CULVER CITY, Calif. -- Nearly a hundred people gathered Jan. 29 at the Veterans Memorial Building here, with all seats filled and a standing crowd in the back of the building's garden room auditorium, to hear Father Roy Bourgeois and Sister Judy Vaughan speak on the controversial topic of women's ordination and gender equality in the Catholic Church.
Sister Judy Vaughan is founder and director of Alexandria House, a long-term transitional residence and center for women and children.
Father Bourgeois has been a priest for 38 years and is best known for his work with the School of the Americas Watch (SOAW), a non-violent organization that exposes the U.S.-based school, once called School of the Americas, and its role in training Latin American soldiers in repressive tactics and deploying them throughout the region.
Fr. Bourgeois founded the SOAW in 1990 after the killings of Jesuit nuns and Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero in the 1980's, but his conscious awakening and calling to priesthood happened immediately after his experience serving in Vietnam. He joined the Maryknoll Society, an American Catholic organization, and traveled to La Paz, Bolivia, where he was ordered to leave the country after speaking out against the oppressive government of General Hugo Banzer Suarez, which arrested, tortured and killed many dissidents. From there he went to El Salvador. After witnessing numerous human rights abuses that the Salvadoran government, with the financial support and military tactical aid of the United States government, committed against its own population and fellow members of foreign religious organizations, Bourgeois focused on where these soldiers were receiving their training: the School of the Americas.
The SOAW grew from a handful of protesters to hundreds, and eventually into over 20,000 members today - with international recognition. Bourgeois has been nominated as a candidate for the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize because of his committed work with the SOAW.
The School of the Americas, feeling national and international pressure, changed its name in 2001 to the Western Hemispheric Institute for Security Cooperation (WHISC). Further pressure lead to the 2008 Defense Appropriations Bill mandate that the school release a list of all its graduates and instructors. It is a long list that includes former Bolivian dictator Suarez, and Honduran General Romeo Vásquez Velásquez, who was a vital player in the recent coup there that ousted President Manuel Zelaya in June 2009. The list can be found on the School of the America's Watch website: www.soaw.org.
Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) is reintroducing the bill "The Latin American Military Training Review Act," HR 2567, which will seek out immediate suspension and investigation of the school. It will be voted on this spring.
On Jan. 27, four SOAW members were convicted for trespassing at the school in Fort Benning, Ga., and sentenced to serve six month sentences in federal prison. The four were part of the mass protest and nonviolent civil disobedience that SOAW holds there every year in November.
Shifting focus away from the school and redirecting it to the Catholic Church's stance on rejecting women the right to become ordained priests is a new call, but an injustice just the same. There will never be justice in the Catholic Church unless women are allowed to be ordained, said Bourgeois.
"Who are we to say that a woman's call [to priesthood] isn't valid?" said Bourgeois. God initiates the call to priesthood, and like racism, sexism is a sin, he added.
His stance on women's right to ordination garnered more attention after being invited to Janice Sevre-Duszynska, a SOAW supporter and once prisoner, ordination in Lexington, Ky., which he participated in.
After hearing of Bourgeois' opinions and open support on the matter, the Vatican issued a letter in 2008 with a 30-day notice to the priest to recant his opinions or face formal excommunication from the church. Bourgeois sent a two-page reply explaining his duty as a man of conscious, citing theological studies of the Bible that have not found any justification excluding women from the priesthood, and stating that he cannot recant his belief, adding that "silence is the voice of complicity."
Although the 30 days expired, Bourgeois is still a member of the Marynkoll Society, which is supportive and encouraging in his stance, and his ministry still remains largely about Latin America, with the new issue of women in priesthood.
The Vatican has not issued a reply to Father Bourgeois' letter.
Photo: Father Roy Bourgeois and Sister Judy Vaughan address a standing room only crowd on peace, justice and a woman's right to be ordained. Luis Rivas/PW