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Sr. Ortiz, tortured in Guatemala, finds healing, receives Pax Christi honor

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Ashland, Va.

In the years following her rape and torture in Guatemala, Ursuline Sr. Dianna Ortiz wanted no part of the God who led her to work among the poor in San Miguel Acatan where she was abducted and tortured in 1989. The God who had given her the faith to risk death in a war-torn country had become her betrayer. She was no longer able to trust.

But helping other torture victims has given Ortiz a renewed desire to live. She is cofounder and coordinator of the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition.

For her commitment, Pax Christi USA presented Ortiz with its Pope Paul VI Award at its recent national assembly. Pax Christi national coordinator Nancy Small said Ortiz’s journey from anger and rage to helping others heal is “a model of nonviolence.”

In her acceptance speech, Ortiz recounted her journey from despair to hope. Shortly after her torture, she opened her Bible randomly in search of God’s comforting words, turning to the story of the loaves and fishes.

“I didn’t see what it could have to do with what I needed to know: how to go on living when my life had been destroyed,” Ortiz said. “God and I were barely on speaking terms. If there was one thing I definitely did not believe in, it was his so-called miracles. I closed the Bible and covered it with a dark handkerchief again. I would let it be blindfolded as I had been blindfolded,” she said.

Ortiz has not been able to learn who her torturers were, although she believes U.S. government records contain that information.

When Ortiz received news of her selection for Pax Christi’s award, she picked up her Bible again. Nine years after her ordeal, she felt led to reread the parable of the miracle of the loaves and fishes, she said. To her surprise, her anger was gone.

She wondered, “Why couldn’t I see before that through the parable God was speaking to me of healing, healing through community, and that before my eyes, great and unexpected miracles were in the making?”

Later, back in the Assisi community in Washington where she lives, Ortiz talked about the book she is writing with author Pat Davis. In long sessions, Ortiz has been reliving the events of 1989.

The book, still untitled, is slated for release next spring by Orbis Books.

“I really believe that the experience of torture has changed me for the better,” she said. “It has made me more aware of the brokenness that exists in our world.”

Much of her memory lost, Ortiz told the assembly that she now has new memories, many formed through her work with other victims. “Those small gestures, hugs, smiles and kind words, which were all we had to offer each other in that house in Chicago, had begun to counteract the power of the torturers’ smirks and punches,” she said. “I still had the horrible past with me -- I carried it in my memory and in my skin and always will -- but laid over it, like new skin over a wound, is a newer past, a past of caring and love.”

National Catholic Reporter, August 25, 2000