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20-year search for priest may be over


The search for the remains of a U.S.-born priest who died in Honduras 19 years ago while serving as chaplain to a group of revolutionaries may have come to an end.

Family members of the priest told NCR they are hopeful that if remains found Jan. 28 are positively identified, Fr. James Carney will be laid to rest. However, they said, the search for justice for Carney and some 185 others who disappeared in Honduras in the early ’80s will continue.

Since he was reported missing in the summer of 1983, the death of Carney has been the subject of intense investigations by his family, by human rights investigators, by Catholic leaders, and by the poor people he served in Honduras.

Born in Chicago, Carney had begun work as a Jesuit missionary in the country in 1961. For the next 18 years he worked, slept and ate with the poor rural parishioners with whom he lived. Among them he was known as “Padre Guadalupe.” He was 58 at the time of his disappearance.

Honduran forensic specialists completed tests on the remains. The Honduran Public Ministry’s head of forensics, Dr. Amilcar Rodas, told Catholic News Service in mid-February that the test results would be revealed “within a week or perhaps more.”

In late January, the Honduras attorney general’s office had said it is “almost positive” the remains are Carney’s.

Carney’s oldest sister, Virginia Smith, told NCR, “I am not getting my hopes up too much because we’ve heard these reports before.” However, she said, “This one sounds most credible,” because the remains were found in the jungle near the Nicaraguan border in the Patuca region, northeast of Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras.

“Our investigation showed that he was thrown from a helicopter over the jungle in that area,” she said.

Jesuit Fr. Joseph Mulligan, a friend of Carney’s who ministers now in Managua, Nicaragua, and has been involved in the investigations into Carney’s death, told Catholic News Service, “If the bones are really those of Fr. Carney, then his relatives, the Jesuits, the thousands of people who knew and loved him, and the human rights community will have a joyful celebration of his life as we bury his remains in the Honduran land, which he loved.”

Joseph Connolly, husband to Carney’s sister, Eileen, who died two years ago, said that Mulligan told him that the remains of six people had been found in the region. The set of remains thought to be Carney’s was significantly larger than the others and contained teeth with metal fillings.

Investigation hindered

Ricardo Castro, Honduras’ environmental crimes prosecutor in the Patuca region, told Catholic News Service that the remains were located after he received information from witnesses to the last moments of Carney’s life. Some of the witnesses were former Honduran military personnel. Castro declined to name the witnesses, saying their identities needed to be protected.

He said that his investigation had been hindered by lack of cooperation from U.S. personnel, particularly from the CIA, who turned over records to the investigation only after blacking out classified sections about the priest’s death.

Smith told NCR the greatest barrier to her family’s investigation, ongoing since Carney’s disappearance, has been getting information from the U.S. and Honduran governments. She said both governments had been “stonewalling” the investigation ever since her brother disappeared.

The family’s numerous requests of the U.S. government for information about the priest’s disappearance have produced thousands of pages of government documents related to the case. Most of the information in them, however, was blacked in the name of national security.

In 1983, the year Carney disappeared, the Reagan administration was spending millions in military assistance to Honduras. The country, which Reagan once called, “an oasis of peace in the violent and volcanic region of Central America,” was being used as a staging area for U.S.-backed contra troops headed into neighboring Nicaragua to oppose its Sandinista government. Other troops, with U.S. support, entered neighboring El Salvador to defend that country’s ruling government in its civil war.

When members of Carney’s family came to Honduras soon after their brother disappeared, they knew that Carney, who had entered Honduras that summer as the chaplain to 96 revolutionaries, had put himself in danger. They were prepared to discover that the priest had died in a military action.

Honduras government officials told them they believed that Carney died of exposure while crossing the mountains bordering Nicaragua and Honduras.

However, the family soon heard second- and third-hand accounts that Carney had been captured by the Honduran military. Some said that the priest had been interrogated, tortured and executed by Battalion 316, a CIA-trained Honduran force known to have been responsible for the deaths of dozens of Honduran activists. Still others said that U.S. government officials knew of Carney’s capture and had failed to intervene to save his life.

According to Connolly, the most reliable account that the priest’s family has yet received came from Florencio Caballero, who deserted from Battalion 316 and first told his story to Americas Watch in 1986, and later, when he was living as a refugee in Canada, to members of Carney’s family.

Execution ordered

Caballero told them that Carney was executed by order of the battalion’s commander, Gen. Gustavo Álvarez Martínez, who along with several other members of 316 had received training in counterintelligence from U.S. forces at the School of the Americas, which was then based in Panama. Caballero, who said he too had been trained by U.S. military in interrogation, said Álverez Martínez gave the order for Carney’s execution in the presence of a CIA officer, known as “Mister Mike” at El Aguacate base, where Nicaraguan contra soldiers were trained.

