Christic Institute

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Christic Institute
Christic Institute Poster unmask.jpg
Christic Institute poster. Photo courtesy of their successor organization, the Romero Institute.
Founder(s) Daniel Sheehan, Sara Nelson, Father Bill Davis
Established 1980
Location Washington, D.C.
Website Christic Archives at the Romero Institute
Dissolved 1991
In 1998, Christic was succeeded by the Romero Institute, with Daniel Sheehan and Sara Nelson continuing as leaders.

The Christic Institute was a public interest law firm founded in 1980 by Daniel Sheehan, his wife Sara Nelson, and their partner, William J. Davis, a Jesuit priest, after the successful conclusion of their work on the Silkwood case. Based on the ecumenical teachings of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and on the lessons they learned from their experience in the Silkwood fight, the Christic Institute combined investigation, litigation, education and organizing into a unique model for social reform in the United States. In 1992 the firm lost its non-profit status after having a federal case dismissed by the court in 1988 and being penalized for filing a 'frivolous lawsuit;" the IRS said it had acted for political reasons. The case was related to journalists injured in relation to the Iran-Contra Affair. The group was succeeded by a new firm, the Romero Institute.

Christic notably represented victims of the nuclear disaster at Three Mile Island; they prosecuted KKK and American Nazi Party members for killing communist workers party demonstrators in the 1979 Greensboro Massacre, as well as police and federal agents whom they said had known about potential violence and had not adequately protected the victims; and they defended Catholic workers providing sanctuary to Salvadoran refugees (American Sanctuary Movement). Its headquarters were based in Washington, D.C. with offices in several other major United States cities. The Institute received funding from a nationwide network of grassroots donors, as well as organizations like the New World Foundation.

Three Mile Island, Greensboro Massacre, American Sanctuary Movement[edit]

In 1979, Daniel Sheehan, Sara Nelson and many of the allies and architects of the Silkwood case gathered in Washington, D.C. to found The Christic Institute. Over the next 12 years, as General Counsel for the Institute, Sheehan helped prosecute some of the most celebrated public interest cases of the time. Christic represented victims of the nuclear disaster at Three Mile Island.

They conducted a civil suit, seeking damages from KKK and American Nazi Party (ANP) members for the murder of five civil rights demonstrators in the Greensboro Massacre. In addition, they charged the city, certain police and four Federal agents with having known of the potential for violence and failing to protect the protesters. The jury awarded damages to the plaintiffs against the city, the police department, and the KKK and ANP.

The Institute defended Catholic workers providing sanctuary to Salvadoran refugees in the American Sanctuary Movement.

The graphic novel Brought to Light, by writers Alan Moore and Joyce Brabner, used material from lawsuits filed by the Christic Institute.

Iran-Contra Affair[edit]

Christic Institute poster. Photo courtesy of their successor organization, the Romero Institute.

Six months before the Iran-Contra affair was publicly exposed, the Christic Institute filed Avirgan v. Hull. The Institute did so in response to a bombing in La Penca, Nicaragua that killed eight people and injured twelve others, including a journalist from ABC. Investigation of the incident by Christic employees revealed involvement in the bombing by former intelligence officials and private "soldiers of fortune" who were supplying arms for the Contra war against Nicaragua. Acting under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO),[1] the Christic Institute was granted broad investigative powers by the court. The Christic Institute's suit and public education campaign created broad public awareness of the Iran-Contra Affair. The government appointed Special Counsel Lawrence Walsh. Using these powers to compel testimony and subpoena evidence, the Institute revealed:[2]

1. Drug trafficking to finance the Contra war against Nicaragua: with the knowledge of officials in the White House, Justice Department and the Central Intelligence Agency, key figures in the covert Contra supply operation smuggled cocaine and other drugs from Colombia to the United States through contra-controlled bases in Central America.[3][page needed][4]

2. A pattern of criminal activity in the conduct of covert operations: major figures implicated in the Iran-Contra scandal have a criminal history dating back to covert operations in Cuba, Southeast Asia and the Middle East that included drug trafficking, gun running, money laundering and political assassinations.[3][page needed][5][6]

3. Existence of a lawless "secret government" fighting covert wars worldwide: elements of the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Council are operating outside the effective control of Congress and the American people, enlisting the services of narcotics traffickers and professional assassins, hiding behind dummy corporations and secret bank accounts, operating independent of democratic oversight and with impunity.[3][7][8]

Avirgan v. Hull was filed on behalf of journalists Tony Avirgan and Martha Honey against more than two dozen individuals, some of whom were to be revealed as figures in the Iran-Contra scandals. Avirgan was present at the La Penca bombing of a press conference being held by Nicaraguan Contra leader Edén Pastora. Three journalists were killed, and Pastora and Avirgan were among the wounded.[9] In 1985, Avirgan and Honey charged a reputed CIA contract employee, John Floyd Hull, with being involved in the bombing.[10] Hull unsuccessfully sued the reporters for defamation; they had retained the Institute's Sheehan as counsel. Shortly afterward, Sheehan and the Institute brought a massive Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) suit, charging that the La Penca bombing was a result of a conspiracy carried out by a "secret team" that had operated since the 1950s outside the control of government oversight.

