The Miami Herald
October 22, 2000

Slain churchwomen live in campaign for justice

Families on a 20-year pursuit of truth


 To the jury, they are one-dimensional images: smiling faces in old
 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 lay missionary
 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 Salvadoran
 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 federal
 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 Act, alleges
 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 people who
 lost their lives in El Salvador, most to right-wing death squads and marauding
 military men.

 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 relationships,
 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 Oscar
 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 just from
 Salvadorans, but from U.S. officials.


 ``It became clear during a meeting the families had with then-Secretary of State
 [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 1953, Clarke
 hailed from Long Island and worked in Nicaragua, where she survived the
 earthquake of 1972.


 She was a social activist who helped the poor resist water-fee increases in
 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
 to do.''

 Mike Donovan represents his sister, Jean. Often during graphic testimony, the
 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 entering a
 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 Schindler at
 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
 the others.

 Dorsey asked them not to, because six opposition leaders had just been
 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
 following day.

 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 bodies had
 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 of the
 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.''