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.

Jan 27, 1999 at 4:00 am
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.

There never has been a funeral for Carney, and compared to the pomp and preparation for this week's papal visit, few public accolades have been offered on his behalf. One of his former high-school classmates, Monsignor Jerome F. Wilkerson, recalls the inauspicious memorial Mass in 1993 to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Carney's disappearance. "It was in this tiny chapel in Jesuit Hall (on the SLU campus), across the street from the College Church," says Wilkerson, the pastor of St. Joseph's Church in Clayton. "Some lady wandered in, in the middle of the Mass, who didn't know anything about what it was about." Besides the stranger, only a handful of friends and family attended the service.

Wilkerson adds that as a student at St. Louis University High School, Carney "never shared with me that he was thinking of the priesthood."

His personal road to Damascus still lay in front of him.

Radical Reformation
Carney was born in Chicago in 1924, of German-Irish ancestry. His father worked for 43 years as a salesman for the Burroughs Adding Machine Co., a career that demanded frequent transfers. The family, which grew to seven children, moved to Dayton and Toledo, Ohio, before settling in St. Louis, on Waterman Avenue in the St. Roch Parish. During his senior year, Carney walked through Forest Park to St. Louis University High. After graduating in 1942, he attended SLU on a football scholarship.

Then World War II intervened. Carney was drafted, despite myopic vision and a knee injury sustained on the gridiron that would plague him for the rest of his life. He reported for duty at Jefferson Barracks and eventually toured France as a combat engineer. In his autobiography, he wrote about the difficulties of living piously in the military and of enduring the profanity of enlisted men. Finding the inherent inequity of the Army more insufferable, he refused to attend officer-training school on three occasions and pulled time in the stockade for not saluting a superior. Later, as a military policeman, he disobeyed orders and continued to fraternize with prisoners of war, seeing in the enemy a common humanity absent from the stereotypes in Army propaganda films.

Most significantly, the war caused Carney to doubt his belief in God and to seek spiritual guidance in the works of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, all the while witnessing the horrid effects of human deprivation around him.

"I wanted to vomit when I saw hundreds of French children, women, old people, refugees from the war, fighting with each other to get a bit of the garbage that we soldiers threw out after each meal," wrote Carney. On the outskirts of Marseilles, he observed more abysmal conditions at a refugee camp for North Africans: "They lived like animals: practically naked, sleeping on the bare ground without blankets, eating whatever garbage they could get. The kids were all naked, with their bellies swollen."

Carney returned to St. Louis in May 1946 and enrolled at SLU under the GI Bill. That summer, with his brother Pat and a friend, he hitchhiked and rode the rails to California and Minnesota. In the fall of 1947, he transferred to another Jesuit school, the University of Detroit, to major in civil engineering. As part of a work-study program, he labored on the assembly line at a Ford auto plant, where he became acquainted with communist members of the United Auto Workers. Through them, he discovered Marxism and the writings of Frederick Engels, who collaborated with Karl Marx on the theory of dialectical materialism.

The Marxian interpretation of history and religion conflicted with everything Carney knew. During the prewar years, his parents faithfully listened to the broadcasts of Father Charles Coughlin, a Catholic radio evangelist who preached anti-communism, anti-Semitism and support for the Third Reich with equal zeal. As Carney recalls in his memoir, "Everything that was not Catholic, North American, bourgeois was (without doubt subconsciously) considered and treated as an enemy."

It would take a lifetime for Carney to synthesize Christian dogma with the communist dialectic. He would eventually carry out this task not by intellectual exercise but through the way he chose to live his daily life. Meanwhile, he nurtured a passion for jazz, the big-band sounds of the Artie Shaw and Glenn Miller orchestras. After having cavorted across Europe, with a series of girlfriends, he fell in love with a woman in Detroit. But Carney ultimately chose divinity over marriage.

He entered St. Stanislaus Seminary in Florissant in August 1948, planning to become a missionary to Honduras. To his surprise, his brother Pat joined him there.

In the beginning, Carney loathed the classical training required by the Society of Jesus -- the Jesuits -- and his disdain for authority continued. But his nonconformity did provide him with an affinity for the disadvantaged youth who attended St. Francis Xavier, SLU's parish elementary school. While counseling juvenile truants, he met Father Dismas Clark, a Jesuit rebel whose life story would be dramatized in the 1961 feature film Hoodlum Priest. Clark, a jailhouse chaplain who advocated social justice, often condemned wealthy benefactors of the university for exploiting the poor.

