I am humbled by the people I so frequently meet in Mexico who act with grace and courage to make the lives of people around them better. My hero in this matter is Sergio Méndez Arceo, Bishop of Cuernavaca from 1952 to 1982. This past weekend we once again celebrated his deeds with the annual Don Sergio Méndez Arceo National Human Rights forum and awards.
Néstora Salgado García, is the winner of the 2014 individual award. Néstora is a U.S. citizen, born in Mexico. She was critically injured in an automobile accident while visiting Olinalá, Guerrero during a 2002 family visit. Afterward she and her family decided to permanently settle in Olinalá.
Soon Néstora began championing social justice issues. She worked on behalf of women and children against domestic violence. In 2012 she organized volunteer community police to protect against the drug cartels. The Civil Association she led denounced the municipal president for corruption and not supporting the community.
In August 2013 Néstora was arrested and imprisoned in a federal penitentiary. Her award reads “Néstora has been criminalized for organizing the community for its own protection.” It was accepted by her daughter Saira Rodríguez Salgado. Néstora is still imprisoned.
I also met people from the community of Cherán, Michoacán, who won the group prize for defending their forests from illegal logging. That in turn led the people of Cherán to choose to rule their municipality with “usos y costumbres.”
Uses and customs is a legal concept similar to common law. We are seeing “usos y costumbres” adopted more frequently now by indigenous municipalities. It usually involves rejecting civil statute law along with political parties. In November 2011 the Federal Electoral Tribunal ruled in favor of the community, recognizing the demands of Cherán and thereby setting a precedent, recognizing the rights of indigenous people to determine how to elect their own authorities.
The afternoon awards ceremony held in the 16th-century open chapel on the grounds of Cuernavaca’s cathedral was the culmination of a full day of activities. During an earlier forum titled “Human Rights Panorama of Mexico,” Alberto Athié spoke.
Athié is a former Roman Catholic priest, ordained in 1983 at the Basílica of Guadalupe. In 1995 Father Athié served as confessor to Father Juan Manuel Fernández Amenábar, former rector of Mexico’s Legionnaires of Christ Anáhuac University. On his deathbed Fernández Amenábar wrote a letter about how he was abused as a teenager by Marcial Maciel, founder of the Legionnaires of Christ.
Before his death he told Father Athié his story and requested, “At my funeral Mass tell the people that I forgive Marcial Maciel but also tell them I ask for justice.” Athié took this very personally and understood it meant a search for truth even at high personal and professional cost. He made a promise. “I will commit myself, Jose Manuel, to search for justice.” Since that time he has tirelessly struggled on behalf of children sexually abused by persons under the authority of the Catholic Church.
Alberto Athié brought with him to the forum a stunning surprise to those assembled. He held in his hand a copy of a long-buried letter recently provided to him along with many other previously unseen documents by a sympathetic Vatican archivist — perhaps the Edward Snowden of Rome. The letter, dated August 1956, was addressed to the Congregation of the Affairs of Religious — the oversight body for the disciplining of priests and nuns. It was a detailed complaint alleging sexual misconduct and drug abuse by Marcial Maciel written by Cuernavaca’s own Bishop Méndez Arceo!
We always knew Don Sergio to be a great champion of human rights but this was new proof of his courage in taking on an unpopular issue. Revealed documents expose that as a result of this letter an investigation was started during which Marcial Maciel was suspended from his positions in his order. The investigation came to an abrupt close with the death of Pope Pius XII. Maciel was able to resume his positions.
It would be 50 years and five popes before a later investigation determined Marcial Maciel had molested numerous seminarians, married, had multiple mistresses, and fathered children. In the meantime the very conservative order he founded grew to include three bishops, 953 priests, 1877 seminarians and countless faithful members. At the time of the exposure of Maciel’s abuses in 2006, the order was very wealthy.
Athié provided many other details of his long ordeal in seeking justice for the victims of Marcial Maciel. Even though forced out of a still-denying church in 2003, he continued his mission, co-authoring the book “The Will To Not Know.” Visibly emotional, he told us he finally felt vindicated by recent United Nations’ findings and Pope Francis’s apology on behalf of the Catholic Church.
Though Alberto Athié did not win the Sergio Méndez Arceo prize, he received a well-deserved honorable mention and gave us the unexpected gift of hearing Don Sergio speaking from beyond the grave.