What have I done for the tortured ones in my midst?

Dianna Ortiz, OSU

Dianna Ortiz, OSU

My theme song for 2016 is “What Have We Done for the Poor Ones,” by Lori True. It is a song that serves as a moral compass that inspires and nudges me to live and to work for social justice.

For several years, I have managed to bury in the tomb of my soul the memories of my torture in Guatemala. Often, they threaten to overwhelm me but almost miraculously I’m able to keep them buried—preventing the memories from contaminating my consciousness. But on days like November 2, the day that I experienced and bore witness to the torture of others and to man’s inhumanity, and June 26, the U.N. International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, the memories emerge.

I find myself facing twin realities. Yesterday’s memories return, sharpened and accompanied by their old companions of fear, insecurity, and distrust in humanity. With them are the voices and smells of my torturers.

The second reality, one that I find more troubling than the first, is the survival skill that has graced me with some peace of mind, but has made me a person of indifference. I say this with shame and a profound sense of failure to my fellow survivors and to humanity.

In 1998, I founded the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition International (TASSC), an organization that seeks to empower survivors, their families, and communities and works to end the practice of torture wherever it occurs.  After serving as its director for ten years, I chose to walk a different path—one that allowed me to see and hear about torture from afar.  After escaping from my torturers, I swore that I would never allow anything that resembled a blindfold to cover my eyes. Ironically, I have placed a blindfold over my own eyes.

Lately, I find myself asking, “Have I done enough for the tortured ones in my midst? Have I failed to do enough to spotlight the governments’ and rebel forces’ use of torture? At times I feel that I have done my share, but at others I believe I could have done more. In this election season, it is my moral responsibility to bring to the attention the principles of Catholic social teaching before presidential candidates and other who are seeking public office—mainly those who advocate for the use of torture.

Pope Francis has condemned the practice of torture. On June 22, 2014, from St. Peter’s square at the Vatican, he proclaimed, “Torturing people is a mortal sin. It is a very serious sin.” He reaffirms that not only is torture ineffective and illegal, but also immoral and cruel.

As we join the global community in commemorating the nineteenth anniversary of the U.N.’s International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, let us ask ourselves: What have I done for the tortured ones in my midst? And, how can I join with others in abolishing the practice of torture in today’s world? With Pope Francis and all those engaged in the anti-torture movement, “Let [us] engage and collaborate in abolishing torture and support victims and their families.”

Dianna Ortiz is a member of the Mount Saint Joseph Ursulines.  She was an elementary school teacher in schools in Kentucky and later in Guatemala.  She is the founder of the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition International in Washington, D.C.  She also has worked with Guatemala Human Rights/USA and Pax Christi USA.  Dianna is the author of The Blindfold’s Eyes: My Journey from Torture to Truth (with Patricia Davis, Orbis Books), and she has received three honorary doctorates and has received numerous awards. Sister Dianna serves as editor of award-winning Education for Justice, a project of Center of Concern and serves on the Board of Directors for UNANIMA International.

Going Deeper

Watch I Am Miriam, an anti-human trafficking video, and visit its companion website entitled, “Against Humanity”. The video tells the story of a 26-year-old Ethiopian woman who underwent torture and sex trafficking as she sought asylum from violence against her family and herself in her homeland. The website provides educational and other resources for preventing, detecting, and responding to human trafficking through individual and collective efforts.

Say “NO” to Torture

photograph of Bishop Oscar Cantu

Most Reverend Oscar Cantú, Bishop of Las Cruces

Mention the word “torture” and Abu Ghraib comes to mind. The images of naked detainees cowering as dogs lunge at them make us squirm with shame. But then we think, those were extreme circumstances; the United States doesn’t do this anymore.   Yet we still hear some advocate for waterboarding and “enhanced interrogation techniques” (a euphemism for torture) as a way of extracting information.

In the current environment of fear, we do well to remember Catholic teaching. It tells us that torture is always wrong. In his 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor, Saint John Paul II included physical and mental torture in his list of social evils that are “intrinsically evil” (No. 80). The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church says the prohibition against torture “cannot be contravened under any circumstances” (No. 404).

Torture debases a human being and violates the inherent dignity of the human person, both victim and perpetrator, that is instilled by God in every person created in His image. Torture also degrades the moral fiber of any society that tolerates or sponsors it. Accepting torture undermines respect for everyone’s human rights and human dignity.

In addition to the moral arguments against torture, there are practical reasons to oppose this heinous practice. Experienced interrogators tell us that torture doesn’t work. Information gained through torture is generally useless or misleading since the victim will say what he thinks the torturer wants to hear, not the truth.

And knowing that a country practices torture can push those who suffer from it toward violence and extremism. It can even encourage violence in the wider culture. There is no doubt that the images of Abu Ghraib fueled anti-American sentiment in many countries and served as a recruitment tool for terrorists.