Warned by his religious superiors against associating with this pariah, Carney disobeyed and instead followed Clark's example. "I criticized in class and in Jesuit meetings the bourgeois, middle-class style of life in our 'palace.' From our back windows, we could see the poor, dirty, ramshackle apartment buildings of the black families, and the contrast was too much for me," wrote Carney. "I could not keep quiet." Among seminarians, Carney spread the rumor that his great-grandmother had been a black woman.

In 1955, Carney began a three-year regency in British Honduras, now Belize, where he taught English and coached basketball at a Jesuit-run high school. After this service, he spent four more years in theology school at St. Mary's College in Kansas, chafing under the middle-class trappings while fellow students played golf and enjoyed fine whiskey. "We never analyzed the reality of the world that surrounded us," wrote Carney. "Our theological studies had no connection with social injustices, the social sins, that abound in the United States, in its national as well as international policy."

Finally, after his ordination in 1961, the Jesuits assigned Carney to a mission in Yoro, Honduras, the next year.

Among the Campesinos
Carney had decided to be a missionary to Honduras on the basis of idealistic photographs that appeared in Jesuit Missions, a religious publication. The pictures showed priests traveling through the jungle on horseback and caring for emaciated children. Before his arrival, however, he knew little about the political realities of the country or its history.

In his new incarnation, Carney took the name Guadalupe, after the Virgin of Guadalupe, a notable Hispanic icon. His parishioners called him Padre Guadalupe or simply Lupe. He would learn of their struggles by sharing them, often residing in a dirt-floored champa, or hut, with a palm-leaf roof. "He lived a very spartan life," say Father John Kavanaugh, a Jesuit at SLU. "He felt the great danger was not communism. The great danger was becoming overwhelmed by wealth and power and prestige."

Carney's literal interpretation of his vow of poverty may have been sanctified by church canon, but straying too far from the rectory in those days ran counter to normal Jesuit practice. On the contrary, the religious order's headquarters were located in the northern Honduran city of El Progreso, in an area known as the Company Zone.

The Tela Railroad Co. -- a subsidiary of United Fruit Co. -- generously sold this property to the Jesuits for only $11,000. The grounds included offices, residences, a swimming pool, a country club and part of a golf course. In essence, it was a gated community with restricted access. The campesinos who visited the luxurious complex would inevitably compare it to their own impoverished existence. For this reason, Carney argued against the real-estate deal with his superior: "I told him it would be better that he break the vow of chastity that we take and live with a woman -- all Hondurans would understand that and forgive him -- rather than break the vow of poverty in such a way." Despite his objections, the Jesuits purchased the real estate.

The longstanding relationship between United Fruit and the church extended beyond the transfer of this particular property, of course. The church regularly accepted donations from the company, and priests were granted free passage aboard its vessels. The company and its religious handmaiden formed a cooperative bond, a marriage of convenience that under the best of circumstances treated Honduran citizens paternally. Under this system, church fathers absolved the devout of earthly sins and promised heavenly rewards while workers toiled at company-owned banana plantations and shipping docks under near-slavery conditions. This unrepentant exploitation of labor gave Honduras the dubious distinction of being the most impoverished nation in the Western Hemisphere after Haiti.

"He thought the treatment of laborers was such a violation of human dignity there," says Kavanaugh. "That's one of the things that got him in trouble." Or, as Carney's classmate Wilkerson explains it: "His sharpness of vision about injustices (put him) at cross-purposes with the more orderly agenda of the Society of Jesus."

The U.S. imperialism that repulsed Carney began at the turn of the century, when a tropical variety of North American robber barons invaded the fertile northern coast of Honduras. The top banana of this bunch was Samuel Zemurray of New Orleans. In 1911, Zemurray, known as Sam the Banana Man, financed his own revolution in Honduras to consolidate control of the market. He later sold his vast holdings to United Fruit. United Fruit subsequently became United Brands and now does business under the name Chiquita International Inc. Corporate intrigue has continued to the present day, often so tightly intertwined with official U.S. foreign policy that the two are indistinguishable.

