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Military bishop praises SOA

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

Bishop Francis X. Roque was having dinner with officials at the U.S. Army’s School of the Americas at Ft. Benning, Ga., when the news came.

A joint congressional panel had narrowly voted to restore the school’s funding, which had been cut in July for the first time by the House of Representatives.

The gathering couldn’t have been more elated.

“They were very pleased about it,” Roque said of the panel’s Sept. 24 vote. “Their morale had been hurting. They were being denied the funds by the House.”

The next morning Roque, an auxiliary bishop with the U.S. archdiocese for the Military Services in Washington, had breakfast with officers at the school and made brief remarks that touched on human rights. Then, he said, “I thanked them for the school.”

Four months earlier, he had written a spirited defense of the institution in a Catholic weekly newspaper in his hometown, Providence, R.I. The newspaper had run critical stories about the military academy, whose graduates have included some of the worst human rights abusers in Latin American history.

Roque’s public endorsement is a major coup for the army school in its battle for support, not just in the Republican-controlled House, but also in scores of newspapers that have called for its closure. The New York Times, for one, has said the school was “an institution so clearly out of tune with American values and so stubbornly immune to reform [that it] should be shut down without further delay.”

The school, which has trained Latin American officers for more than 50 years, has been almost universally condemned by religious groups and leaders, including 142 U.S. Catholic bishops and 40 Latin American prelates.

In two interviews with NCR, one before his recent visit to the school and the other afterward, Roque gave the school his full support, calling it “a rather precious asset,” even implying that Jesus himself might back it.

The bishop said he felt very good about the institution before his visit, and that feeling was “reinforced many times over” while he was there. “Christ would want what was good for people,” he said.

It would be difficult to exaggerate the importance to the Army of having a Catholic bishop so openly and enthusiastically endorsing a school whose graduates have been linked to the assassinations of Catholic clergy, nuns and lay people across Latin America. In El Salvador alone, school graduates have been implicated in the murders of Archbishop Oscar Romero and six Jesuit priests along with the rapes and murders of four U.S. churchwomen, not to mention the massacre of 900 unarmed men, women and children in the village of El Mozote.

The stance of the bishop, a retired Army colonel who served 22 years as a military chaplain, has provoked outrage among Catholic activists.

“It is atrocious that a Catholic bishop would side with those who support a school that has led to so much violence, suffering and death,” said Maryknoll Fr. Roy Bourgeois, the leading critic of the school who has been organizing vigils and demonstrations outside its gates for almost a decade.

Jesuit Fr. Dan Berrigan, who has remained on the sidelines of the issue in deference to younger leadership, fired off a letter to Roque, promising to be at the school’s gates in November when a massive demonstration is expected on the 10th anniversary of the deaths of the Salvadoran Jesuits.

Roque said he has not talked with any of the school’s critics, but he had a “high-powered briefing” from the school’s commandant, Col. Glenn Weidner, and has discussed the academy with Catholic military friends, including Gens. Barry McCaffery and Paul Gorman, two former heads of the Army’s Southern Command, which oversees U.S. operations in Latin America.

Neither McCaffrey nor Gorman would tolerate “immoral activity in schools under their command,” the bishop said.

McCaffrey is now Clinton’s drug czar, who is pushing for a quadrupling of aid to the Colombian military. Gorman worked closely with Oliver North and once asked Costa Rican President Oscar Arias to withhold his criticism of the Nicaraguan contras while the Reagan administration pushed for more aid to the group that was trying to overthrow the Sandinista government in Nicaragua.

“The school has gone through all kinds of reviews and inspections by boards and independent groups and has come out basically free of any kind of blame,” Roque said.

It “has been a very constructive influence on the militaries of Latin America,” fostering democracy and human rights, he said. School officials, he added, believe that Latin American militaries don’t “rule well and they should back off and let civilians run their countries.”

Critics argue, however, that positive change has come about despite the school, not because of it.

Nicknamed the “School of Coups,” the institution was called “the biggest base of destabilization in Latin America” by a former Panamanian president who demanded its removal from the Canal Zone. After the Kennedy administration expanded the school’s role and increased its funding, Latin American militaries overthrew nine governments between 1961 and 1966. Since 1968, 10 school graduates have seized power in six Latin American countries through violence and other undemocratic means.

One of those graduates, Bolivian Gen. Hugo Banzer, who came to power in a coup in 1971 and who long sheltered Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie, received the school’s highest honor: enrollment in its Hall of Fame, with his portrait hanging in the school’s main hall.

Roque said that, “I think with criticism, the school has done away with this hall.” It was taken down in 1995 -- several years after the school claimed it was placing a new emphasis on human rights and only after it came under heavy criticism from the media.

“My understanding is that human rights are a part of every course,” Roque said. “I can’t go back in the history of the school. I want to see it as it is now. The [officials] I know that are connected with it are very trustworthy, and I think their morals are very high.”

He went on to say that he realizes there have been atrocities but claimed that they cannot be blamed on the Army academy. He said many at the school feel “offended” that they’ve been accused of teaching torture.

Yes, he said, he was aware that declassified Pentagon documents indicated that the school, also dubbed the School of Assassins, used manuals up until 1991 that encouraged such tactics as executions, extortion, physical abuse, coercion and false imprisonment.

“I read a lot about those intelligence manuals,” Roque said, and concluded that the school never taught them. “They were never really a part of instruction, just handouts. They were never taught.”

Roque also said that the school has more than 60,000 graduates, and it is “probably not surprising that some of them didn’t turn out as good as the school would have liked.”

He repeated the school’s standard line that, of the 300 or so graduates implicated in human rights abuses, there have been only about 20 who have been tried and convicted. But he conceded that judges, prosecutors and witnesses who have tried to bring the military to justice in Latin America have often met an ill fate.

Bourgeois, who has spent more time in jail for school protests than most graduates accused of atrocities, points out that nearly every military has demanded blanket amnesties before agreeing to democratic changes.

Roque also used the school’s Unabomber analogy -- that no one calls for Harvard to close just because Theodore Kaczynski went there.

Roque believes that the bishops who have called for the school’s closure don’t have the whole picture. And while he hasn’t talked to any of the critics, secular or religious, he said he would be willing to.

Bourgeois, who was a Navy officer in Vietnam before entering the priesthood, said he would like to “hear him out and try and understand how a bishop could possibly support such a school. I’d then like to try to speak for the many church leaders and poor who have been silenced permanently by its graduates.”

“Before his assassination was ordered by a school graduate,” he said, “Archbishop Romero asked those with a voice to speak for the voiceless. I would like to appeal to Bishop Roque to use his voice for the poor rather than for the generals.”

National Catholic Reporter, October 8, 1999