Slain Okarche priest steps closer to sainthood as his murder is probed

The Rev. Stanley Rother's indigenous parishioners lobbied to keep the slain priest's heart in Guatemala to symbolize preservation of his spirit after his body returned to Oklahoma.

A 'mammoth' task
A Guatemalan request
Unclassified documents

While a requested joint Guatemalan-United Nations investigation may shed light into the assassination of the Okarche native, the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City is more interested in Rother's soul.

The Guatemalan church lacked resources to pursue the priest's cause for canonization after three unknown gunmen killed Rother on July 28, 1981. Now the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City formally is beginning Rother's journey to sainthood after the Guatemala Conference of Bishops agreed to give Archbishop Eusebius J. Beltran authority by jurisdiction to open the cause officially.

Beltran said he is confident Rother will be declared Oklahoma's first saint, but he doesn't expect that to occur in his lifetime.

"We'll bring it to eventual completion " (the) stages will happen and "¦ he will eventually be proclaimed a saint by the church," Beltran said. "It takes time. I'm getting it started, and somebody after me will continue it and it will happen."

A commissioning ceremony for Rother's cause of beatification immediately will follow a mass that begins at 7 p.m. Friday at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Okarche.

A 'mammoth' task
A candidate must go through the canonization process to be publicly proclaimed a saint.

In 1996, Rother's name was one of 78 candidates presented for sainthood to Pope John Paul II during a Guatemalan trip. All on the list, which included 71 lay people and seven priests, were nominated as martyrs.

"That's why we didn't do anything here," Beltran said. "Originally "¦ it was a large number and it included Stan Rother's name. And so we were just waiting and waiting and waiting, and they never pursued it. I don't know why, which is why I went to them and said, 'Look, since you're not doing this, I would like to do it.'"

Beatification, a step toward sainthood, requires confirmation of one miracle; a second is needed for sainthood. If the candidate is a martyr " proven to have died for religious beliefs " a miracle is not required for beatification.

"It's hard to establish martyrdom " extremely hard " because Rome looks at it from a very narrow view," Beltran said. "It can't be just that you got killed. You have to have been killed directly for the faith " not just because you're a priest or you're Catholic " but for the faith. That's hard to establish, especially if you don't know the killers."

George Rigazzi, who is serving on the historical commission for the cause of Rother, said an investigation of scientific and theological evidence is a necessary " and "mammoth" " task. Rigazzi agreed with Beltran that proving martyrdom is difficult.

"If, however, it is proven, there is not a need for a miracle to be beatified," Rigazzi said. "For canonization, a miracle must be proven. The Holy Father stated in 2006 the following: 'In examining purportedly miraculous events, the competency of scientists and theologians comes together, although the decisive judgment (falls) to theology, which alone is capable of interpreting miracles in the light of faith.'"

Pope Benedict XVI clarified the church's means for assessing sainthood in 2006, saying the motive for martyrdom must be modeled in Christ and not for "political or social" reasons.

According to the Sooner Catholic newspaper, Andrea Ambrosi, postular for Rother's canonization case, said the following prerequisites must be met for martyrdom:

"The assassin's motive must have been the victim's faith.
"The victim must have accepted his or her death for faith.
"The victim must have died violently.

Canonization commission members argued that the circumstances surrounding Rother's death satisfied these requirements at a July 4 meeting with Ambrosi.

Two priests exhuming Rother's buried heart during the 10th anniversary of his assassination claimed the blood surrounding the organ had not congealed when it was moved from behind the church's main altar in Santiago Atitlan.

The Archdiocese of Oklahoma City is encouraging those with information of suspected miracles, photographs and documents of interest to call the commission at 721-5651, extension 127.

A Guatemalan request
A hemisphere away, Guatemalan Cardinal Rodolfo Quezada Toruño requested a joint Guatemalan-United Nations investigation July 22 into unsolved crimes, including the assassination of Rother.

Toruño asked the International Commission on Criminal Impunity in Guatemala to use its investigative powers authorized in 2006, according to Spero News.

The Rev. Greg Schaffer, a Rother colleague serving in the neighboring San Lucas Toliman mission in Guatemala, told the Gazette he wants to find the Oklahoma priest's assassins.

"The very fact that competent authorities have taken it upon themselves to move forward indicates the confidence they have for positive results and that encourages all of us praying for Stan's canonization," Schaffer said.

Beltran, who said the timing of Guatemalan investigative request is a coincidence, said he doesn't care about finding Rother's killers "unless it would help his cause."

"We were upset and we were very hopeful about that, but at this stage, it doesn't matter," Beltran said. "I don't know how we could prove it now 26 years later. Those killers may be dead themselves. I'm not really interested in that aspect."