In 1954, while Carney was still cloistered in the seminary, the CIA used Honduras as a staging ground to instigate a coup in neighboring Guatemala, after democratically elected President Jacobo Arbenz Guzman daringly announced agrarian reforms, including the seizure of United Fruit lands. United Fruit returned the favor by lending the CIA two of its ships for the agency's failed 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba.

With the CIA preoccupied with toppling Arbenz in Guatemala, Honduran workers staged their own successful strike against United Fruit. As a result, the Honduran government passed its first labor laws, and the country quickly became the most unionized nation in Central America.

Carney's introduction to Honduras came in the wake of this social change, as the winds of the Cold War turned south. To quash the potential expansion of the Cuban revolution, the Kennedy administration began directing foreign aid to Central and Latin America and the Caribbean, through the Alliance for Progress. As a function of this anti-communist crusade, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the CIA and a litany of transnational corporations funded the American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD) under the aegis of none other than the AFL-CIO, the North American labor federation. AIFLD, in turn, helped eliminate independent labor unions in the region, replacing them with docile, company-oriented substitutes.

For example, AIFLD formed the National Association of Honduran Campesinos (ANACH), which Carney joined. The AIFLD-controlled union acted as a surrogate for a more radical labor organization that had already been forcibly eliminated by the Honduran military. The CIA's strategy was to stave off revolution with minimal reforms. Cast innocently into the middle of these machinations, Carney became a proponent of a newly enacted Honduran land-reform law, one of the liberalizations mandated under the Alliance for Progress. The Honduran government's National Agrarian Institute (INA) implemented the plan to satisfy the terms of the U.S. foreign-aid program. No one in the ruling oligarchy, however, took the measure seriously until ANACH members -- with Carney's blessing -- tried to take advantage of the law by squatting on vacant lands, originally ceded over to the Tela Railroad, in the fertile Sula Valley of northern Honduras.

The railroad and other large landowners, mainly cattle ranchers, resisted these incursions, and violence erupted. In the summer of 1970, for example, 600 campesino families invaded the fallow fields held by the Tela Railroad. They built their champas, rented three tractors to plow the ground, planted corn. "Finally, the military government ordered the eviction of all these families, and hundreds of soldiers arrived to capture all the leaders," wrote Carney. "Many resisted and were cruelly beat and arrested, including some women."

Over the years, Carney's many labor-organizing campaigns on behalf of the poor, landless peasants would continue to place him at odds with the combined agendas of the CIA, AIFLD, INA, the Honduran oligarchy and its servile military. More than once, his life was threatened and a bounty was placed on his head, but the threats failed to deter him.

"Little by little the Spirit of Jesus was showing me that these campesino brothers and sisters of mine needed more than the Word of God," wrote Carney. "I had to put into practice the Word of God, which clearly explains that love of neighbor means to give food to the hungry, clothes to the naked."

The Liberated Theologian
Like Carney, St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus, had been a soldier. The Spaniard formed the religious order in 1540 A.D., and he is credited with the Catholic reformation, which ended corruptive practices in the church such as the sale of indulgences to pardon temporal sins.

Carney entered the priesthood in another time of great change. Between 1962 and 1965, the Second Ecumenical Council met at the Vatican in Rome. Vatican II, as the council came to be known, allowed for more lay participation in the church. After this decision, the bishops of Latin America decided in Medellin, Colombia, in 1968 to formally endorse the concept of liberation theology, which recognizes the need to support the struggles of the poor for social and economic justice. Carney belonged to a vanguard that espoused this theology, but he would later reject it as an implicitly flaccid compromise, a shield for the status quo, rather than a movement that would bring about radical change. Nevertheless, in the early years of his priesthood, the theory gave credence to the role of the church, particularly in Latin America.

The biblical scripture most often associated with liberation theology is Luke 4:18 -- "The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised."

Carney believed these words. Moreover, the verse, attributed to Jesus Christ, provided a clear path for him to follow. He saw these instructions as overriding all individual sins and other moral and social conflicts in which the church often finds itself mired. In essence, he rejected the "pie in the sky" school of theology. Instead, he viewed Christianity as an agent of social change -- the leaven in the bread.

For inspiration, Carney repeatedly turned to Abandonment to Divine Providence by Jean-Pierre de Caussade; In the Heart of the Masses by Charles de Foucauld; and My Experiments in Truth by Mahatma Gandhi, the leader who employed passive resistance to defeat British colonialism in India.

