BY JOSEPHINE SIEDLECKA NEARLY a quarter of a century after Archbishop Oscar Romero was gunned down while saying Mass in El Salvador, his alleged killer has gone on trial in the United States.
Archbishop Romero of San Salvador — one of the heroes of the modern Church who is already regarded as a saint by millions of people — died from a single bullet on March 24,1980, in the Chapel of Divine Providence, San Salvador, just as he was about to elevate the Host.
The man accused of killing him is Alvaro Rafael Saravia, a former army captain who was the right-hand man of Salvadoran death squad leader Roberto D’Aubuisson. Saravia’s trial started on Tuesday in a district court in Fresno, California, as a result of a lawsuit brought by the archbishop’s two surviving brothers. Saravia now lives in Modesto, California, but the hearing will be in his absence.
The UN Truth Commission and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights have both already concluded, after separate investigations, that Saravia was actively involved in planning and carrying out the assassination.
He was detained in the United States in 1987, when Salvadoran prosecutors sought his extradition.
But the Salvadoran Supreme Court later withdrew the extradition request, in a decision denounced as “dubious and politically motivated” by church and human rights groups.
Romero’s successor, the current Archbishop of San Salvador, Fernando Saenz Lacalle, a member of Opus Dei, has welcomed the case on the grounds that it could uncover facts surrounding Archbishop Romero’s murder that could lead to his beatification.
Already, thousands of pilgrims travel to San Salvador every year to visit the slain archbishop’s tomb. Archbishop Romero was a stern critic of the Carter administration for supporting Right-wing regimes in Latin America, and his cause is strongly supported by liberal Catholics. Pope John Paul II is also thought to favour the cause, though Rome has called for more detail before the process can continue.
The case is a complex and delicate one, since Archbishop Romero had enemies among his fellow Salvadoran bishops. On his appointment in 1977, he was regarded as a moderate conservative. But his tirades against far-Right politicians soon made him a controversial figure, and in 1979 several bishops wrote to the Vatican denouncing him as a Communist sympathiser. When Pope John Paul visited El Salvador in 1996, a bishop attacked Romero in the most passionate terms.
Many important witnesses were due to be heard at this week’s trial, including Robert White, American ambassador to El Salvador at the time of the assassination, who was testifying via a videotaped deposition.
English admirers of Archbishop Romero hope that a 24year campaign for justice is finally about to bear fruit. Bishop Kieran Conry of Arundel and Brighton welcomed the news of the trial. He said: “This is a reminder of a very sad episode. It is good that Oscar Romero’s name is being kept alive. He was a martyr for justice. I hope this case serves to further his cause.” Clare Dixon, head of Cafod’s Latin America section, which worked closely with the archbishop, said: “This is a hugely significant event, not only for those seeking his canonisation but for the relatives and friends of more than 60,000 people, including priests and nuns, who were murdered by El Salvador’s death squads. Their killers have got off completely scot-free and a 1993 amnesty means they can never be tried in El Salvador. Many emigrated to America.
“This is a landmark case, because if Saravia is found guilty, it will mark a new era for justice in the United States and all past members of the death squads living in America could face prosecution. We haven’t forgotten the crimes against humanity of World War Two and yet so many thousands of people in El Salvador have never seen these terrible crimes in their country acknowledged.” Days before his murder, Romero told a reporter: “You can tell the people that if they succeed in killing me, that I forgive and bless those who do it. Hopefully, they will realise they are wasting their time. A bishop will die, but the church of God, which is the people, will never perish.” The night before his assassination, the 63-year-old Romero addressed his homily to government soldiers and pleaded: “In the name of God, in the name of these suffering people whose cries rise to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you: stop the repression.” The archbishop’s family has hired Nicholas van Aelstyn as their attorney during the “evidentiary hearings”. Mr van Aelstyn said: “The assassination of Archbishop Romero was one of the most outrageous single crimes of the last quarter of the 20th century. Given that one of the suspects has lived in the US for 17 years, we Americans have an obligation to bring him to justice. We hope this lawsuit will encourage additional witnesses to come forward with evidence that will enable the courts to bring to justice all those responsible for the crime.”