Avirgan v. Hull[edit]

In 1986, the Christic Institute filed a $24 million civil suit on behalf of journalists Tony Avirgan and Martha Honey stating that various individuals were part of a conspiracy responsible for the La Penca bombing that injured Avirgan.[11][12] The suit charged the defendants of illegally participating in assassinations, as well as arms and drug trafficking.[11] Among the 30 defendants named were Iran—Contra figures John K. Singlaub, Richard V. Secord, Albert Hakim, and Robert W. Owen; Central Intelligence Agency officials Thomas Clines and Theodore Shackley; Contra leader Adolfo Calero; Medellin cartel leaders Pablo Escobar Gaviria and Jorge Ochoa Vasquez; Costa Rican rancher John Hull; and former mercenary Sam N. Hall.[11][12][13]

On June 23, 1988, United States federal judge James Lawrence King of the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida dismissed the case stating: "The plaintiffs have made no showing of existence of genuine issues of material fact with respect to either the bombing at La Penca, the threats made to their news sources or threats made to themselves."[11] According to The New York Times, the case was dismissed by King at least in part due to "the fact that the vast majority of the 79 witnesses Mr. Sheehan cites as authorities were either dead, unwilling to testify, fountains of contradictory information or at best one person removed from the facts they were describing."[14] On February 3, 1989, King ordered the Christic Institute to pay $955,000 in attorneys fees and $79,500 in court costs.[12] The United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the ruling, and the Supreme Court of the United States let the judgment stand by refusing to hear an additional appeal.[13][15] The IRS stripped the Institute of its 501(c)(3) nonprofit status after claiming the suit was politically motivated.[3] The fine was levied in accordance with “Rule 11” of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which says that lawyers can be penalized for frivolous lawsuits.[16]

In the wake of the dismissal, Christic attorneys and Honey and Avirgan traded accusations over who was to blame for the failure of the case. Avirgan complained that Sheehan had handled matters poorly by chasing unsubstantiated "wild allegations" and conspiracy theories, rather than paying attention to core factual issues.[17]

The Christic Institute was succeeded by the Romero Institute.


  1. ^ Corn, David. "Is There Really A 'Secret Team'?" The Nation., July 2, 1988.
  2. ^ "Christic Institute Archives." The Romero Institute. The Romero Institute, n.d. Web. 21 Aug. 2013.
  3. ^ a b c d Christic Institute, Inside the Shadow Government. Washington, D.C.: n.p., 1988. Print.
  4. ^ Payton, Brenda. "Is U.S. Backing Contras with Drug Funds?" Oakland Tribune, April 4, 1988.
  5. ^ Kadetsky, Elizabeth. "Sheehan Takes On Bush." The Sun, March 24, 1988.
  6. ^ Tulumello, Michael. "The Right-Wing Stuff," New-Times, June 8, 1988, Point, Contra Point sec.
  7. ^ Payton, Brenda. "Is U.S. Backing Contras with Drug Funds?" Oakland Tribune, April 4, 1988.
  8. ^ Smith, Gar. "Drugs, Guns, and Money." This World, October 25, 1987.
  9. ^ Kadetsky, Elizabeth. "Sheehan Takes On Bush." The Sun, March 24, 1988.
  10. ^ Hawkins, Beth. "Investigators: Hull's Friend Ordered Us Held." The Tico Times, June 17, 1988.
  11. ^ a b c d "Suit Alleging Plot by Contras, CIA Dismissed : Arms-Drug Smuggling, Conspiracy Charges Unproven, Judge Says". Los Angeles Times. AP. June 24, 1988. Retrieved October 26, 2015. 
  12. ^ a b c "Christic Institute Ordered to Pay $1 Million". Los Angeles Times. AP. February 4, 1989. Retrieved October 26, 2015. 
  13. ^ a b Henderson, Greg (January 13, 1992). "Court lets stand $1 million award against Christic Institute". UPI. UPI. Retrieved October 26, 2015. 
  14. ^ Barringer, Felicity (March 17, 1989). "THE LAW; Giving Law Teeth (and Using Them on Lawyers)". The New York Times. Retrieved October 26, 2015. 
  15. ^ Savage, David G. (January 14, 1992). "High Court Lets Stand $1-Million Fine". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved October 26, 2015. 
  16. ^ Stephen Labaton, “Courts Rethinking Rule Intended to Slow Frivolous Lawsuits”, New York Times (14 September 1990)
  17. ^ Public Eye website

External links[edit]