Inspiration of a Christian Lawyer by the Martyred Jesuit Priests of El Salvador

In my first visit to El Salvador in April 1989 I did not know anything about the University of Central America (Universidad de Centro America or UCA) or about its Jesuit professors.

UCA's Romero Chapel
UCA’s Romero Chapel
Fr.  Jon Sobrino
Fr. Jon Sobrino

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That started to change when the other members of my delegation and I visited UCA’s beautiful, peaceful campus, in contrast to the noisy bustle of the rest of San Salvador, and when we had an hour’s calm, reasoned conversation with one of its professors, Fr. Jon Sobrino, S.J., a noted liberation theologian. I came away impressed with UCA and with Sobrino.

I, therefore, was shocked six months later to hear the news of the November 16, 1989, murder of six of UCA’s Jesuit professors and their housekeeper and daughter. How could such a horrible crime happen to such intelligent, peaceful human beings in that tranquil, academic setting?

Martyred Jesuits, Housekeeper & Daughter
Martyred Jesuits, Housekeeper & Daughter

I was even more appalled when I learned about the selfless, courageous lives of the murdered Jesuits who used their minds, education and spirits to help the poor people of that country and to work for bringing about a negotiated end to its horrible civil war.

Their deaths were repetitions of the horrible assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero on March 24, 1980, who like the Jesuits had used his mind, education and spirit to help the poor people of his country and to condemn violent violations of human rights. The same was true of another Salvadoran Roman Catholic priest, Rutilio Grande, who was murdered in 1977 because of his protests against the regime’s persecution of the poor people, and of the 1980 murders of the four American churchwomen, who worked with the poor in that country.

Thus, Romero, Grande, the four American churchwomen and the murdered Jesuits are forever linked in my mind as profound Christian witnesses and martyrs. Their examples have strengthened my Christian faith to love God with all your heart, mind and soul and your neighbor as yourself.

UCA's Romero Chapel
UCA’s Romero Chapel
Capilla de Hospital de la Divina Providencia
Capilla de Hospital de la Divina Providencia

 

All of these experiences have inspired me to learn more about El Salvador, Romero, Grande, the churchwomen and the Jesuits’ Christian witness in the midst of violence and threats to their own lives. On my subsequent five trips to that country, I always visit UCA for prayer in the Romero Chapel where the Jesuits’ bodies are buried and in the beautiful chapel of a cancer hospital where Romero was assassinated.

On my 2000 visit to El Salvador for the 20th anniversary of Oscar Romero’s assassination, my group visited UCA to spend time with its then Rector, Dean Brackley, a Jesuit priest from the U.S. who went to El Salvador to help UCA after the murders of his brother priests. He impressed me as a calm voice of reason and passion in UCA’s ministry of helping the poor and the country.

In 2010 I returned to El Salvador for the 30th anniversary of Romero’s assassination. On my delegation’s visit to UCA, we spent time with its then Rector, José Maria Tojeira, S.J.. He was an amazingly serene and soft-spoken man. He told us he was a new “church bureaucrat” (the Jesuit Provincial for Central America) at UCA in November 1989 and lived nearby, but not on the campus. During the night of November 15th-16th he heard gunfire and thought there must have been a skirmish between the Salvadoran security forces and the guerrillas. The next morning he went to the campus and was one of the first people to see the dead bodies of his six fellow Jesuits and their cook and her daughter. He nonchalantly said to our group, “That morning I thought I was the next one to be killed.” Later that day he went to his office and found faxed messages of support and solidarity from people all over the world. Then in the same casual manner, he said he thought, “Well, maybe I am not the next to be killed.”

As a result, my cloud of Salvadoran witnesses includes Oscar Romero; Rutilio Grande; the American churchwomen; the Jesuit priests; Fr. Brackley; Fr. Tojeira; Bishop Menardo Gomez of the Salvadoran Lutheran Church, who escaped a death squad on the night the Jesuits were murdered; Salvador Ibarra, who in 1989 was a lawyer for the Salvadoran Lutheran human rights office; and my Salvadoran asylum clients. Outside of El Salvador, of course, I am impressed by another Jesuit, Pope Francis.

I have been humbled to learn about the incredible courage and minds of the Jesuits, not just at UCA, but at other Jesuit universities that are generally regarded as the best of Roman Catholic institutions of higher learning. Simultaneously I am puzzled how such a marvelous group of religious men could have emerged from the Jesuits who were the shock-troops of the Counter-Reformation and did so many horrible things during the Spanish Inquisition.

All of this also inspired me to become a pro bono lawyer for Salvadorans and later others (an Afghani, a Burmese man, two Somali men and two Colombian families) who were seeking asylum or other legal status that would enable them to remain in the U.S. and escape persecution in their own countries. I always have regarded this as the most important and spiritually rewarding thing I have ever done. As I did so, I often reflected that I was able to do this in the secure and comfortable legal office of a large Minneapolis law firm. I did not have to risk my life to help others as did my Salvadoran saints.

