Editor's Note: This is Part III of the series Martyr of the Amazon: The Life and Death of Dorothy Stang
BELEM, Brazil — The realization sweeps over the courtroom in a cold rush: Someone has gotten to the witnesses.
Prosecutor Edson Cardoso is practically spitting with rage. It is bad enough that the triggerman, Rayfran das Neves Sales, has recanted his previous testimony implicating Bida, the rancher Vitamiro Moura.
His accomplice, Clodoaldo Carlos Batista, takes the stand and follows suit. “There are some things that are not the truth,” he says defiantly.
Batista claims he falsified numerous previous statements because two FBI agents tortured him psychologically. The American agents forced the men to implicate Bida, he testifies, “because if they didn’t, the American Army would come and get them.”
The prosecutor is scornful: “Do you think the Americans had nothing better to do than to come after you?”
Christine Moore Serrao, U.S. consular agent, is equally incredulous: “No way! I know the two investigators who came with the embassy accompanied by federal and civil police, and there’s no way they could have intimidated anybody.”
And the surprises keep on coming.
Amair Feijoli da Cunha, the rancher known as Tato, also recants his often-repeated testimony that Bida ordered the murders. At his own trial he shed tears for his family, but now he exudes a partyboy swagger. His wife is seen speaking to the defense attorneys and smiling.
“We can’t prove it, but we believe there was some kind of financial arrangement with the three men who are in prison,” says Jose Batista Afonso of the Pastoral Land Commission, a land-rights organization.
It is nearly midnight before the court adjourns, leaving the prosecution team scrambling to repair the damage.
If somebody has gotten to the witnesses in prison, what’s to prevent them from getting to the jury?
Federal prosecutor Felicio Pontes, a close friend of Stang’s who spoke with her on the morning of her death, fears the trial is going badly despite the prosecution’s valiant efforts. He has organized a prayer vigil throughout parts of the Amazon because “Dorothy touched all parts of the Amazon.”
In closing arguments, Cardoso reminds the seven members of the jury that the testimony directly contradicts previous statements implicating Bida. And, he tells them, Tato once visited the gunmen in jail and offered to pay their families $5,000 if they would take the fall and not implicate Bida.
“Listen to Tato — in his own trial he didn’t defend himself as well as he defended Bida last night,” thunders the theatrical prosecutor, who is given to Dan Rather-like metaphors. “Every version they’re giving is all different, so what is the truth? They’re like fishermen who throw out their nets and pull everything in.”
The defense begins with flowery compliments to one another. “I timed him, and he just spent eight minutes praising the other defense attorney,” Stang’s friend Sister Annie Wihbey says with a snicker. “Let them waste their time!”
Soon, she isn’t laughing.
In his closing arguments lead defense attorney Americo Leal launches into a wild-eyed, rambling assault on Stang’s character. Leal argues that Bida is the victim in this case. “Dorothy would tell people the land is theirs, but the land did not belong to them,” Leal says. “She caused the situation to become war. People began invading illegally because she told them to. What was the reaction of the landowner whose land is threatened?”
With the Brazilian flag flying proudly beside the defense table, Leal rants, “Violence is in the DNA of North Americans, and she was conceived in that DNA.” And: “The cancer of George Bush is spreading to the entire world; don’t let it spread to the Amazon.”
The sisters whisper among themselves, “What does this have to do with the case?”
Still, the words wound. The nuns have remained stoic throughout the autopsy photos and the video of the crime re-enactment, but now they look deflated, exhausted. “It’s like they assassinated Sister Dorothy all over again,” says Sister Joan Krimm of Cincinnati, who has flown in for the trial of her old friend from Julienne High School. “She was a woman of peace, not of violence.”
At times Leal’s rhetoric is so over the top that the courtroom bursts into laughter. Still, this was the man who won an acquittal for the police in the massacre of 19 farmers during a 1996 demonstration. Would he work his magic again?
In his rebuttal, Cardoso argues that Bida’s attorneys are defaming the victim for lack of any real defense. “Even if all these accusations were true — and they aren’t — would that give anyone the right to take someone’s life?” he asks, his voice choking with emotion. “Before Sister died, she shook each of their hands and squeezed each of their hands. It was as if she were supplicating them, rethink it one more time, but they could not go back because they had received the order to do it. So they took the life of Dorothy, who could have had a life with her brothers and sisters — who are here — but chose a life among the poor.”
The jury returns after being sequestered for only 20 minutes. The courtroom, packed with Stang supporters, tenses. Is it a good sign or a bad sign?
The verdict is unanimous: guilty.
Judge Raimundo Moises Alves Flexa sentences Bida to 29 years in prison, with an extra year for a victim over the age of 60. It’s the maximum sentence in a country that has no death penalty.
“Maybe now the mandantes will stop and THINK before they decide to kill someone,” exults Darcitete Barros Goncalves, a Stang supporter.
