Report on Delegation to Guatemala, April 24, 1999
USCC Delegation to Guatemala on the First Anniversary of the Death Gerardi
April 24-27, 1999
Origin: The Archdiocese of Guatemala wrote to USCC requesting that our Conference be represented at the two-day observance of the anniversary of the killing of Bishop Juan Gerardi, specifically for the Mass at the Cathedral on Sunday, April 25, and the Mass at the bishop's former parish, San Sebastián, on the anniversary date, April 26.
Delegation: Bishop Ricardo Ramírez of the Committe on International Policy, readily accepted Archbishop McCarrick's invitation to represent the Conference. Also invited specifically by the Archdiocese of Guatemala to attend the commemoration, Thomas Quigley provided staffing for Bishop Ramírez.
Principal Events: A well-organized series of events was arranged by the Archdiocese and its several deaneries:
- a day-long theological reflection on martyrdom on Saturday, April 17
- a week-long series of prayer services in the Cathedral, April 18-24
- the open air Eucharistic celebration in front of the Cathedral, Sunday April 25, with some 100,000 people present
- the opening of the Crypt where the bishop is buried and where people streamed in constantly for the six hours it was open on April 26 to pray and leave flowers at the tomb
- commemorative observances with poetry and music in the park across from San Sebastián in the afternoon of Monday April 26
- the ringing of all church bells of the Archdiocese for fifteen minutes before and after the 10 p.m. Mass at San Sebastián
The Eucharistic Celebrations: The two central acts, of course, were the open-air Sunday Mass at which the principal concelebrant with Archbishop Penados, Archbishop Oscar Rodríguez of CELAM, publicly noted the USCC presence with gratitude, and the late Monday evening Mass at which Bishop Ramírez was the presiding concelebrant. The USCC delegation was warmly greeted with extensive applause by the packed congregation and Bishop Ramírez' concluding remarks received a standing ovation.
Meetings: In the very brief time available, meetings were arranged with several groups:
- Archdiocesan Office of Human Rights (ODHA), with office director Ronalth Ochaeta, the object of current death threats, and with Bishop Mario Ríos Montt, successor to Bishop Gerardi
- Catholic Relief Services, with Claire McGuigan and Miguel Mahfood
- U.S. Embassy, with Ambassador Donald Planty
- Rafael Landívar University, with Fr. Charles Beirne, S.J., academic vice rector
Media: At the recommendation of Bishop Ríos and Ronalth Ochaeta, an extended interview with Bishop Ramírez was arranged for Monday with La Prensa Libre, a respected Guatemalan daily. During the visit to the Crypt that day, the bishop was approached by radio and TV reporters for TeleDiario, Tele7, and the Church's Radio Estrella, and gave brief interviews to each. Former President Vinicio Cerezo stopped to speak to us as he was exiting the Crypt.
Issues: The single over-riding issue at this time is the still unsolved murder of the bishop. The investigation was mishandled from the very beginning, and proceeded for many months with a farrago of bizarre charges, attacks against the Church, failure to follow up leads offered by ODHA and others, resignations or re-assignments of prosecutors, and so on. Virtually noone has faith in the present judicial system and everyone we spoke with believes the military--active duty or retired--is responsible for the murder. Those who hold the military responsible are convinced the killing was directly related to the bishop's role in coordinating the Church's REHMI project report, Guatemala: Nunca Mas, and that the elaborate cover-up (arrest of Fr. Mario Orantes and his dog Balú, rumors of a smuggling gang trafficking in stolen church goods, etc.) was designed both to foil any serious investigation and send clear signals that those guilty of gross human rights violations in the past are assured impunity.
Summary: The visit was well worth the effort as an expression of solidarity and support. USCC presence at the anniversary events, as well as the several statements and letters on Guatemala issued by the Conference over recent years, are much appreciated. Appropriate next steps are uncertain, especially as the US Government appears to be playing a generally positive role. The State Department issued an unexpected and good statement, drafted by Amb. Planty, on the anniversary of Gerardi's death, again calling for a serious investigation and prosecution of the guilty.