"The gospel of Christ, instead of being a motive for getting involved in the political struggle to change this world, is interpreted in the 'bourgeois theology' ... as dealing with the 'supernatural,'" wrote Carney. "This whole trend of false spirituality says that to change the unjust structures of society you have to first change people. If individuals are just and loving, society will be just. The ... great fact of reality (is) that a selfish, unjust society inevitably produces and forms selfish, exploiting, violent men and women. We must change at the same time the person and the society."

Accordingly, Carney defined his mission as twofold. He tended to the campesinos' spiritual needs, administering the sacraments and helping form basic Christian communities in the villages his parish comprised. At the same time, he remained active in ANACH, organizing the peasants into a union that would fight for their economic rights. Carney traveled this dual circuit first in a red Toyota jeep and then on a Honda 125 dirt bike. In the mountainous interior of the country, he walked or rode horseback.

Eventually he realized that the cooperative-farming goals being implemented by INA were merely an indirect means for North American corporations to continue exploiting Honduran workers. It mattered not whether the peasants harvested timber, bananas or African palm oil, their lot remained the same. Although some campesinos may have by then collectively owned their own land, foreign interests still controlled all the wealth. Through "land reform," the private corporations had cunningly insulated themselves from labor problems by simply allowing INA to manage the property in their stead.

"The INA became an instrument, then, not for changing the unjust agrarian structures, but for controlling the campesino organization," wrote Carney. "From 1976 to the present date (1981) more than half of all the promoters, accountants and agronomists of INA have been secret agents of DIN (the secret police) or G-2 (the army secret intelligence service)," Carney wrote.

When co-opting didn't work, the large landowners didn't hesitate to resort to more direct means.

In a prelude to Carney's disappearance, two priests were brutally tortured to death, and 12 other people were murdered in the Honduran province of Olancho in 1975. Honduran military personnel carried out the wave of terror at the behest of a wealthy timber baron, Jose Manuel Zelaya. The massacre began when troops opened fire on hunger protesters in the town of Juticalpa. Five peasants died, and two were injured by the gunfire. The armed forces then arrested five other campesinos, along with Father Jerome Cypher. Their captors later transferred them to Zelaya's ranch, where they were held with Father Ivan Betancur and two women companions. During a long night of torture, the peasants were given the choice of being castrated or being burned to death in a bread oven. They chose the latter fate. The torturers reserved their most sadistic treatment for the priests. They castrated and shot Cypher, and gouged out Betancur's eyes and slashed off his testicles. The perpetrators then disposed of all the corpses by tossing them in a well. As a final gesture they threw the two women, who were still alive, into the well, too, then dropped two sticks of dynamite down the shaft. The pogrom in Olancho resulted in the banishment of more than 30 other priests or nuns from the province.

Four years later, Carney himself would be arrested, stripped of his cherished Honduran citizenship and deported from the country for his political activities. Before leaving, he expressed a desire to die for his beliefs. He wanted to be a martyr.

Separation from Church and State
In exile, Carney returned to St. Louis, where he went on an eight-day retreat at Jesuit Hall on the SLU campus. Kavanaugh acted as Carney's spiritual advisor during this time. "I'd say he was the most focused man I ever met," Kavanaugh says. Carney confessed to Kavanaugh that he longed to be a chaplain for the Honduran revolutionaries. "I remember when we were discussing this," Kavanaugh says. "He said, 'Look, if I were applying to be a chaplain in the U.S. Army, people would honor me and I'd get a great salary. Here I want to help a poor army and just do the same thing, and it's not supposed to be good.'

"I didn't know how to challenge that," says Kavanaugh.
After being issued a U.S. passport, Carney left for Nicaragua, where he observed the progress achieved in health care and literacy by the revolutionary Sandinista government. He also visited Cuba. Finally, he would form a tragic association with members of the Revolutionary Workers Party of Central America-Honduras, accompanying these armed insurgents across the Nicaragua-Honduras border. In the interim, he began to reflect through his writings about his own life, the fallibility of the pope, the reprehensible conduct of the United States in Central America and the conditions in Honduras that warranted the taking up of arms.

