Eamonn McCann - Pope owes a duty to murdered priests Latin America

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Did Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio speak out loudly enough during his time as Bishop of Buenos Aires against the death-squads unleashed by the military junta (1976-1983) against opposition activists and their families?

The question became resonant last week when Dr. Bergoglio emerged from the Vatican conclave as Francis I. Some in Argentina say he had kept silent about the plight of the ‘disappeared’. Others say he was working in the background and achieved a great deal.

The most troublesome charge is that he condoned through silence the kidnap and torture of two fellow Jesuits who had been a thorn in the side of both the institutional church and the junta through their support for ‘liberation theology’, Fr. Orlando Yorio and Fr. Franz Jalics.

“I can’t believe it. I’m so distressed and full of anger that I don’t know what to do,” said Fr. Yorio’s sister, Graciela, last week, when word came of Latin America’s first pope.

Since both his supporters and opponents agree that he had made no public comment at the time - while disagreeing as to why - it’s possible the argument won’t ever be settled. But there is a broader aspect of the matter that he can speak out on now, if he wishes - the targeting of priests and nuns in the same period by far-Right governments across the continent.

Father Luis Alfredo Suarez Salazar was gunned down on February 2nd last in the city of Ocana in northern Colombia. His family say that the only reason they can think of is that, “He was known in the community for his solidarity with those in need.”

The previous day, February 1st, Fr. Jose Mejía Palomino was assassinated in the district of Caldas.

A fortnight earlier, on January 16th, Fr. Francisco José Vélez Echeverry was ambushed and riddled with bullets in Tuluá, in the Cauca Valley.

The three deaths marked a resumption of a murder-spree against priests after a two-year hiatus. The last such killing had been in 2011 of Fr Reynel Restrepo Idarraga of Marmato - the leader of a campaign against Canadian mining company Gran Colombia Gold which was attempting to assert mining rights over all of the land on which Marmato is built.

The death toll of Colombian priests murdered for political reasons in the last 30 years is approaching 100. The main reason the massacre isn’t a worldwide issue is that the worldwide Church hasn’t pushed it.

In ‘Manufacturing Consent’, Noam Chomsky analysed the imbalance in coverage of the killing of clergy in Latin America compared with the 1984 murder of Fr. Jerzy Popiełuszko, an outspoken champion of Solidarity in Poland: the Popieluzko killing had attracted more column inches than all the clerical murders in Latin America combined.

These included the murder of Archbishop Óscar Arnulfo Romero as he said mass in his church in San Salvador on March 24th 1980 and the torture, rape and murder of four American nuns in the same country in December the same year. One of the nuns was Jean Donovan, 27, from a liberal middle-class home in Connecticut, who had spent a year as an exchange student at University College Cork, where she is remembered as bright-eyed and full of fun, before volunteering for, as we used to say, “the missions.” A week before government soldiers dragged her and her three sisters from the roadside ditch where they had crouched for safety and abused them for five hours before killing them, she had written to her best friend back home: “The Peace Corps left today and my heart sank low. The danger is extreme and they were right to leave. Now I must assess my own position, because I am not up for suicide. Several times I have decided to leave El Salvador. I almost could, except for the children, the poor, bruised victims of this insanity. Who would care for them? Whose heart could be so staunch as to favour the reasonable thing in a sea of their tears and loneliness? Not mine, dear friend, not mine.”

I don’t believe in saints, but if there were such things Jean Donovan would be among them. The fact that the Church she served didn’t rise up in anger before the world to urge an end by whatever means to the regime propped up by the Reagan administration which had done such evil - that, surely, has been a sacrilege against humanity as grievous as the cover-up of depravity against children.

Chomsky’s conclusion was that the falsity of the coverage arose from the fact that the priest-killers of Latin America tended to be agents of powerful Western interests, whereas the murderers of Fr. Popieluszko represented a decaying regime that nobody who mattered had need of any more.

Latin America is a distinct entity within the Catholic Church. For more than quarter of a century, Cardinal Bergoglio was one of its leaders. He is now supreme ruler of the Church everywhere. Controversy about his actions in relation to events in his home country in the 1980s would likely melt away if he were to apologise now for the Church having averted its eyes from the slaughter of its own so as not to compromise its relationship with the elite or to appear to give credence to religious who sought their validation not from the putative relationship of the Church with heaven but among the marginalised, downtrodden and wretched on earth.

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Councillors must act on Culture issues

There is a parallel between the complaints of the Culture Company against Derry City Council revealed last week and the complaints against the council made last year by the Culture Company’s then marketing manager Garbhan Downey.

Downey was sacked for releasing to the media a letter to the Culture Company from City Council CEO Sharon O’Connor. Last week’s revelation was of a report by Culture Company boss Shona McCarthy on relations with the Council.

This latest development supports Downey.

Former Derry News editor Downey had accused the council of being interested in a ‘money grab’ at Culture Company funds. Now we learn that the Culture Company “have been told within the last fortnight that £553k has been agreed for additional human resource for the project. £234k of that will be for delivery support at production level with Culture Company. The rest of the money will be retained by DCC; we have not yet seen a breakdown for how the £320k will be allocated.”

So, £320,000 earmarked for City of Culture is lodged in the coffers of Derry City Council but the body running City of Culture doesn’t know why and hasn’t been told how the money is to be spent.

Culture Company boss McCarthy says in the leaked report that “the lack of additional resource, over-working and under-valuing of the existing staff team has led to low morale and the risk of people leaving the project at a critical time”.

In October last year, in the midst of the events which ended in Downey being sacked, a meeting of Culture Company staff considered the option of leaving the project: the issue then, as now, was the role assumed by the City Council in relation to the running of City of Culture.

There is an additional reason for resentment by Culture Company staff. Some with considerable artistic talent and huge commitment to City of Culture are working on rates little above minimum wage, while recently-hired individuals are pocketing literally 10 times as much and there is no explanation how or by whom this has been arranged.

Elected councillors cannot be blamed. None has been involved. And there’s a major worry. In theory, council officials to the highest level are answerable to the elected representatives. But in practice in Derry it seems to be the other way round.

This should change. The councillors should summon their most senior officials to their next meeting and require an explanation of their role in City of Culture; on what basis they have undertaken this role; how relations with the Culture Company have deteriorated to the extent described in last week’s document; what light the officials can throw on recent recruitment to high-paid positions; and why the Culture Company, including it CEO, appears to be in the dark about how a sizeable chunk of public money intended for City of Culture is going to be used.

The councillors are the representatives of the people and the people have a right to know these things.

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St Patrick’s cringe factor

St. Patrick’s Day. Dear god. Dandering up the town on Sunday afternoon, I felt a sudden burst of sympathy for Tina Fey - the Saturday Night Live comedienne whose impersonations did for Sarah Palin four years ago - who has explained that the way she gets through the cringe-making paddywack booze-fest is “to get into my apartment and lock the door and spend the day laughing at ‘Angela’s Ashes’.”