What is the Christic Institute?

Oct 19, 1990:

This is an article about the Christic Institute prepared for the Bruce Springsteen concert to benefit the Institute, which took place November 16 1990 at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles.

WHAT IS THE CHRISTIC INSTITUTE? Since 1980 the Christic Institute has won some of the most celebrated public interest cases of our time. The Institute’s strategy combines public interest law and progressive political education in a unique model for social reform in the United States. We commit our resources to legal investigations carefully selected for their potential to advance human rights, social justice and personal freedom–at home and abroad. The Institute is a nonprofit, tax-exempt, charitable organization. We are supported financially by foundations, churches, synagogues and private citizens. Because we represent our clients without charging legal fees, the Institute is dependent entirely on the generosity of our supporters.

The Christic Institute’s daily work is grounded in the idea of social justice, an idea that is basic to many religions–old and new. Religious belief is a powerful force in civil society, shaping the political convictions of millions of Americans. It can either be manipulated cynically for destructive political ends or used reverently to build a just society. Ours is a broadly pluralistic commitment to religious values and their proper place in American society. The Institute’s strategy combines investigation, litigation, education and organizing.

Our goals:

– to represent the victims of injustice before the courts and create a factual basis for political education. – to help citizens understand that single cases of injustice are often symptomatic of deeper threats to the freedom of every United States citizen. – to help grassroots activists and religious communities organize for effective political change. This strategy of public interest law and progressive political action has proved a winning combination:

– In Silkwood v. Kerr-McGee, the Institute organized a team of lawyers to represent the family of Karen Silkwood, an employee of the Kerr-McGee Nuclear Corporation who died in 1975. The case, decided in 1984 by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Institute’s favor, established precedents in law that give citizens and states more power over the hazardous operations of nuclear corporations. The Institute proved in court that Kerr-McGee was responsible for Silkwood’s contamination by radioactive plutonium, and forced the corporation to pay more than $1.3 million to her children. The Institute’s case files on were the raw material for the movie Silkwood, directed by Jack Nichols.

– After a death squad organized by the American Nazi Party and the Ku Klux Klan murdered several demonstrators in 1979 in Greensboro, North Carolina, the Institute won a verdict in federal civil court against five of the assailants and two police officers. The verdict is one of the few decisions in a Southern court to date against law enforcement officials accused of collusion with Klan violence.

– In 1989 Christic Institute South and the American Civil Liberties Union helped the black voters of Keysville, Georgia, win back the right to elect their town government, abolished by the town’s white minority in 1933. Deprived of political power, the town’s citizens had no sewers, water system, fire department or schools. Now the town is governed by its own elected council and mayor.

THE LA PENCA BOMBING AND INVESTIGATION: On May 30, 1984 a terrorist bomb exploded during a press conference at the isolated jungle outpost of contra commander Eden Pastora in La Penca, Nicaragua. Pastora survived the blast, but eight other people–including three journalists–were killed and two dozen injured. Among those injured was ABC cameraman Tony Avirgan. Once Avirgan recovered from his injuries he joined his wife, journalist Martha Honey, who had already begun an investigation to track down those responsible for the La Penca bombing. The two journalists discovered a trail of evidence leading from La Penca to a secret contra base in Costa Rica, located on a ranch owned by a North American farmer named John Hull. Eyewitnesses identified the ranch as the staging area for the La Penca bombing. Avirgan and Honey learned that Hull was a key figure in the criminal enterprise of retired military officers, former intelligence officials and private “soldiers of fortune” who were supplying arms for the contra war against Nicaragua. They also learned that Hull was allowing Colombian drug traffickers to use his ranch to smuggle cocaine into the United States. The profits from the drug operation were used to purchase military supplies for the contras. Despite an escalating series of anonymous death threats and the murder on Hull’s ranch of one of their informants, Avirgan and Honey completed their investigation and published their findings. Realizing they had found evidence of a broad criminal conspiracy, the two journalists asked the Christic Institute to represent them in a federal civil lawsuit against the individuals responsible for the La Penca bombing and other criminal acts.

