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SOA trespassers get six-month terms

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

Sentenced by a federal magistrate to six months of “motherhouse arrest,” 88-year-old Franciscan Sr. Dorothy Hennessey told the judge, “No thanks.” Found guilty of trespassing at Fort Benning, Ga., Hennessey said she wanted to be treated like her 25 codefendants who participated in a Nov. 19, 2000, protest of the U.S. Army’s notorious School of the Americas.

U.S. Magistrate G. Mallon Faircloth obliged Hennessey and gave the soft-spoken nun a six-month federal prison sentence on May 22 after two days of trials for 13 men and 13 women who were selected for prosecution from among thousands of people who trespassed last fall in the annual protest at Fort Benning that calls for the closing of the School of the Americas, now renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.

“This is not a time for me to mourn,” Hennessey told NCR in a telephone interview shortly after she was sentenced to prison for the first time. Rejecting a deal to spend six months under house arrest at her Dubuque, Iowa, motherhouse, Hennessey told the judge she was not an invalid and she did not want special treatment. Faircloth then permitted Hennessey to self-surrender at a Pekin, Ill., minimum-security prison.

In all, Faircloth sentenced 21 activists -- including four Catholic nuns -- to the maximum six-month term with fines ranging from $150 to $3,000. The four religious were not fined. Three others received shorter prison sentences, and two others were given probation and fines.

Hennessey won’t have to worry about being lonely in prison. Her younger sister will be with her. Also sentenced to six months was 68-year-old Franciscan Sr. Gwen Hennessey, Dorothy’s biological sister. Dorothy is the eldest of 15 Hennessey children.

Dorothy Hennessey said she’s not worried about spending six months in the custody of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons. She knows several nuns who have already been to prison.

“The sisters who have been [to prison] before say it’s like the novitiate used to be a long time ago,” Hennessey said. “They said the only bad thing is that health is a very low priority. I’m on a few meds because I had some sulfa poisoning.”

Hennessey, who has recently had a ministry to AIDS patients in Iowa, said she is looking forward to having a ministry to other prisoners.

“If there’s time left after we get out we might want to go into a prison ministry,” she said.

Gwen Hennessey said the defendants “were all a bit stunned” by the severity of Faircloth’s sentences. “You know you’re going to get something, but you didn’t think you’d get the max, but we did.”

Like most of the others sentenced to prison, Gwen Hennessey will be permitted to self-surrender at the Pekin prison. The judge assured Gwen that she would not have to report until after her 50th Jubilee on June 23.

Both Hennessey sisters said they were inspired by the work of their late brother, [Maryknoll] Fr. Ron Hennessey who spent 34 years as a missionary in Central America. Ron was a friend of the late Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was assassinated March 24, 1980, while celebrating Mass.

“We’re kind of an extension of the martyrs, the people that are the victims of the School of the Americas,” Gwen Hennessey said. “It’s kind of like a fire that’s lit that’s not going to go out.”

Like Dorothy, Gwen says she’s not afraid to go to prison.

“I have no desire to go,” she said. “It kind of strips you of your dignity and the whole bit, but it’s a small price to pay if it’s going to bring attention to the fact that our brothers and sisters in Latin America have suffered.”

The School of the Americas, which trains foreign military officers from Central and South America, has been targeted for years by activists who have evidence that the school’s graduates have committed numerous murders and human rights violations in their native countries.

The opposition to the school has been spearheaded by Maryknoll Fr. Roy Bourgeois, founder of SOA Watch, a group that is working to close the school.

“The prison witness is going to energize the movement,” said Bourgeois, who has spent more than four years in prison for acts of civil disobedience in opposition to U.S. policy in Central America. “It is madness, and all I can think of is shame on that judge. These people are going to prison for six months for what? For crossing onto Ft. Benning in a solemn funeral procession to remember the dead, to call out their names and to say ‘presente,’ to keep their memory alive.

“While those graduates, trained at the school down the road, who killed, tortured and raped, they get pardoned. It’s going to backfire, sending all of these people off to prison. What’s it’s going to do is bring more people down here in November to cross that line, and I’m going to be one of them. I’ve made a decision that I’ll be crossing that line in solidarity with Sr. Dorothy and all the others.”

Also sentenced were: David Corcoran, Illinois, 67, 6 months, $1,000 fine; Mary Lou Benson, Minnesota, 56, 6 months; Josh Raisler Cohn, Oregon, 24, 6 months, $1,000; Russell De Young, Virginia, 54, 6 months, $1,000; John Ewers, Ohio, 66, 6 months, $1,000; Jack Gilroy, New York, 6 months, $500; Clare Hanrahan, North Carolina, 52, 6 months, $500; Martha Hayward, Michigan, 56, 3 years probation, $3,000; Rachel Louise Hayward, Michigan, 19, (daughter of Martha), 6 months; Rita Hohenshell, Iowa, 76, 3 months; William Houston, Ohio, 72, 6 months, $1,000; John Alfred Hunt Jr., North Carolina, 6 months, $500; Steve Jacobs, Mississippi, 12 months (two counts); Rebecca Kanner, Michigan, 43, 6 months, $500; Joel Kilgour, Minnesota, 24, 1 month; Richard John Kinane, Colorado, 51, 6 months, $500; St. Joseph Sr. Elizabeth Anne McKenzie, Minnesota, 71, 6 months; Karl Meyer, Tennessee, 6 months; Lois Putzier, Arizona, 6 months; Eric Robison, Washington, 21, 6 months, $500; Sister of St. Joseph of Peace Miriam Spencer, Washington, 75, 6 months; Kathryn Temple, North Carolina, 28, 2 years probation, $500; Hazel Tulecke, Ohio, 77, 3 months and Mary Alice Vaughan, Minnesota, 68, 6 months, $150.

National Catholic Reporter, June 1, 2001 [corrected 06/15/2001]