Judge Flexa cautions the courtroom, “There will be no parties here.” The courtroom celebration is subdued out of consideration for Bida’s family.
Triumph in tent city
Meanwhile, the tent city goes wild. The nuns and the young novices embrace and jump up and down like kids in a mud puddle.
It is rare to see such unadulterated joy on adult faces. People hold hands and dance in a circle in a traditional dance known as the seranda.
Finally, Sister Julia Depweg, a Hamilton native who has spent most of the past 45 years in Brazil, takes the microphone and announces, “Dorothy lives!”
The crowd responds, “Sempre! Sempre! Sempre!” (“Always! Always! Always!”)
Dorothy’s brother Tom thanks the people of the tent city for their support and praises the jury: “At least they are smart enough to recognize a saint when they see one.”
It’s a thinly veiled reference to Pope Benedict XVI, who hasn’t uttered a word about the slain nun during his fiveday visit to Brazil, coinciding with the trial dates. “It’s unfortunate that the pope missed this opportunity at a time when the church is trying to be relevant and to show that the face of Christ is present to the world,” Tom Stang says.
Dorothy’s sister Marguerite Hohm echoes those feelings: “The pope would only talk about sexual immorality. I think it’s very immoral to let your fellow man live in poverty.”
Bida’s verdict brings cautious optimism that the reign of impunity is over. But a bigger hurdle lies ahead. The trial of Regivaldo Galvao, Anapu’s largest landowner, has yet to be scheduled. Despite the murder charges against him and fervent protests from Stang’s family, he’s free on bail.
In the midst of the tent city celebration, twin brothers David and Tom Stang are whisked away to the mansion of Para’s newly elected governor, Ana Julia de Vasconcelas Carepa, a friend of their sister’s. “You can be sure I understand global warming and I will protect the Amazon,” she promises. It’s an ambitious claim in a country that lost more than 50,000 square miles of rain forest between 2000 and 2005. Despite all the promises, all the posturing, it’s still common for loggers to haul illegal wood out of the Amazon, in broad daylight and full view of the police. “Time will tell,” David says.
Like all great spiritual leaders, Dorothy Stang’s influence is measured one life at a time. The 23-year-old novice Wanessa Dias left the convent in Belem a short time before Dorothy’s death. Stang called and gently asked the reason. “I don’t know,” Dias answered, bursting into tears. “Wanessa, you are ours,” Stang told her. After Stang’s death, Dias says, “The power of those words brought me back, and the power of that life.”
It is becoming more and more clear how many people were touched by Sister Dorothy’s power.
Posthumous honors keep pouring in. A day care center has been named after Stang in the jungle village of Xinguara. “This isn’t just a day care center; it’s nothing less than the transformation of a drug house,” David Stang said when he attended the dedication in May. “It was all done with local funds. The mayor and the city council touched this place and caused it to be a good place, and that is the story of Dorothy.”
Dorothy has been awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Dayton. She represents the 21st century in a book recently published by the Cincinnati-based St. Anthony Messenger Press, “Women in Church History,” chronicling the lives of 21 women from each century of Catholic Church history. Her life is the subject of a current exhibit at the Dayton International Peace Museum, and on Sept. 27 she’ll be inducted into the Wright-Dunbar Village “Walk of Fame,” joining other Dayton-born notables.
At 77, Sister Joan Krimm travels all over the archdiocese to talk about her close friend. “We as Daytonians should be proud,” she tells students at a recent vacation Bible school at St. Charles Borromeo Church in Kettering. “She had the courage to live the Bible, no matter what the cost.”
Stang comes to life for the students as they watch “The Student, the Nun and the Amazon” — a documentary in the tradition of Michael Moore’s “Roger & Me” — in which British film student Samuel Clements spends most of the movie trying to find this mythical Sister Dorothy.
He finds her, as it turns out, shortly before her death. In the movie, she walks through the door carrying a red rose for her young visitor — a moment in the movie that caused her friends, viewing it for the first time, to cheer, and to cry. But her words hold power even for those who never met her. In her gossamer voice she explains her passion for preserving the rain forest: “Think of the biodiversity that we’ve lost, that it took thousands of years to develop. Think of the magnificent animals and birds, and the future generations who will never have the opportunity to hear their beautiful songs. Why is it only we humans have the right to survive?”
A minute later, she’s back to her characteristic spunk as she raises her arm and cries, “It is possible — we can do it — we can renew the forest!”
Dan Untener, 15, a sophomore at Alter High School, had never heard of Stang before Krimm’s presentation.
“I’m an outdoorsy guy and I already try to do what I can for the environment,” he says. “I didn’t realize the extent of the devastation of the rain forest.”
Parishioners at St. Joseph/St. Raphael Church in Springfield will never forget “Dot from Dayton,” whom the parish supported for more than 15 years. Deacon Norm Horstman said it’s meaningful that she’s buried at Sao Rafael Center in Anapu, named in honor of their parish.
