The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date: August 15, 2003
Supporters decry harsh sentences for 'holy women'
By PATRICK ONEILL
When two of her housemates received shorter prison sentences than they might have, Elizabeth McAlister did not commend the judges sense of justice. Although the federal guidelines called for far longer sentences for the three Dominican nuns convicted of hammering on a missile silo, McAlister said the women were still punished too severely for their symbolic protest against nuclear weapons at a Colorado missile silo last October.
They did a totally symbolic action, McAlister said. They did no damage to property. Its not good news. Its a lot of time for having done very, very little in terms of the action itself.
The three nuns, Srs. Carol Gilbert and Ardeth Platte, both of whom live with McAlister at Baltimores Jonah House, and Sr. Jackie Hudson of Poulsbo, Wash., were given sentences ranging from 30 to 41 months after they were convicted of obstructing national defense and destruction of government property.
The plight of the three nuns gained international media coverage as the U.S. government was waging a war on terrorism. In a July 15 gathering, several hundred of the nuns supporters filled the social hall of Baltimores St. Peter Claver Catholic Church to say their goodbyes to Platte and Gilbert.
Jesuit Fr. Daniel Berrigan called the nuns impending prison sentences savage. Theyre facing the domestic form of what the Iraqi children and ill and aged are facing, Berrigan said. This is just one machinery of death at large in the world and it has to take domestic form as well as international form, and thats what were seeing.
The harsh sentences are because the Iraqi war is on, Berrigan said. Thats because these people in charge are utterly out of control in the world and utterly in control in our country.
Considering the ages of Platte and Hudson, friends were worried that the long sentences, and the hardship of prison could amount to life sentences for the pair. Since federal sentences do not include parole, both nuns will be 70 years old when theyre released.
It grieves us to see the courts pound on these two loving women, Catholic Worker Willa Bickham said in introducing Platte and Gilbert. Its not right what is happening to them. Its not just. ... Carol and Ardeth teach us the essence of nonviolence. They are very good women; very holy women, and we dont want to see them go. Their gentle sprits will nourish our souls in the days to come.
In her comments to the crowd, Gilbert likened the nine months the nuns spent preparing for their action to pregnancy and childbirth: We studied. We prayed. We tried to discern the signs of the times. ... We birthed our action on the early morning hours.
U.S. District Judge Robert Blackburn gave the jury no room to consider mitigating factors such as international law or the nuns lack of intent to commit sabotage, Platte said. It was clear to [the jury] that we had done a terrible wrong and that we were guilty, she said.
Now, the three women will spend collectively more than eight years in prison, a point McAlister emphasized in her criticism of the judge.
Because Blackburn gave sentences less than called for in the guidelines, he comes off looking like a good guy, McAlister said. Hes not. He sent them up for a long time.
The sisters spent almost seven months in jail before accepting bond April 30 to say goodbye to their families, communities and loved ones. During their incarceration, the three received more than 5,000 letters of support, Platte said. All the while we were in jail we could feel a tidal wave of grace that came to us.
Additional support for their actions came in a letter sent to them from the master general of the Dominican Order, Fr. Carlos Azpiroz Costa, writing from the orders generalate in Rome. I want you to know that your symbolic stand for a world without war has been for me a wonderful Christian message of action, Azpiroz Costa wrote. Like Jesus, you have shown a willingness to suffer because of that prophetic action so that a new kind of world might be born. In the name of the Order [of Preachers], I thank you for your powerful preaching.
Patrick ONeill is a freelance writer living in Raleigh, N.C.
National Catholic Reporter, August 15, 2003
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