Prior to his assassination, Rother chose to remain with his indigenous Tzutujil (pronounced ZOO-too-heel) parishioners in Santiago Atitlan despite being on a death list. Guatemala was in the throes of a 36-year civil war between the right-wing government and left-wing guerillas.

While Guatemalan security forces murdered thousands during a bloody civil war, the American government was involved intimately with training and equipping the army, The Washington Post reported.

The CIA retained close ties and U.S. officials were aware of the murders committed as President Romeo Lucas Garcia's scorched-earth counterinsurgency campaign eradicated Mayan villages in the Eighties, National Security Archive documents show.

Rother described a leftist group arriving and having the sympathy of the Tzutujil, a traditional Mayan ethnic group. But, Rother wasn't a political priest, according to multiple friends, family members and colleagues.

Following the ouster of Lucas Garcia in March of 1982, a Guatemalan court overturned the murder conviction of the three Tzutujil men accused of robbing and murdering Rother. Officials admitted the Mayan-speaking suspects were "scapegoats."

No group claimed responsibility for Rother's assassination, but most everyone with knowledge of the murder assumed a right-wing death squad was responsible.

Then-U.S. Sen. David Boren, D-Okla., urged Secretary of State Alexander Haig's office "to conduct a thorough and complete investigation of the circumstances surrounding Father Rother's death."

Haig declined an interview for this story.

Unclassified documents
Unclassified documents obtained by Oklahoma Gazette via the Freedom of Information Act provide more details regarding the murder investigation into Rother's death.

Nuns at the murder scene found a 9 mm Smith & Wesson cartridge in a pool of Rother's blood, but did not want to provide the evidence to national police. The slug and casing were initially in possession of the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala, documents show.

Following the arrest of suspects Aug. 3, 1981, Haig's office expressed concern that presentation of the evidence to the U.S. Embassy "could inhibit rather than contribute to finding Father Rother's assassins," according to documents.

"We believe that bringing Father Rother's assailants to justice would be best served by the embassy's turning the evidence over to Guatemalan officials immediately," the office wrote.

"We expect the government of Guatemala to ensure that the evidence is properly introduced into the official investigation of Rother's murder. "¦ We wish to offer to the ministry the cooperation of the Federal Bureau of Investigation in analyzing the ballistics' characteristics of the slug and casing, or any other investigative expertise available through the FBI."

Haig's office also suggested the U.S. Embassy photograph the slug and casing with indication of scale before turning over the evidence.

According to a message from the U.S. Embassy to Haig's office, the initial national police report on Rother's death was not provided officially. Meanwhile, the corps of detectives investigating "did not arrive in Santiago, where the death occurred, until four days later," documents show.

"The investigating detectives were known to be under instructions from high-level (Guatemalan) officials to quickly report their findings," the U.S. Embassy wrote. "This could account for their hasty determination that it was a robbery attempt."

One source told investigators Rother had problems with a disruptive parishioner believed to be a Guatemalan government spy. Meanwhile, Rother had kicked out a quasi-guerrilla peasant group that came to organize at his church.

The Guatemalan judge set to issue a verdict on the three arrested suspects had informed embassy officials that he feared for his safety and requested to obtain visas for his family, documents show. He said his blood pressure rose from normal to 170/120.

"His reason for coming to the (U.S.) Embassy was to express his concern that his life might be in danger after he issued the Rother case verdict," the U.S. Embassy wrote to Haig's office.

"He noted that the police and detectives had provided him with 'very poor evidence.' "¦ When asked by embassy officer if he had received the slug and cartridge that had been passed on by embassy to the foreign ministry "¦ he seemed surprised that there was such evidence and indicated that he did not know about it and had not received the slug."

In January 1984, the U.S. Embassy wrote that the Guatemalan government never requested help with ballistics and that official findings never were issued to American officials.

"Elements (of Guatemalan) security forces could have been involved in the murder of Father Rother and a subsequent cover-up," the U.S. Embassy wrote to Haig's office. "The arrest of the three Indians stopped any active investigation for more than six months. It is unlikely that any further information will be developed at this point, more than 30 months after the murder."

The U.S. Embassy in Guatemala issued the following statement Sept. 27 to the Gazette:

"The U.S. Embassy weighed in heavily with the military government of Romeo Lucas Garcia that ruled Guatemala at the time of Rother's murder, offering FBI assistance to support the investigation. The military government did not accept our offer. We share the frustration felt by many Americans and Guatemalans that Father Rother's killers were not brought to justice." "Rob Collins

  • or