|Sister Maura Clarke, M.M.|
January 13, 1931|
Queens, New York
|Died||December 2, 1980
Cause of death
|Murder by military death squad|
|Chalatenango, El Salvador|
|Occupation||Maryknoll Missionary Sister|
Sister Maura Clarke, M.M., was an American Roman Catholic Maryknoll Sister, who served as a missionary in Nicaragua and El Salvador. She worked with the poor and refugees in Central America from 1959 until her murder in 1980. She was beaten, raped, and murdered, along with fellow missionaries Jean Donovan and Sisters Ita Ford, M.M., and Dorothy Kazel, O.S.U., in El Salvador, by members of a military death squad of the military-led right-wing government fighting the leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front at the time of the Salvadoran Civil War.
In their deaths, Sister Maura Clarke and the three other Catholic missionaries joined the ranks of more than 75,000 people who were killed in that nation's civil war.
On the afternoon of December 2, 1980, Jean Donovan and Sister Dorothy Kazel, an Ursuline nun, picked up two Maryknoll Missionary Sisters from the airport. They were arriving from Managua, Nicaragua after attendance at a Maryknoll conference. The women were under surveillance by a Salvadoran national guardsman (La Guardia Nacionál) at the time, who phoned his commander for orders.
Acting on orders from their commander, five national guardsmen changed into plain clothes and continued to stake out the airport. Donovan and Kazel returned to pick up a second pair of Maryknoll Sisters: Maura Clarke and Ita Ford, who were returning from the same conference, on a flight not due until 9:11 pm.
The five National Guardsmen, now out of uniform, stopped the women's vehicle after they left the airport in San Salvador. Clarke and the three other women were taken to a relatively isolated spot, where the soldiers beat, raped, and murdered them.
At about 2200, three hours after Donovan and Kazel had picked up Clarke and Ford, local peasants saw the sisters' white van drive to an isolated spot and then heard machine-gun fire followed by single shots. They saw five men flee the scene in the white van, with the lights on and the radio blaring. The van would be found later that night, set afire at the side of the airport road.
Early the next morning (3 December 1980) the bodies of the four women were found by local residents, who were told by local authorities (a judge, three members of the civil guard, and two commanders) to bury the women in a common grave in a nearby field. Four of the local men did so, but informed their parish priest, Fr. Paul Schindler, and the news reached the local Catholic bishop and the U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador, Robert White, the same day.
The shallow grave was exhumed the next day (4 December 1980) in front of fifteen reporters, Sisters Alexander and Dorsey, several missioners, and Ambassador White. Jean Donovan's body was the first removed; then Dorothy Kazel's; then Maura Clarke's; and last, Ita Ford. The next day, a Mass of the Resurrection was said by Bishop Arturo Rivera y Damas; and on Saturday, December 6, the bodies of Donovan and Kazel were flown to the United States for burial. In keeping with the tradition of the Maryknoll Missionaries, the bodies of the Maryknoll Sisters, Clarke and Ford, were buried locally, in Chalatenango, El Salvador.
As news of the murders was made public in the United States, public outrage forced the U.S. government to pressure the Salvadoran regime to investigate. The earliest investigations were condemned as whitewash attempts by the later ones, and in time, a Truth Commission was appointed by the United Nations to investigate who had given the orders, who had known about the crime, and who had covered it up. Several lower-level National Guardsman were convicted, and two National Guard generals were sued by the women's families in the federal civil courts of the United States for their command responsibility in the incident. After the murders of the churchwomen, U.S. President Jimmy Carter suspended all aid to El Salvador, but domestic U.S. right-wing political pressure forced him to reinstate it.
Unlike President Carter, succeeding U.S. President Ronald Reagan favored the Salvadoran military regime; he authorized increased military aid and sent more U.S. military advisers to the country to aid the government in quelling the civil/guerrilla war. In El Salvador's Decade of Terror: Human Rights Since the Assassination of Archbishop Romero, Human Rights Watch reports:
During the Reagan years in particular, not only did the United States fail to press for improvements … but, in an effort to maintain backing for U.S. policy, it misrepresented the record of the Salvadoran government, and smeared critics who challenged that record. In so doing, the Administration needlessly polarized the debate in the United States, and did a grave injustice to the thousands of civilian victims of government terror in El Salvador.  Despite the El Mozote Massacre that year, Reagan continued certifying (per the 1974 amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act) that the Salvadoran government was progressing in respecting and guaranteeing the human rights of its people, and in reducing National Guard abuses against them.
According to the Maryknoll Society:
The U.N.-sponsored report of the Commission on the Truth for El Salvador concluded that the abductions were planned in advance and the men responsible had carried out the murders on orders from above. It further stated that the head of the National Guard and two officers assigned to investigate the case had concealed the facts to harm the judicial process. The murder of the women, along with attempts by the Salvadoran military and some American officials to cover it up, generated a grass-roots opposition in the U.S., as well as ignited intense debate over the Administration’s policy in El Salvador.
In 1984, the defendants were found guilty and sentenced to 30 years in prison. The Truth Commission noted that this was the first time in Salvadoran history that a judge had found a member of the military guilty of assassination. In 1998, three of the soldiers were released for good behavior. Two of the men remain in prison and have petitioned the Salvadoran government for pardons.
The head of the National Guard, whose troops were responsible for the murders, General Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, went on to become Salvadoran Minister of Defense in the government of José Napoleón Duarte. After their emigration to the U.S. state of Florida, Vides Casanova and his fellow general, José Guillermo García, were sued by the families of the four women in federal civil court. The case is styled Ford v. Garcia. The defense won the case.
- “Hearts on Fire: The Story of the Maryknoll Sisters,” Penny Lernoux, et al., Orbis Books, 1995.
- “Ita Ford: Missionary Martyr,” Phyllis Zagano, Paulist Press, 1996.
- “The Same Fate As the Poor,” Judith M. Noone, Orbis Books, 1995. ISBN 1-57075-031-9
- “Witness of Hope: The Persecution of Christians in Latin America,” Martin Lange and Reinhold Iblacker, Orbis Books, 1981.
- Ford v. Garcia Trial Background. Legal history section of PBS website on "Justice and the Generals" presentation in 2002. Accessed October 7, 2005.
- The Maura Clarke – Ita Ford Center of Brooklyn, New York.
- Martyrdom in El Salvador Maryknoll Sisters website. Accessed October 7, 2005.
- Plant a Tree in Ita Ford's Memory Memorial program in El Salvador in honor of the four churchwomen; accessed December 9, 2006.
- Report of the Commission on the Truth for El Salvador (1993) accessed online December 9, 2006.