The Tragic Christian

Father James Carney left St. Louis to work with the poor in Honduras, putting him at odds with both church and state. Fifteen years after his mysterious death, a new CIA report raises more questions than answers.

To be killed for my love of Christ would be my greatest joy.
-- Father James Francis Guadalupe Carney, from a letter written in 1971

In Spanish, they are known as the desaparecidos, "the disappeared." Father James Francis Guadalupe Carney, a Jesuit priest from St. Louis, is among them, having vanished in Honduras in 1983. Only his chalice and stole were recovered from the jungles of Olancho Department, a mountainous interior province of the country. To date, those suspected of his presumed murder, members of a government-sanctioned death squad, have never been brought to justice.

In a declassified report released recently, the CIA allows for at least four possible explanations as to what happened to Carney, based on its intelligence reports: The priest may have been killed in a skirmish between the Honduran army and the communist guerrillas he was accompanying. Or he may have been captured by Honduran forces and subsequently tortured and dismembered by a paramilitary death squad. Other possibilities include starving to death in the jungle or dying on impact -- after being thrown from a helicopter.

More than 75 pages of the redacted CIA analysis have been completely blacked out. One of the sentences spared by the censor's pen succinctly concludes: "The precise fate of Carney remains unknown to CIA."

The Carney case is one of 184 confirmed disappearances that took place in the 1980s that are still under investigation by the Honduran national commissioner for human rights, Leo Valladares Lanza. In his two interim reports, the commissioner has suggested that many of the victims were likely kidnapped, tortured and killed by a military-intelligence unit, then under the direction of the late Honduran strongman Gustavo Alvarez Martinez. The death squad operated with impunity, targeting teachers, union leaders, clergy and other suspected left-wing subversives.

Still more alarming are the commissioner's findings that U.S. personnel tacitly approved of Alvarez's orders to kill Carney.

Not surprisingly, Honduran government documents relevant to these paramilitary activities have now disappeared as well. Stymied on the home front, the human-rights commissioner has turned his efforts northward, asking the cooperation of various elements of the U.S. government, including the CIA. Valladares is being aided in his efforts in the United States by the National Security Archive, a nongovernment research institute.

"The families of the disappeared have a right to know what happened to their loved ones," says Susan Peacock of the National Security Archive. "If there is no repentance by the perpetrators of these atrocities, it will be difficult for the families to forgive them." There are moves afoot in Honduras to "officially" forget the crimes and grant amnesty to the perpetrators, she adds.

St. Louisans Eileen and Joseph Connolly, Carney's sister and brother-in-law, have certainly not forgotten, however. The two Clayton-based psychologists have spent the past 15 years seeking the truth about the priest's disappearance. They have traveled to Honduras to investigate the case. They have filed Freedom of Information Act requests and appeals. When all else failed, Carney's family went to federal court in 1988, suing U.S. military and intelligence agencies for the release of pertinent information. After reviewing the case, a federal judge in 1991 denied their petition for reasons of national security.

"We had great obstacles over the 15 years," says Joseph Connolly. "At times we believed our phones were tapped, times when we were fearful for our lives in Honduras. The CIA has elements who I think are very evil and very corruptive of the American way of life."

With his wife now seriously ill, Connolly has declined to inform her of the latest developments in the case. In part because of the family's diligence, the Honduran government's formal diplomatic requests and a related 1995 series in the Baltimore Sun, the CIA was compelled to investigate its role in Honduras in the 1980s. A declassified version of the agency's report was obtained by The Riverfront Times from the National Security Archive. The heavily censored document raises as many questions as it answers.

Carney's life and the reason he sacrificed it are less mysterious. The Jesuit, who attended St. Louis University (SLU), died for the same redemptive purpose he lived: the salvation of the poor in Honduras. Their struggle became his. Carney dedicated himself to the liberation of the oppressed, an apostolate that required living in poverty. His uncompromising beliefs would lead him to challenge established Roman Catholic Church doctrine and Honduran governmental repression.

"This liberation theology really only penetrated with force into the Honduran church after the Latin-American Bishops' Conference in Medellin, Colombia, in 1968," Carney would later write. "Nonetheless, many of us were already interpreting and teaching the gospel of Christ in this liberating sense long before that time."

As a result of following his convictions, he would renounce his American citizenship, be deported from his adopted homeland of Honduras, resign from his religious order and, ultimately, die.

In the years preceding his disappearance, Carney wrote his autobiography, To Be a Revolutionary, by candlelight, while living in exile as the parish priest in the towns of Ocotal and San Juan de Lemay, Nicaragua. When he finished, he asked the Connollys to come down and pick up the manuscript. It would be the last time they saw him. Sometime around July 19, 1983, Carney returned to Honduras, accompanying a group of 96 guerrillas belonging to the Central American Revolutionary Workers Party-Honduras. What happened next depends on your interpretation of the apocrypha yielded by the confessions of captured guerrillas, some or all of whom were later either executed or died trying to escape the custody of the Honduran military.

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