benjamin S. Caguioa: https://sc.judiciary.gov.ph/236628-dissenting-opinion-justice-alfredo-benjamin-s-caguioa/
Text of the Concurrence of Justice Amy C. Lazaro-Javier at: https://sc.judiciary.gov.ph/236628-concurrence-justice-amy-c-lazaro-javier/