After I had retired from practicing law in 2001, the Jesuits along with Archbishop Oscar Romero continued to inspire me to learn more about international human rights law as I co-taught a course in that subject at the University of Minnesota Law School from 2002 through 2010. In the process, I was amazed to discover the array of inter-related ways the international community had created to seek to enforce international human rights norms in a world still based essentially on the sovereignty of nation states.

I then was inspired to use my legal research and writing skills to investigate how these various ways had been used to attempt to bring to justice the perpetrators of the assassination of Archbishop Romero, the rapes and murders of the American churchwomen and the murderers of the Jesuit priests and then to share the results of that research with others on this blog. Many posts have been written about Romero, including the various unsuccessful legal proceedings to identify and punish those responsible for that crime. Other posts have discussed the criminal case still pending in Spain over the murders of the Jesuits and their housekeeper and daughter while another post summarized other legal proceedings that unsuccessfully sought to assign criminal responsibility for the murders of the Jesuit priests other than the brief imprisonment in El Salvador of two military officers.

I also have written the following other posts prompted by the 25th anniversary celebration of the lives of the priests and commemoration of their murders:

I give thanks to God for leading me in this path of discovery and inspiration.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Persistence of the Inquisition

The Inquisition was a phenomenon limited to fifteenth and sixteenth century Spain. Correct? Not so says Cullen Murphy in his new book, God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World and in the Atlantic Magazine’s excerpt of the book, Torturer’s Apprentice. So too does Adam Gopnik in a recent New Yorker essay about this and related books, Inquiring Minds: The Spanish Inquisition revisited.

As Gopnik puts it,  the Inquisition is “an institution as deeply rooted in modernity as the scientific tradition that it opposed. Its fanaticism, its implicit totalitarianism . . ., its sheer bureaucratic brutality  . . . make it central to who we are and what we do. Its thumbprint is everywhere. . . .” What happens at the U.S. base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba is only one of the recent examples. Another example is the close parallels of the Spanish Inquisition’s interrogation manuals and the current U.S. manuals about “enhanced interrogation.”

Gopnik also criticizes scholars who allegedly delve into the minutia of the Spanish Inquisition and in the process lose the forest for the trees: Benzion Netanyahu (the father of the Israeli Prime Minister), Henry Kamen and Eamon Duffy.

According to Gopnik, history needs to be done with “historical imagination,” which is the “ability to see small and think big.” Without such imagination, the historian “risks a failure of basic human empathy.”  For studying and writing about the Spanish Inquisition, this means, he says, that the historian must imagine “the horror of being burned alive.”

The persistence of the practices of the Inquisition unfortunately continues to be demonstrated by the news of the day. Minneapolis’ Center for Victims of Torture has treated over 23,000 victims over the last 24 years. A similar program at New York City’s Bellevue/N.Y.U. Program for Survivors of Torture recently reported that in its “20 years of examining torture victims, we have seen few as traumatized as the several Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and black site (secret prison) detainees whom we evaluated.” And the European Court of Human Rights recently decided that under the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, the U.K. could not deport a radical Muslim cleric to Jordan because there was a “real risk that evidence obtained by torture will be used against him.”

We also have seen in the following prior posts the persistence of torture and the efforts to stop such conduct:

  • the negotiation and adoption of a multilateral treaty against torture (the International Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment);
  • the U.S. first and second reports to the Committee Against Torture;
  • the U.S. adoption of the Torture Victims Protection Act (TVPA);
  • the U.S. federal court lawsuit under the TVPA over the torture, rape and murders of the four American churchwomen in El Salvador;
  • the criminal cases in Spain under the principle of universal jurisdiction against U.S. officials for alleged torture of detainees in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and for  authoring legal memoranda allegedly justifying torture;
  • the granting of asylum to a Salvadoran for having been tortured in his home country and who came to Minnesota to be treated at the Center for Treatment of Victims of Torture; and
  • the jurisdiction over torture as part of crimes against humanity (Art. 7(1)(f)) and war crimes (Art. 8(2)(a)(ii), 8(2)(c)(i)) for the International Criminal Court and other international criminal tribunals.

As a result, eternal vigilance against torture is necessary. In the U.S., for example, various religious groups have banded together in a National Religious Campaign Against Torture. Its statement of conscience says, “Torture violates the basic dignity of the human person that all religions, in their highest ideals, hold dear. It degrades everyone involved — policy-makers, perpetrators and victims. It contradicts our nation’s most cherished ideals. Any policies that permit torture and inhumane treatment are shocking and morally intolerable.”

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