Though Caballero said he was not present when Álvarez ordered Carney executed, he said he later heard that Carney was interrogated and tortured, and that Carney forgave his torturers and made the sign of the cross before them.

According to Caballero, Carney’s death occurred in a similar fashion to many of the other captives: After interrogation, the priest was taken up in a helicopter and thrown down into the jungle of Honduras’ Patuca region. Caballero died in July 1997. According to Connolly, he probably took his own life.

A fuller account of Cabelloro’s testimony about Battalion 316 appears in a report released in 1998 and now available online titled, “In Search of Hidden Truths,” by Leo Valladares, the Honduran government’s human rights commissioner, and Susan Peacock, a National Security Archive Research Fellow. The report was paid for in large part by a grant from the MacArthur Foundation. A fuller account of Caballero’s story appeared in NCR, Jan. 24, 1997.

‘Uncaring’ official

John Negroponte, U.S. ambassador to Honduras from 1981 to 1985, has maintained over the years that he knew nothing about the circumstances behind Carney’s death or of the activities of Battalion 316. Smith said she suspects Negroponte of being the most “duplicitous” and calls him the most “uncaring” official the Carney family dealt with in its investigation.

Negroponte now serves as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. He is alleged to have played a leading role in Reagan’s effort to arm and train Nicaraguan contras in Honduras in the mid-1980s.

An Aug. 10, 2001, NCR report said Honduran newspapers have written hundreds of stories about the abuses carried out by Honduras’ government in the ’80s. It quotes a 2001 Los Angeles Times report that said Negroponte quashed reports of abuse by the country’s military, “including one U.S.-backed operation that resulted in the execution of nine prisoners and the disappearance of an American priest,” Fr. James Carney. The report further said the battalion was trained by U.S. forces.

While no evidence has been produced to link Negroponte to Battalion 316, José Miguel Vivanco, executive director for Human Rights Watch Americas Division, has referred to him as “the ostrich ambassador: He never saw anything wrong. He never heard about any serious human rights violations. It was like he was living on a different planet.”

Honduran military officials have returned Carney’s stole, chalice and a Bible he had been using to members of his family, but they have continued to say they don’t know where his remains are.

Born the third of seven children to a devout and conservative Catholic family, Carney was educated in Catholic institutions. After serving in the U.S. Army in Europe during World War II, he decided become a Jesuit. Explaining that, as he wrote in a 1971 letter, “To love Christ really is to live as he did,” Carney decided he wanted to be a missionary.

His autobiography, titled To Be a Revolutionary, was published in 1985. In it he said he saw his role as revolutionary as being the same as that of the early Christians. “The difference between the Christian revolutionary and any other honest revolutionary is that the Christian is the one who should understand God’s plan for the world, where the revolution and the world is going and [who] respect[s] the Spirit of God in all men and women.” At the request of Carney’s family, the paperback version of the book bears a longer title, “To Be a Christian Is … To Be a Revolutionary, a quote from Carney.

In the book, Carney describes his ministry to some of the poorest people in the hemisphere, most of whom made no more than 75 cents a day, who lived in one-room makeshift houses. He explains why he came to oppose the country’s political system, in which multinational corporations made profits through cheap labor and land.

In the 1960s and ’70s, Carney was in the forefront of the Small Christian Community movement, in which small groups of lay people meet to pray and talk about living the gospel’s call for justice. He was a proponent of liberation theology. His work, Connolly said, was at the grass-roots level of that movement, “not just theoretical stuff in a classroom.” He said that for a time Carney served as national chaplain for some 80,000 campesinos in Honduras.

In his ministry, Carney saw poor people evicted from their small properties. When he became a leader in the effort to unionize them and bring about land reforms, he began receiving death threats.

In 1974, Carney renounced his U.S. citizenship in a gesture of solidarity with his poor parishioners, to become a citizen of Honduras. In 1979, a year after Carney had accused CIA officials of buying an election for a campesino union, the Honduran government rescinded his citizenship and expelled him for his efforts to organize poor people.

‘The most basic need’

A 1987 BBC documentary by David Jessel about the circumstances behind the priest’s disappearance included footage of Carney speaking to an ABC news reporter in 1979 about his justice work not long before he was expelled.

“The most basic need that a man has to fulfill is food,” Carney said. “And of course when [the Sula Valley] that could, they say, produce enough food for all Central America, is producing vegetable oil for Castle & Cook Company, I mean that’s a terrible crime, it’s a sin. And that’s why we Christians nowadays in Latin America want to change that. We rebel against that. Even if they call us communists, even if they kill us, we have to try to do something about it. We hope to try to wake our people up.”

