Courageous Priests: A Reporter Looks Back

A commentary by Dan Southerland
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Father Robert Venet baptizes Cambodian refugees, 1986
Father Robert Venet baptizes Cambodian refugees, 1986

Updated at 10:30 a.m. EDT on 2012-03-22

As the Catholic Church struggles with scandals and change, I recall with appreciation the priests around the world who aided me in my overseas reporting career.

With their help—first in Southeast Asia and then in Central America—I gained access to hard-to-reach localities and insights into local conditions that would otherwise have been denied to me.

The priests came from several nations, from local dioceses, and from several orders—Jesuits, Maryknollers, and members of the Paris Foreign Mission Society among them.

They shared one thing in common: compassion for the poor and homeless.

I’m reflecting on all this now because of the recent death of Father Robert Venet, a French priest who served the church in Cambodia for more than 60 years.

I first met Venet during the war in Cambodia in early 1974, when refugees were streaming by the thousands out of villages in central Cambodia to the west of the provincial capital of Kompong Thom.

Among them was Robert Venet.

Aiding Cambodian refugees

Father Venet helped me to interview many of the refugees and gave me my first clear insights into the behavior of the radical but still mostly faceless Khmer Rouge.

In his Cambodian village, the Khmer Rouge were executing people for crimes as small as stealing a chicken or for raising the mildest of objections to their conduct.

Dissenters or those accused of other crimes were taken from their homes and told they were going to see “higher authorities.” They never returned.

Vietnamese communist troops, who were backing the Khmer Rouge, let Venet escape after villagers testified that he was universally loved by them because of the work he did.

Venet had labored in the rice fields with the villagers and helped them to build a church, a reservoir, and a fish farm. When villagers were ill, he took them to a hospital.

After the Khmer Rouge took power, Venet began working with Cambodian refugees across the border in neighboring Thailand.

“All of the refugees whom I knew loved Father Venet,” said Naline Pea, currently a broadcaster with Radio Free Asia who fled with her family in the mid-1980s to one of the refugee camps in Thailand.

At a Thai camp, Father Robert Venet poses with Cambodian refugees in front of a church made from bamboo, 1986.
At a Thai camp, Father Robert Venet poses with Cambodian refugees in front of a church made from bamboo, 1986. RFA

Aiding Indonesia’s poor

In Jakarta, Indonesia in 1974, a Jesuit priest from the Netherlands helped me to reach the poorest of the poor.

The Dutch priest, whose name I can’t now recall, put me on the back of his motorbike and took me to meet canal-dwellers who barely made a living scraping old pieces of glass, iron,  and plastic from the bottom of Jakarta’s muddy canals.

Most of them lived in cardboard and bamboo huts.

They couldn’t understand why a foreign journalist would be interested in their lives.

But the priest explained, and they opened up to me.

Aiding Timorese refugees

A year later in 1975, Indonesian troops began infiltrating the Portuguese-ruled colony of East Timor and ultimately launched a full-scale invasion in the wake of a withdrawal by the Portuguese.

I couIdn’t get into East Timor. Western journalists were banned.

So I began trying to cover the story from Hong Kong, where I was based as Asia correspondent for the The Christian Science Monitor.

With the help of Catholic priests, I was able to meet Timorese refugees. From them, I learned that Indonesia troops were killing East Timorese on a large scale.

By late 1976 as many as 100,000 people out of a population of fewer than 700,000 in East Timor may have died as a result of Indonesian attacks, including aerial bombardment.

I continued to cover the story as best I could from Washington, D.C. thanks to priests and refugees introduced to me by Arnold Kohen, a friend who had taken up the cause of the East Timorese.

One of the most courageous priests whom I met through Kohen was Father Francisco Fernandes.

Fernandes escorted several hundred Timorese refugees to Portugal and, ultimately, brought small groups of refugee witnesses to atrocities to the United States, thus bringing the plight of East Timor to the attention of the U.S. Congress.

Interviewing refugees can be tricky business. They sometimes tell you what they think you want to hear. Some exaggerate in order to gain sympathy.

Unfortunately, the U.S. State Department was of little use in helping me piece together the story.

For several years, the Carter administration, in the interest of maintaining strong ties with Indonesia, played down the tragedy.

