Slain churchwomen live in campaign for justice
Families on a 20-year pursuit of truth
BY ELINOR J. BRECHER
To the jury, they are one-dimensional images: smiling faces in
black-and-white snapshots, or bloated corpses in the khaki-colored dirt.
To a group of intensely focused men and women in the gallery,
they remain whole
people 20 years after their horrific deaths: martyred sisters, aunts and friends in
El Salvador's bloody, 12-year civil war.
They were Sisters Ita Ford, Maura Clarke and Dorothy Kazel and
Jean Donovan, four American churchwomen abducted, raped and murdered by five
Salvadoran National Guardsmen on Dec. 2, 1980.
The women's families are suing the guardsmen's commanders, former
Defense Minister José Guillermo García, 67, and former National Guard Director
Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, 62, both retired in Florida.
They have pursued the two men all the way to a Palm Beach County
courtroom, where the ex-generals sit impassively until it's time to take the stand
and defend themselves.
The suit, based on the 1992 United States Torture Victim Protection
that under the ``theory of command'' principle, superior officers can be liable for
their subordinates' extrajudicial violence if they ordered, tolerated or failed to
prevent the actions and/or failed to punish the perpetrators.
By the time the war ended in 1992, the four women had joined 75,000
lost their lives in El Salvador, most to right-wing death squads and marauding
At the time the four women were murdered, Ford, 40, and Clarke,
49, were nuns
from the Maryknoll Order based in Maryknoll, N.Y.
Kazel, 40, was an Ursuline from Cleveland. Donovan, 27, had worked
for a major
accounting firm before heading to El Salvador in 1979 under Maryknoll auspices.
They were friends as well as co-workers, seeking refuge in their
which helped each cope with stress, loneliness and fear.
Kazel arrived in El Salvador for a five-year assignment in 1974,
after working with
Indians in Arizona. Dorothy Chapon Kazel, married to the nun's brother, Jim,
wrote a book about her sister-in-law called Alleluia Woman (Resource
Publications, 1989), describing her as ``no starry-eyed romanticist [but] well
aware of the evil and injustice permeating almost every facet of Salvadoran life.
But she was a woman of hope and faith.''
Trained as a teacher, Kazel was engaged to be married when she
felt ``called'' to
the religious life, and she joined the Ursuline Order in 1960.
By the time security forces shot the liberation theologist Archbishop
Romero in March 1980 in San Salvador, life had become hellish in the cities and
countryside for anyone trying to help peasants struggling against repression. That
included church workers as well as labor and human-rights activists.
Brooklyn-born Ita Ford, a Maryknoll nun since 1971, joined a refugee
center in the
Chalatenango parish church in early 1980, after 11 years in Chile, where she
ministered to refugees and orphans.
Her name appeared on a ``death list'' the day before she was killed.
Her brother, New York trial lawyer Bill Ford, 64, spearheaded
the lawsuit, filed last
year with the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights. He attends the trial daily,
sometimes with one of his six children.
Though the civil suit asks for at least $1 million in damages,
Ford neither expects
to get paid nor cares; he wants the American government to kick the former
generals out of the United States.
He said that he and two committee lawyers visited the ex-generals
at their homes
in 1998, ``because we wanted to find out if they would tell us what they knew. . . .
The meetings were correct and formal. . . . I guess they thought we'd be
impressed by all the religious statuary.''
At his Plantation home, García ``denied he had anything
to do with it,'' Ford said.
So did Vides Casanova, who lives near Daytona Beach.
Ford and the other families were accustomed to denials -- not
Salvadorans, but from U.S. officials.
``It became clear during a meeting the families had with then-Secretary
[Edmund] Muskie and [Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs
William] Bowdler,'' days after the women died, Ford recalls. ``They were defending
the military and asking us to be patient. . . . I realized I'd get no cooperation from
the State Department without raising hell.''
That's what he and relatives of the other women have done for 20 years.
``We are in this courtroom because of the hard work of a lot of
people,'' Ford said.
``This case is not just about four churchwomen; it's about 75,000 others.''
Ita Ford worked closely with Maura Clarke. A Maryknoll nun since
hailed from Long Island and worked in Nicaragua, where she survived the
earthquake of 1972.
AIDING THE POOR
She was a social activist who helped the poor resist water-fee
Managua. Her name appeared on the Salvadoran death list with Ita Ford's.
Her brother, Jim Clarke, attends the trial most days with her
sister, Julia Clarke
Keogh, and his wife, Carole. The retired aircraft engineer, 67, remembers how his
parents ``were fearful and anxious'' about Maura's move, ``but it's what she wanted
Mike Donovan represents his sister, Jean. Often during graphic
Palm Beach Gardens certified public accountant and Rotary International District
6930 governor stares at the floor.
Jean Donovan worked for the accounting firm Arthur Andersen before
life of service. She was bubbly yet deeply devout. She went to El Salvador in
Donovan and Kazel dined with Cleveland missionary the Rev. Paul
U.S. Ambassador Robert White's home in San Salvador on Dec. 1, 1980. The
next day, the women fetched two Maryknoll nuns, who were returning from a
conference in Managua, at the airport.
One of them, Sister Madeline Dorsey, 82, testified that Ford and
Clarke had to
catch a later flight. Donovan and Kazel insisted on returning to the airport to get
Dorsey asked them not to, because six opposition leaders had just
murdered, and the roads were crawling with soldiers.
They went anyway.
According to a long-held version of events, National Guardsmen
accosted the four
women on the airport road, where church personnel found their burned-out van the
Schindler insists security forces abducted them at the airport.
He said that
eyewitnesses too scared to identify themselves have told him that.
``After they raped them,'' Schindler said, the guardsmen ``had
no choice but to kill
Dorsey, Schindler and White got word on Dec. 4 that the women's
been found in shallow graves near the hamlet of San Pedro Nonualco. The
peasants who found them dumped by the road buried them, careful to replace
their slacks -- backward, in one case.
In 1984, a Salvadoran jury convicted five former National Guardsmen
murders. In 1998, four of them told lawyers for the human rights committee that
they had acted on orders from superiors.
Last week, García took the stand. He was asked whether
he knew that his
security forces were slaughtering masses of innocent people long before they
killed the women.
Well, he said, he knew there had been ``abuses.''
Could he have investigated, to prevent further abuses?
García sat silently in the witness box, then pursed his lips.
``Prevention. This is a very delicate thing,'' he said. ``Many
times, there are things
you cannot prevent that would have occurred in major conflicts in the world.''