Jessel also interviewed Elliot Abrams for the documentary. Now, working in the Bush administration as senior director of the National Security Council’s office for democracy, human rights and international operations, he was serving as Reagan’s assistant secretary for Inter-American Affairs when interviewed. While providing no new information about the priest’s disappearance, Abrams said that such American churchmen as Carney were “completely misled and bewildered by the events of Central America.” He said, “That’s tragic because people who believe in God should have nothing to do with communist guerillas. When they win, religion and religious freedom are destroyed. … We know what happens to freedom and freedom of religion in communist countries.”

In 1991, Abrams’ involvement in the Iran-contra scandal led to a guilty plea for withholding information from Congress. Days before the end of his administration, the first President Bush pardoned Abrams.

In October 1998, after repeated requests from activists, the CIA declassified its inspector general’s 1995 report on the agency’s involvement in Honduras during the 1980s.

The inspector general’s report was written by order of John Deutch, then CIA director, after the Baltimore Sun published an award-winning series on the CIA’s links to Battalion 316. Though many sections of the report were blacked out in the name of national security, some revelations about the agency’s knowledge of Battalion 316 were revealed.

The report said, “The Honduran military committed hundreds of human rights abuses since 1980, many of which were politically motivated and officially sanctioned.” It linked the abuses to death squad activities and said “reporting inadequacies” by CIA officials in Honduras prevented CIA headquarters from “understanding the scope of human rights abuses in Honduras.”

It concluded that some CIA notifications to Congress had been inaccurate.

During the 1980s, over $1 billion in U.S. aid went to the Honduras military.

After his expulsion from Honduras, Carney was assigned to minister to a parish in bordering Nicaragua, which had overthrown its own dictator, Anastasio Somoza.

In Nicaragua, Carney met a group of 96 Honduran refugees who hoped to return to Honduras as revolutionaries and bring about land reform.

Carney decided to return with them as their chaplain. Connolly said that Carney, though he considered himself a pacifist, reasoned the rebels deserved and needed a chaplain, just as other military forces have chaplains.

Before joining the group, Carney left the Jesuit order, “so that fellow Jesuits wouldn’t be implicated and hurt” by his involvement. Eventually, Connolly said, Carney “did intend to go back” to the Jesuits, whom he regarded as “the best group of men he could possibly belong to in the world.”

The small group of rebels were easily defeated by the Honduran military. Some of the men were captured and imprisoned. The fates of others remain a mystery.

Nearly 20 years after Carney’s death, he is considered a hero to people in Honduras, many of whom have remained active in the search to learn how he died.

In September 1996, some 4,000 people took part in a march in Tocoa, calling on the Honduras and U.S. governments to reveal the details they have kept hidden about Carney’s death. A cultural center in Tocoa was named after Carney in 1989.

Connolly said that in September, Carney’s book will be published in Honduras to mark the 20th anniversary of the priest’s death.

Questioning the ambassador

Among U.S. Catholic leaders who have taken an active role in the investigation is Detroit Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, who in 1997 went to Honduras to question the country’s U.S. ambassador at the time, James Creagan. Carney’s brother, Patrick, Carney’s cousin, Jean Brenner, a Sister of St. Agnes, and Carney’s friend, Fr. Joseph Mulligan, accompanied Gumbleton. The bishop expressed incredulity when Creagan told him that “only irrelevancies” had been blacked out in various government reports about the priest’s disappearance.

When Creagan provided them with no useful information, Gumbleton, Patrick Carney, Brenner and Mulligan took part in a fast at the U.S. embassy to protest the decision of the U.S. government to withhold documents about the priest’s disappearance (NCR, Nov. 14, 1997).

Connolly said he hopes that if forensics tests prove the remains to be Carney’s, the priest can be buried in the Jesuit cemetery in Honduras. “And I think they will,” he said. Carney, he said, was a great man. “Heroes should have a place to be honored.”

He and Smith said that if the remains are positively identified as Carney’s, they and other family members intend to return once more to Honduras for a memorial Mass.

“I’m 83 years old and I’d have to go down in a wheel-chair but if it’s at all possible I’m planning on doing it,” Smith said. “But that’s a long way off yet.

“He is our brother and it’s been 20 years. We’ve never given up and we never will give up. And the investigation has been ongoing. It has never stopped. And we intend to keep it open until justice is done.

“It goes beyond finding the remains,” she said. “We want justice in this case, not only for ourselves but for all the other families who have disappeared down there, who have lost loved ones. And I think the people responsible for their deaths should be held accountable.”

Gill Donovan is a staff writer for NCR. His e-mail address is gdonovan@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, March 21, 2003