Missionaries' Killers Say They Acted under Orders

The Christian Century, May 6, 1998 | Go to article overview

Missionaries' Killers Say They Acted under Orders


Members of a Catholic order have welcomed the confessions of four former national guardsmen from El Salvador convicted of murdering three U.S. nuns and a lay worker in 1980. The four men now say that they acted on direct orders "from above." Their confessions were made in late March to two attorneys for the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, a New York-based organization which is representing the families of the slain women: Maryknoll sisters Maura Clarke and Ita Ford, Ursuline sister Dorothy Kazel and a Catholic lay missionary, Jean Donovan.

The confessions seem to confirm the longstanding position of the women's colleagues and families, as well as human rights organizations, that the murders could not have taken place without the approval of the Salvadoran military. The U.S. and Salvadoran governments, however, have maintained that the men acted alone.

The abduction, rape and murder of the women on December 2, 1980, galvanized U.S. public opinion and later "became a huge public relations problem" for the administration of President Ronald Reagan, according to Stephen De Mott, director of communications for Maryknoll, a Catholic mission society that has a long history of work in Latin America.

The Reagan administration downplayed the possibility that senior military officials ordered the killings, De Mott said. "There was a concerted effort to slander the women," he added, referring to a 1981 comment by Alexander Haig, then U.S. secretary of state, that the women might have been shot while running a military roadblock.

In a letter sent on April 3 to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, lawyers Scott Greathead and Robert Weiner reported that the four guardsmen had said that their immediate superior, Subsergeant Luis Antonio Colindres Aleman, told them that he had "orders to kill the women, and that they would not have participated in the murders of [the] North American churchwomen without this assurance. …

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