"After having sworn during World War II that I would never kill a person, and after being a disciple of Gandhi and his non-violent methods of combating injustices, it still took me a couple of years to clarify my ideas about a Christian and his or her place in an armed revolution," wrote Carney. "During 1975, with its violent repression, my ideas on the Christian use of arms became clearer. I was gradually and finally acknowledging to myself the truth that love sometimes demands fighting back."

Carney had already severed ties to the United States. In a 1971 letter to friends, he wrote: "I love all of you, and I think you're wonderful loving persons, but I can't stand living with any of you. I was raised like you, as a middle-class Catholic, white American. But right from high school on, I've had a deep conviction that most middle-class Catholics are phony Christians, just as materialistic and self-seeking, and as liable to go along with others as any non-Christian and often more so."

He expanded on this thinking in his autobiography: "The truth is that the capitalist idea of using the selfish tendency in human beings as a basis of the economic system was not born among atheists and agnostics, but Christians, mostly Protestants, in England, Germany and France."

Writing from his shack in northern Nicaragua, Carney recalled his own naive encounter with the Holy See, when he went to Rome after the war. "I was amazed at the riches of the Vatican palace and museum, and at the medieval pomp of the pope, entering St. Peter's Cathedral like a king seated on his throne," Carney wrote. "He was carried on the shoulders of eight of his soldiers, with their medieval uniforms, swords and lances.... Now in 1981, when I am, at last, a revolutionary, you can imagine how much I hate this counter-Christianity that is our Catholic Church. Jesus and his first pope, Peter, went around without shoes, as poor workers, without a home and without any political power. Everything about the Vatican's pomp and wealth now fills me with disgust."

About a month before he set off for the Olancho province with the guerrillas, Carney resigned from the Jesuit order.

Soldier of the Cross
By the time Carney and the guerrillas crossed the Coco River into Honduras, in July 1983, the last gusts of the Cold War had shifted south, propelled by the victory of the leftist Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua. Neighboring Honduran territory became an encampment for the U.S.-armed contra forces, under the command of former officers in Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza's National Guard. At the Pentagon, propagandists continued spinning stories of Salvadoran leftists receiving military support from the Sandinistas. Meanwhile, the Honduran military, also a beneficiary of gringo largess, stood poised to respond to the perceived threat of a Sandinista invasion, as thousands of U.S. Army troops were contemporaneously being deployed in a series of open-ended maneuvers in northern Honduras.

Defying these overwhelming odds, Jose Maria Reyes Mata, the leader of the guerrillas, with whom Carney had cast his lot, marched straight into enemy-held territory. Reyes Mata modeled himself after Ernesto "Che" Guevara, the martyred Cuban revolutionary who was captured and executed by the Bolivian military in 1967. Reyes Mata had served under Guevara in Bolivia. Both men were former physicians, and like his comrade, Reyes Mata would die in a failed insurgency. He also mimicked Guevara by chronicling his defeat in a diary. But in his case, a few of the diary's pages somehow ended up missing. The lacuna adds to the mystery surrounding Carney's fate.

This much is known: Reyes Mata planned to foment a popular insurrection, with Carney -- by some accounts -- acting as a political officer, under the nom de guerre of Mario. The strategy didn't work. By early August, two deserters turned themselves in to the Honduran army. Alerted to the insurgency, Alvarez, the commander of the Honduran armed forces, ordered a full-scale attack. The U.S. Army provided logistical support for this counterinsurgency campaign, according to the CIA report.

It is impossible to ascertain exactly what transpired next, although uncensored portions of the CIA intelligence reports paint a picture in which the guerrillas splintered, their morale plummeted and desertions increased. Fragmented details from often-conflicting sources create a mosaic of possible scenarios surrounding the priest's death. Among the unanswered questions:

* What was Carney's role with the guerrillas? The question of whether the priest traveled with the group as a chaplain, political officer or armed combatant has never been clarified, because existing documents are often contradictory. A Defense Intelligence Agency report, for instance, lists Mario (Carney's pseudonym) as the only guerrilla whose name is not attached to the serial number of one or more M-16 rifles. This bolsters the theory that Carney accompanied the guerrilla group as a chaplain, not a combatant. In the CIA report, however, Carney is reported to have carried a pistol. A separate State Department cable notes that Carney expressed a willingness to use the weapon to commit suicide rather than be captured, according to an unnamed source.