But thanks to my priestly intermediaries, I was able to separate truth from falsehood. And the Timorese refugees turned out to be amazingly accurate.

Introduction to Muslim rebels

In 1976, it was a Maryknoll priest, an American, who introduced me to a leader of the Moro National Liberation Front in the southern Philippines.

At the time, the Muslim rebellion in the region was the largest of the Southeast Asian insurgencies.

The immediate causes of the fighting that erupted in the early early 70s were land disputes and political struggles. Unfortunately, extremists from both sides got the upper hand at one point.

I reached Pikit on the island of Mindanao in early 1976 hoping to find a way to meet some of the elusive rebel guerrillas.

The Maryknoll priest had contacts on both side. He was aiding refugees and striving to encourage mutual understanding and peace talks.

He drove me to an abandoned village that had been inhabited by Christians but had been badly shot up during firefights. Muslim guerrillas now controlled the area.

The priest dropped me off at the village, telling me to expect to meet a guerrilla leader known as Commander Tito. He would come back to pick me up later, he said.

I stood alone, feeling a bit uneasy amidst the ruins of the village at a picnic table that had been spared war damage.

Some 30 to 40 unsmiling, long-haired guerrillas carrying rifles then emerged from the tree line. “I’m Commander Tito,” one of them said.

After a pause, which left me more uneasy, the commander said, “Would you like to hear some guitar music?”

That broke the ice, and the interview began and ended well.

Priests in El Salvador

As a diplomatic correspondent based in Washington for The Christian Science Monitor, I made periodic trips to trouble spots to see how the policy statements I was getting from the State Department, White House, and Defense Department matched up against the reality on the ground.

One of those trouble spots was El Salvador, where church and labor groups were blaming U.S.-backed military and rightist groups allied with the military for the murders of many innocent civilians.

When I returned to El Salvador in 1981 after an absence of two years, I discovered that several of the people I had interviewed in the past had been driven underground.

They included a newspaperman and a Roman Catholic vicar, both of whom had criticized the government.

They were lucky to have escaped with their lives.

But as in Indonesia, I still found Catholic priests and missionaries who could put me in touch with both rich and poor. One was a Spanish Jesuit who ran a small radio station.

When I returned again to El Salvador in 1983, I learned that the number of assassinations, while still unacceptably high, had fallen.

But altogether, 11 priests had been killed over the years, including a beloved archbishop of San Salvador. A number of priests had been forced to flee the country.

And the level of fear among ordinary people, many caught between left and right, was still running high.

Death of a priest

In Guatemala, which I also covered at the time, the level of fear in some places appeared to be even higher than in El Salvador.

I was warned that if I tried to interview certain people it could “get them into trouble with the army.”

Once again, however, I could still find Catholic priests who were willing to talk.

One of them was Stanley Rother, a minister from an Oklahoman diocese working in the lakeside town of Santiago Atitlan.

It was Rother who put me in contact with residents of the town, most of them descendants of the Mayan Indians who lived in the region when the Spaniards arrived.

When I first met Stan Rother in 1980, he was sleeping every night with his work boots on because he had received death threats.

Although he declined to be quoted by name at the time, Rother made it clear that he believed that the kidnappings and killings which had occurred in Santiago Atitlan while he worked there were carried out by death squads from the secret police working with the Guatemalan army.

After hearing that he himself might be on a death list, Rother left to spend three months with his parents in Oklahoma.

But against the advice of friends and despite the continuing danger, Rother returned in May 1981 to resume his missionary duties.

And on July 28, 1981, just as his friends had feared, the Rev. Stanley Rother was shot to death.

Interviews with those friends showed that Rother, unlike some other priests in Guatemala and elsewhere in Central America, did not have strong political opinions.

“He did not activate, motivate, or instigate any kind of movement against the government,” said Frankie Williams from Wichita, Kansas, who spent four vacations working with Rother in Santiago Atitlan.

“He was a carpenter priest who built a hospital with his own hands,” she said.

But according to Williams, Rother did tell an army captain at a public meeting, “How can you say you are our friends when there was no trouble before you came?

Finally, a letter that Rother wrote recalling what he described as army retaliation against innocent civilians for a guerrilla ambush was widely circulated in the United States. Friends think that this might have been held against him.

Dan Southerland is RFA's Executive Editor.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Stanley Rother was a Maryknoller.





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