Why Three American Nuns were Killed in El Salvador in 1980

A recent article in the New York Times has resurrected an old issue, the killing of three American nuns in El Salvador on December 2, 1980.

The church women -- Maura Clarke, Ita Ford and Dorothy Kazel along with church worker Jean Donovan -- were abducted, raped and shot to death that night. The next day, peasants discovered their bodies alongside an isolated road and buried their remains in a common grave. The van they had been driving when stopped at a military checkpoint turned up 20 miles away, burned and gutted.

Maura Clarke and Ita Ford were Maryknoll sisters. Dorothy Kazel was an Ursuline sister.

Maura Clarke and Ita Ford had arrived on a flight from Nicaragua that morning. Dorothy Kazel and Jean Donovan had come in a van to the airport and had picked them up.

Maura Clarke, Ita Ford and Dorothy Kazel
American Nuns Killed in El Salvador in 1980
Maura Clarke and Ita Ford were Maryknoll sisters. Dorothy Kazel was an Ursuline sister.

Everyone familiar with this case knows the reason why these nuns were presumably killed. Yet, this has never been mentioned in any published article.

The three nuns were killed for the same reason that Archbishop Romero of El Salvador was assassinated a year earlier (Jean Donovan was a pall bearer at the funeral of Archbishop Romero): They were aiding and assisting the Communist insurgents who were fighting a war in El Salvador. This fact has never been denied. Presumably, a denial would have come if this were not true.

There can be no denial that the killing of the three nuns was a brutal and heinous act. Yet, many people are killed in a war. More than 100,000 people were killed in this War in El Salvador. The only thing which made this particular killing noteworthy was that the three women were American and they were nuns.

It has always been a mystery why workers of the Catholic Church were involved in assisting leftist insurgencies in Central America and elsewhere during this period. Yet, there is no doubt that this was the case.

Pope John Paul II during his visit to Cuba in 1998

Pope John Paul II, who, being from Poland, himself had first hand knowledge of the horrors imposed by a Communist rule, brought an end to involvement of the Catholic Church in aiding leftist insurgencies, when he visited Central America in 1983. I, myself, along with a million other people who had assembled in El Salvador to hear the Pope speak, heard him address this issue. The Pope said that the duty of the church is to teach that Jesus is the Son of God, and nothing else! In a private meeting with the priests and nuns of El Salvador later that day, the Pope emphatically told them to stop their involvements in political matters.

The best way to learn about the true situation in El Salvador during that period is to view the movie "Salvador" starring John Belushi, which is available in video. This movie has scenes depicting the murder of the three nuns plus the assassination of Archbishop Romero. Yet, I can say from having been in El Salvador during that period that the movie understates the true situation. The real situation was vastly more bloody than that depicted in the movie.

I myself was nearly killed 4 or 5 times during the just three months that I was in El Salvador from January to April, 1983. I can still feel the cold steel of a drunken officer's gun pressed against my left temple during one incident.

I have never doubted that the soldiers who killed the three nuns had their orders from above. It would have taken only someone in the middle level of authority to approve these killings. The decision to kill these three particular persons would not have been considered very important.

The question which was often debated was: In view of these and numerous other killings, why did the United States Government continue to support the Government of El Salvador? In my view, the question was: Assuming for the sake of argument that the killing of the three nuns was personally ordered directly by General Casanova or by the President of El Salvador, does that mean that the Government of the United States should simply have handed El Salvador over to the Communist insurgents and should have abandoned the six million people of El Salvador?

Sam Sloan

Here is the Maryknoll Sisters website: Ita Ford: Missionary Martyr .

Here is a published article: Salvadorans Who Slew American Nuns Now Say They Had Orders.

Here is "Salvador" starring John Belushi.

UPDATE: The Miami Herald: October 9, 2000: Former Salvadoran generals face U.S. trial

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