* What were the circumstances of Carney's death? Early in the expedition, Carney is reported to have argued with Reyes Mata over religion. Reyes Mata later exacerbated the debate by ordering the execution of a subordinate. The alleged deserters' accounts tell of Carney becoming despondent, lagging behind and eventually having to be carried. His inability to keep up with the column could plausibly be attributed to his lame knee. At 58 years of age, he was also the oldest member of the guerrilla organization. The official Honduran military explanation is that Carney died of starvation after being left behind.

A Honduran helicopter crew is reported to have captured an aide to Carney, who then led them to the body of the priest, which was said to have been found in a hammock. In other versions of the story, the aide covered Carney's body with leaves. There is no way to confirm these suppositions, however, because the aide was conveniently eliminated. The CIA report states: "In regard to Carney, (deleted) stated only that a young guerrilla who accompanied the priest had seen him dead. The guerrilla covered the priest with leaves and left him in the jungle. The guerrilla was subsequently killed (deleted)."

* Why are details concerning Carney's death so elusive? Carney, of course, was only one victim of the Olancho counterinsurgency campaign. A CIA reference indicates 30 or 40 of the guerrillas were executed as a part of the operation. A more recent estimate, contained in a Feb. 27, 1997, intelligence report, alludes to "a mass grave that purportedly contained the remains of Carney." The source of this information, an unnamed Honduran citizen, "claimed he had evaded the Honduran military and witnessed them prepare a mass grave for between 70-90 of his deceased comrades in the Nueva Segovia region." In the most blatant discrepancy, the Honduran military announced that Reyes Mata had died in battle on Sept. 18, two days after local newspaper accounts claimed that he had been captured.

The enigma enveloping Carney's death may have been perpetuated by the Honduran army's complicity in the execution of these guerrillas. According to the CIA report, Alvarez, the head of the Honduran armed forces, commanded that all captive insurgents be interrogated and then killed. To keep these atrocities secret, Alvarez additionally ordered that "each officer participate (in the executions) so that they would not disclose their action," the CIA report states.

Moreover, there are repeated references in CIA intelligence reports to Honduran special forces' recovering a substantial amount of money from Reyes Mata's body. Estimates of the amount of confiscated cash range from $15,000-$500,000. The CIA report indicates the Honduran special forces could have divided the money among themselves, or it may have been split among ranking officers, including Alvarez.

* What was the United States' involvement in the operation? There is a possibility that the CIA or U.S. military had infiltrated the guerrilla group before it left on its doomed mission. David Arturo Baez Cruz, also known as Comandante Adolfo, was a naturalized U.S. citizen who had served as a counterinsurgency specialist in the Green Berets at the U.S. Army's Southern Command in Panama, according to Susan Peacock of the National Security Archive. After the Sandinista revolution, he returned to Nicaragua and joined Reyes Mata's guerrilla group, Peacock says. Baez, who is also among the disappeared, acted as the radio operator for the guerrillas' Honduran incursion. References in the recently released CIA report indicate that the CIA was monitoring radio communications between the guerrillas and the Sandinistas. If Baez indeed possessed a U.S. military-intelligence background, it raises the question of whether he was knowingly broadcasting information not only to the Sandinistas but also to the CIA. In a Dec. 23 response to a Freedom of Information Act request placed by the National Security Archive, the CIA could "not confirm nor deny" whether Baez had been debriefed by the Honduran military, CIA personnel or others.

Despite all these uncertainties, the most credible testimony pertaining to the circumstances surrounding Carney's death is that of the late Florencio Caballero. In April 1987, Caballero told Americas Watch, a human-rights group, that he had been participating in the torture of suspected leftist subversives as an interrogator in a military-intelligence unit that came to be called Battalion 316. Caballero, who claimed that the CIA had trained him in Texas, said Carney had been captured and interrogated at El Aguacate, a U.S.-controlled air base used to supply the contras. Caballero said Alvarez ordered Carney's execution, in the presence of a North American known only as "Mr. Mike." Carney was subsequently thrown from a helicopter, according to Caballero. An early U.S. government response to the Connolly's request for information supports the idea that U.S. personnel not only had knowledge of Carney's capture, but may have participated in his interrogation. In a letter dated Dec. 7, 1983, the U.S. State Department informed the family that "during the Honduran military Olancho operation, the U.S. Defense attache assisted in the debriefings of guerrillas."

