In a recent Facebook thread, I read with interest the 2010 National Catholic Reporter article (“Women Won’t Let Us Go”) about the four American churchwomen, Maryknoll Srs. Ita Ford and Maura Clarke, Ursuline nun Dorothy Kazel and laywomen Jean Donovan on the 30th anniversary of their murders while working in El Salvador.
What instantly drew me in was the raw language of their ordeal, in which each of the four where raped, tortured and then shot to death. The word “rape” jumped off the page as if a foreign term, and I wondered why I felt this way. Not until I exhausted my search on the women did I understand my heightened surprise: in nearly all of the Google searches, the word, “abused” and not “raped” appeared in the telling of their story. Again, why the softening of the act through the use of the term abused? While I applaud NCR contributor Cheryl Wittenauer’s use of the word rape, I’m confused why so many others seemed unable or unwilling to call it what it is: rape.
When the six Jesuits from El Salvador were executed, the following formula was used to describe what occurred: “Date + six Jesuits, + “along with a housekeeper and her daughter killed by members of the El Salvadoran military.” In his recounting of the death of his Jesuit community, Jon Sobrino is one of the few who names the usually unnamed women: Julia Elba Ramos, 42, cook and housekeeper and Cecilia Ramos, 15, her daughter. Sobrino1 gives further details of the killings by informing the reader of the thirty men dressed in military uniform each carrying machine guns. The first three Jesuits were taken outside and executed. The remaining three Jesuits plus the women were then killed in their beds. Let’s step back from this gruesome scene to imagine what could be missing details of the deaths of Julia and her daughter Cecilia. While I have attempted to uncover the reality of that night, I have not been able to verify my suspicions, that before the women were executed, the military men first raped them, as was their custom. If I am correct, why the silence about their rape all these years later? Does their rape somehow lessen their lives and deaths? Are they considered martyrs as well?
Society has an uneasy relationship with the culture of rape. It can be obscured through language, or as in the case of most large U.S. cities, unprocessed and hidden. In 2009 the city and county of Los Angeles reported over 9,000 unprocessed rape kits, http://www.dailybreeze.com/news/ci_17943122. The excuse–a lack of personnel. Really? How about a lack of concern? In light of the El Salvadoran martyrs, Sobrino reminds us that the martyrs challenge and inspire the Church to take up the cross of reality, to bear the burden of this historical reality. While the deaths of the churchwomen and Jesuits brought awareness of the U.S. role in Central America, the Ursuline Sisters of Cleveland, along with other religious communities of women, were one of the first to recognize the relationship between rape and war. Taking up the cross of reality through the martyrdom of Ursuline nun Dorothy Kazel, these women work on behalf of women as victims of violence forming Women Watch, a yearly event that brings attention and solution to those women and children subject to rape and violence.
The official Church, argues Sobrino, no longer speaks, as it once did, of transforming structures, of the power of naming and calling out that which is sin. The linguistic softening of words used to lessen the impact of rape may appease our discomfort but it is not standing with the historical reality of rape as a weapon of war, of rape as ignored or hidden, and rape as an act of violence against women.
So when the six Jesuits are named each November, give subjectivity to Julia Elba Ramos and Cecila Ramos. Instead of a nameless pass to the four-murdered churchwomen of El Salvador, recount the names of Srs. Ita Ford, Maura Clarke, Dorothy Kazel and lay woman Jean Donovan by reminding your audience these martyrs were first raped, then executed, and then ask why the cross of reality remains hidden?
Jo Sobrino. (Orbis Books: New York) 2003.