Earlier this year, I met an Iraqi refugee now uses a wheelchair as a result of being tortured. His journey from Iraq to safety in Lebanon was arduous. While relatively safe now, he continues to suffer from internal bleeding and needs regular transfusions. But getting medical care is expensive. There’s no money forthcoming from international agencies for anything besides surgery. Nonetheless he might be counted among the lucky ones – he survived torture.

Sometimes the scars of torture are not visible. But if you look into the faces of the victims, you see the shadows that haunt them. You see them avert their eyes when meeting strangers. You see their involuntary flinches at sudden movements. And if you were to look into their hearts, you would see the fear they are trying to overcome and the hope that they are struggling to nurture in order to rebuild their lives.

Abu Ghraib and the torture associated with that name have tainted so many people’s view of the United States. As I said in an interview with Vatican Radio, “We have placed ourselves through our history as a beacon of hope, a beacon of reason, of freedom: and so, this recent chapter in our history has tarnished that.”

It is time for all of us to urge our leaders to firmly acknowledge that torture constitutes a violation of basic moral principles and a betrayal of the U.S. reputation of being a defender of human rights. It is time for us to say “No” to torture.

You can learn more about torture and actions you can take to oppose torture by going to:




Most Reverend Oscar Cantú is the Bishop of Las Cruces and Chairman of the USCCB Committee on International Justice and Peace.

Torture: A Persistent Moral Issue

Farris, VirginiaElectric shocks. Beatings and whippings. Water-boarding. Rape. Hanging from chains. All these are examples of torture. Unfortunately, these methods and others like them are still practiced today by many countries, most often in places of detention, hidden from public view.

Just what is torture? The United Nations Convention Against Torture defines it to mean any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person to obtain information or a confession, to punish, intimidate or coerce, and that action is done with the instigation or consent of a public official.

That last part – that torture is condoned by someone acting in an official capacity – is a critical factor for international accountability. This means that torture is being carried out by government, law enforcement, military or political personnel. This is why the actions in Abu Ghraib were considered particularly egregious by the world community.

While many Catholics abhor what went on in Abu Ghraib, many still believe that torture can be justified based on what some have called the “ticking time bomb” scenario. A poll taken last December found that among white Catholics, 68% thought torture was sometimes or often justified; only 12% said it was never justified. In contrast, among non-whites, 51% thought torture was sometimes or often justified, while 26% said it was never justified. Among those professing no religion, 41% thought torture was sometimes or often justified and 32% said it was never justified. Obviously, more work needs to be done in helping Catholics understand why torture is inconsistent with our commitment to protect the life and dignity of every human person.

Church teaching is very clear; torture is always wrong. The Catechism of the Church says that “torture which uses physical or moral violence to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred is contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity” (no. 2297) and thus is a grave sin that violates the Fifth Commandment.

Saint John Paul II called physical and mental torture “intrinsically evil.” The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church says that “the prohibition against torture [is] a principle which cannot be contravened under any circumstances” (no. 404).

Perhaps some Catholics don’t realize that torture not only degrades the human dignity of the victim; it also compromises the dignity of the perpetrator, estranging the torturer from God. Torture also undermines a society’s collective integrity and moral fabric. It harms us all. Certainly, after the revelations about Abu Ghraib, the credibility of the United States as a defender of human rights was compromised.

Beyond the moral arguments, many professional interrogators say intelligence gained through torture is generally useless or misleading. Think about it. If someone is causing you excruciating pain, at a certain point, you may say just about anything to make them stop. Experts tell us that torture, or “enhanced interrogation techniques” (as torture is sometimes euphemistically known), is counter-productive, fuels anti-American sentiment, and encourages more people to embrace the very extremism and terrorism that the U.S. wants to stop.

June is Torture Awareness Month because on June 26, 1987 the United Nations Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT) went into force, outlawing torture. The U.S. is a signatory to the CAT.

Have your parish or community group commemorate Torture Awareness Month by taking advantage of available resources on the Church’s teaching on torture. Visit this page for links to study guides, videos and letters related to USCCB efforts against torture.

As Catholics, we join in efforts to ensure that the United States says “Never Again” to torture.

Virginia Farris serves as International Policy Advisor in the USCCB Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development.

Parsing the Bishops’ Statement on the Senate Torture Report

On Tuesday, Bishop Oscar Cantú, chairman of the USCCB Committee on International Justice and Peace, marked the release of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee’s executive summary of its report on CIA interrogation methods with these words:

The Catholic Church firmly believes that torture is an ‘intrinsic evil’ that cannot be justified under any circumstance. The acts of torture described in the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report violated the God-given human dignity inherent in all people and were unequivocally wrong. Congress and the President should act to strengthen the legal prohibitions against torture and to ensure that this never happens again.