In the recently released CIA report, however, the onus for many of the disappearances of Honduran leftists is not placed directly on Battalion 316 but on an entity within it -- the Honduran Anti-Communist Liberation Army (ELACH). In a 1986 letter to congressional intelligence committees, CIA director William Casey expressed "concern that ELACH would continue as a viable organization with high contacts in the Honduran government." Casey also vowed to personally investigate the issue further, but he never followed up on the matter; nor did John Negroponte, the U.S. ambassador to Honduras.

All anti-communists, after all, were viewed as allies by the Reagan administration.

Enemy of the States
Whereas the Carter Administration failed to stem human-rights abuses in Central America, the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 seemed to sanction the carnage. Increases in abductions, torture and assassinations corresponded with the rise in U.S. military aid to the region. In Guatemala, the disappearances of Catholic laity and clergy were ordered by Mario Sandoval Alarcon, who attended Reagan's first inauguration. In El Salvador, the torture and assassinations were planned by Major Roberto D'Aubuisson. In Honduras, the terror campaign fell under the direction of Alvarez, who was eventually overthrown in 1984 in a military coup and later assassinated.

Before Alvarez was removed from power, however, the U.S. military-intelligence establishment wooed him into allowing the contras to bivouac on Honduran soil. In the early stages, the contras were being handled indirectly through Washington by way of Buenos Aires. The Argentine military exported its death-squad activities to Central America with the support of the U.S. government, using Honduras as the base of operations for the CIA-financed counterrevolution against the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua.

But by December 1982, the "covert" war against Nicaragua had gained the attention of the U.S. Congress and become a matter of public debate. Concern over the escalating military buildup and the possibility of another Vietnam in the Western Hemisphere convinced the Democratic majority to pass the Boland Amendment, which placed a ban on further military aid to "overthrowing the Nicaraguan government or provoking a military exchange between Nicaragua and Honduras."

The congressional mandate, however, only led to the more elaborate clandestine activities, which later came to be known as the Iran-contra affair. Among the ways the Reagan administration skirted the law was by privatizing the arms-supply operations and shifting more of the contras' logistical support to right-wing organizations such as the World Anti-Communist League, an international network of Reaganites, anti-Castro Cubans, old-guard Nazis and neo-fascists from Asia and Latin America.

Within this repressive atmosphere, the ruling oligarchies of the region, who controlled the death squads, defined a communist as anyone who spoke out in defense of the poor. The Catholic Church, or at least the liberation theologists within it, had become the unarmed enemy of the state -- an ideological threat to the status quo.

Given the dominant U.S. military presence in Honduras, and its traditional hegemony over the entire isthmus, Carney's efforts at social justice were akin to walking on water. Despite some attempts, neither the Vatican nor Washington appeared willing or able to bring an end to the mounting violence. In March 1980, the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador acted as a harbinger of the horrors to come in a country where disappearances had already become a daily occurrence.

After Romero's murder, three American nuns and a laywoman were raped and killed by a Salvadoran death squad. The writing was literally on the wall in nearby San Salvador. Death squads often abducted civilians in broad daylight. Romero had warned Pope John Paul II of the right-wing terror campaign being inflicted on the members of his archdiocese. It is evident that the Holy See accepted secular advice on the issue, too. Before the papal visit to Central America in early 1983, the year Carney disappeared, Pope John Paul II granted a private audience to Reagan ambassador-at-large Vernon Walters, a former assistant director of the CIA, according to a chronology compiled by the National Security Archive. The exact nature of their tete-a-tete remains as enigmatic as Carney's disappearance. By no small coincidence, the Vatican established formal diplomatic relations with the United States the next year. With the pope's 1998 visit to Cuba, there are signs of change, signs that the ideological differences between socialism and Christianity have lessened. That change did not come without sacrifice.

"The national-security policy that justifies everything that is done in terms of U.S. security is an evil policy," says Joseph Connolly, Carney's brother-in-law. "Father Carney got in trouble because he fell in love with poor people. Other people get in trouble because they fall in love with riches and power and glory and pomposity."

How Carney died remains an unanswered question. But the creed that he lived by is as simple as it is profound: "To be a Christian is to be a revolutionary."