“This relationship is not merely about us helping them, it’s about us together having the courage to live the gospel where we are,” he says. “If Dorothy can stand up for what’s right, facing everything that she faced, we feel very challenged to do the same.”
So, apparently, does the global community. “She certainly brought the preservation of the Amazon to the forefront,” said Albert Burky, a University of Dayton biology professor who studies aquatic systems in the rain forest.
As much as 20 percent of the rain forest has been destroyed, and no one knows when those losses will become catastrophic. “The tipping point is hard to predict,” Burky said, “but do we really want to get there?”
Talk of sainthood
Stang spent much of her life fighting for the rights of women in a male-dominated country and a male-dominated church. Some of her friends find it ironic, then, that there is already talk of Stang achieving the highest honor in the Catholic Church: sainthood.
To date there have been only two saints born in the United States: Elizabeth Ann Seton of New York, founder of the American Sisters of Charity, and Katherine Drexel of Philadelphia, known for her pioneering work among the poor and disadvantaged.
During a recent interview, Cincinnati Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk said the prospect of canonization is worth exploring. “It is not the case that if you have enough money, you can be canonized,” he said, “but it does require a lot of resources in order to be canonized. In Sister Dorothy’s case, it would involve interviewing witnesses in the backwoods of Brazil. It’s not something you do on your cell phone. Everything must be collected and transcribed, and everything they have ever written must be reviewed.”
What would Stang have thought of the idea? “I think Dorothy probably would have had a good laugh at that,” said Mike Gable, director of the archdiocese’s mission office, which contributed more than $50,000 to Stang’s causes over the past 15 years.
Most of Stang’s colleagues among the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur seem uninterested in pursuing canonization. They would rather spend their money on her causes. “She already has been canonized by the people,” Depweg explains.
“The whole process is so costly, time-consuming and formal — everything Dot was not,” adds Sister Jane Dwyer, who was living with Stang in Anapu at the time of her death.
The archbishop sees their point, but he also recognizes value in holding up Stang’s life as an example. “Her concern for the environment and the poor was not a socio-political junket; it was part of her religious life,” he said.
The archbishop, who grew up in Dayton, admitted to a bit of parochialism: “It would be a point of pride for the archdiocese. And, after all, she’s from my old hometown.”
He’s not surprised that a woman from Dayton would step onto the world stage. “The church is all over,” Pilarczyk said. “It’s in the highest reaches of the Vatican or the lowest reaches of the Amazon jungle.”
He doesn’t advocate “fast-tracking” the canonization process in the manner of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who achieved beatification — the last step before sainthood — only a few years after her death. “Time brings a certain perspective, and it’s not for nothing that the requirements for sainthood are so stringent,” he said.
Stang’s canonization also would say something about the role of women in the church, Pilarczyk said. “It would show that women have access to the highest honors of the Catholic Church. You may not be pope, but if you’re a saint, that’s better.”
Hearing echoes of Martin Luther King Jr.
At the Sisters of Notre Dame motherhouse in Cincinnati, a memorial room has been dedicated to the memory of Dorothy Stang. It’s an intimate museum-quality space where visitors can pray and reflect upon her life.
The sisters have preserved binder after binder of Stang’s photos, writings and letters home. “Up to Jerusalem” reads the cryptic inscription next to a grainy photo of the place in the forest where Dorothy was killed, on the red dirt road at the top of the hill. “Jesus went to Jerusalem, knowing he was going to die,” Depweg explains.
The papers will provide rich ore to mine if canonization is ever explored. But Krimm isn’t worried about that. She knows a saint, and a martyr, when she sees one.
“Dorothy was always the optimist; sometimes I got aggravated because I didn’t think she was being realistic,” Krimm says. “But in our last conversation she was very sad.”
It is only in retrospect that she understands what sounded so familiar in the tremor in her friend’s voice. It reminds her of Martin Luther King Jr. “In her voice there was the sadness that the dream would not happen while she was still alive, that she would not get to the mountaintop,” Krimm says softly.
She still remembers what Stang said when Krimm left for the convent, fresh out of Julienne, in 1948. “Don’t you dare leave without me!” Stang commanded. But in the end, it was Stang who left first.
Displayed behind gently lit glass cases in the memorial room are many of Stang’s touchstones: her prom pictures from Julienne, sacks of banana flour from her fruit factory in Anapu, her “canceled” passport.
And then there is her trademark khaki baseball cap, the one she was wearing the day she was murdered.
When Stang’s body lay motionless in the mud, one of the women from the village tenderly removed the cap from the ground and replaced it with a white sun hat.
The cap, battered and worn, is on display at the motherhouse near the stenciled words that perhaps best describe the legacy of Dorothy Stang.
“Don’t worry about my safety,” they say. “The safety of the people is what’s important.”
Contact this reporter at (937) 225-2209 or mmccarty@DaytonDailyNews.com.