The fact that the US government has engaged in torturous practices in prosecuting the so-called “War on Terror” has been known for some time. The Senate Committee on Armed Services detailed prisoner abuse in its 2009 Inquiry into the Treatment of Detainees in U.S. Custody and President Obama’s succinct admission that “we tortured some folks” was clear enough.

However, last week’s release of the executive summary of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee’s report on CIA interrogation methods has been a long time coming. Several times since 2012, Bishop Richard E. Pates urged Senators Feinstein and Chambliss to release the full report on CIA interrogation practices. The need to “allow the truth to see the light of day”, as he made clear on many occasions, was owed to the United States’ obligation “to take a clear stance against torture” in order to “regain our moral credibility and standing in the world as a defender of human rights for all.”

The bishops have long been concerned about the practices of the United States in its treatment of prisoners and have not hesitated to call torture what it is: an “intrinsic evil”. The bishops have long upheld the principles enshrined in international law that ban torture, including Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, which prohibits the abuse of prisoners of war. However, their opposition to torture runs deeper than international law and is embedded in the deposit of faith. It could not be summed up in more lapidary fashion than by Pope Saint John Paul II: “Christ’s disciple refuses every recourse to such methods.” For John Paul II, nothing could justify torture, “in which the dignity of man is as much debased in his torturer as in the torturer’s victim”.

This commitment to a core teaching of the Catholic faith has motivated the bishops in their advocacy to ensure that torture by the United States “never happens again”.

They have been anything but Johnny-come-lately’s to the issue.

In 2005, the bishops articulated the basic position they would continue to reiterate with respect to definitively prohibiting “cruel, inhuman and degrading” treatment of persons in the custody or control of the U.S. government. Bishop John H. Ricard SSJ, in a letter to the Senate, stated:

We believe that a respect for the dignity of every person, ally or enemy, must serve as the foundation of the pursuit of security, justice and peace. There can be no compromise on the moral imperative to protect the basic human rights of any individual incarcerated for any reason.

In the face of this perilous climate, our nation must not embrace a morality based on an attitude that “desperate times call for desperate measures” or “the end justifies the means.” The inherent justice of our cause and the perceived necessities involved in confronting terrorism must not lead to a weakening or disregard of U.S. and international law.

In 2006, then Bishop Thomas G. Wenski, in testimony before the Senate, lifted up the negative consequences of prisoner treatment in the struggle against terrorism:

Tragically, the abuse and humiliation of prisoners and detainees in U.S. custody has reinforced negative perceptions of the struggle against terrorism in Islamic countries. The conduct of the so-called “war on terrorism” merits careful and comprehensive review for its broader impact and consequences.

When news reports suggested that the Department of Defense was considering weakening policies so as not to incorporate Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, Bishop Wenski strongly urged Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to explicitly adopt them.

When proposals in the House and Senate arose to create military commissions and amend the War Crimes Act, Bishop Wenski urged lawmakers to “reject any proposed legislation that would call into question America’s commitment to Common Article 3.”

Bishop Wenski also signed on in 2006 to a common statement of National Denominational and Faith Group Leaders, noting that:

Nothing less is at stake in the torture abuse crisis than the soul of our nation. What does it signify if torture is condemned in word but allowed in deed? Let America abolish torture now-without exceptions.

Several times in 2007 and 2008, the bishops urged lawmakers to outright “prohibit torture as an interrogation technique” in the Intelligence Authorization Act.  This advocacy culminated in a letter from the President of the USCCB, Cardinal Francis George OMI, to President George W. Bush, urging him to sign anti-torture provisions into law.

In 2008, the bishops, together with other religious, civic and military leaders, requested that the President of the United States issue an executive order banning torture. After his election, they reiterated the request to President-Elect Barack Obama, asking him to issue the order on Inauguration Day.

Since then, the bishops have continued to express their concerns about the situation at Guantanamo, including the forced feeding of detainees, and have asked that the President make good on his commitment to close that facility, which “has become a symbol of indefinite detention without trial.”

The bishops have worked with members of both parties on ending the use of torture. The effort to eliminate its use should transcend partisan lines; our nation’s approach to this question ought to reflect values that uphold the human dignity of all people, no matter how difficult the circumstance.

While subjecting torturous practices by the CIA to public scrutiny is a first step in ensuring that our government does not engage in torture again, the latest words of Bishop Cantú make clear that Congress and the President must still act to enshrine in law an absolute prohibition against torture.

Dylan Corbett is manager for mission & identity outreach at USCCB’s Department of Justice, Peace & Human Development.

Go deeper:
Explore Torture is a Moral Issue: A Catholic Study Guide