The Christic Institute, which had already amassed extensive information about the criminal operations of the Richard Secord Enterprise, agreed to represent the journalists. Filed six months before the Iran-contra affair was publicly exposed, the Avirgan v. Hull lawsuit named as defendants many of the key figures later shown to be participants in the affair, including former Air Force Maj. Gen. Richard Secord, businessman Albert Hakim and contra chief Adolfo Calero. Acting under RICO, a tough federal statute giving private citizens powerful tools to fight organized crime, the Federal District Court in Miami granted broad investigative powers to the Institute in 1987. Using these powers to compel testimony and subpoena evidence, the Institute has established the outlines of a criminal enterprise originating years before the contra war against Nicaragua.

The investigation revealed:

– Drug trafficking to finance the contra war against Nicaragua. The La Penca lawsuit charges that key figures in the covert contra supply operation–with the knowledge of officials in the White House, Justice Department and the Central Intelligence Agency–smuggled cocaine and other drugs from Colombia to the United States through contra-controlled bases in Central America. The Institute has named as codefendants several Cuban-American drug traffickers and several Colombian drug kingpins.

– A pattern of criminal activity in the conduct of covert operations. The Institute’s investigators have established that major figues implicated in the Iran-contra scandal have a criminal history dating back to covert operations in Cuba, Southeast Asia and the Middle East. The Institute charges an enterprise of retired military and intelligence officials with involvement in drug trafficking, gun running, money laundering and political assassinations.

– Existence of a lawless “secret government” fighting covert wars worldwide. The La Penca investigation strongly suggests that 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, covert operatives have created a “secret government” which operates independent of democratic oversight. CONFIRMATION OF CHARGES MADE IN AVIRGAN V. HULL In May 1986, the Christic Institute filed Avirgan v. Hull on behalf of Tony Avirgan and Martha Honey. Filed six months before the Iran-contra affair was exposed, the suit alleged that a criminal enterprise of retired military officers, Government agents, arms dealers and mercenaries were smuggling weapons to the contras in violation of Federal law. Since then, independent investigations conducted by the United States Congress, the Costa Rican Government and the news media have confirmed the fundamental charges outlined in Avirgan v. Hull.

– The congressional Iran-contra committees and the criminal trials of key Iran-contra figures have produced volumes of testimony verifying the existence of the Secord-Hakim Enterprise outlined in Avirgan v. Hull.

– Senator John Kerry’s subcommittee on terrorism and narcotics found that contra supporters were using the rebel arms supply network as a cover to smuggle drugs into the United States. The subcommittee also confirmed the role Avirgan v. Hull defendant John Hull played in the contra supply operation.

– The Costa Rican Legislative Assembly’s Special Committee on Narcotics Trafficking issued a report in July 1989 which linked John Hull and the U.S.- supported contra supply network to drug smuggling in Costa Rica. Acting on the committee’s recommendations, the Costa Rican Government banned five United States citizens–retired Maj. Gen. Richard Secord, former National Security Adviser John Poindexter, former United States Ambassador Lewis Tambs, former national security aide Oliver North, and North’s emissary to the contras, Robert Owen–for the role they played in establishing the contra-drug network inside Costa Rica. Secord and Owen are both defendants in the La Penca lawsuit.

– In December 1989, the Costa Rican prosecutor’s office asked a criminal court to indict John Hull and Felipe Vidal for murder in connection with the La Penca bombing. Prosecutors filed a 54-page report which confirmed key elements of the La Penca lawsuit, including the roles of Hull and Vidal in the bombing and the role of C.I.A. operatives in blocking attempts to investigate the bombing. Hull and Vidal are now under indictment for murder, and the Costa Rican Government is moving to extradite Hull from the United States. Hull fled Costa Rica last year, skipping bail after his release from prison.


CORETTA SCOTT KING: “The Christic Institute lawsuit is political dynamite. . . . The real patriots are not the flag-waving arms dealers who have profited from drug smuggling, but the courageous men and women of the Christic Institute who have worked to expose the truth about the role of drug money in U.S. foreign policy despite threats and attempts at intimidation. We owe them our gratitude and support.”

THE HON. DON EDWARDS: “The Christic Institute is well known and respected on Capitol Hill. Your hard-hitting investigation of the Secret Team’s criminal conduct in Central America has been especially important to members of Congress. Long before Congress became energized about U.S. government misbehavior in Central America, you were investigating and revealing the true story. All Americans should be grateful for the key work you do to support our Constitution and to ensure the legitimacy of governmental behavior.” [Mr. Edwards, Member of Congress from California, is chair of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights, United States Congress.]

THE REV. JESSE JACKSON: “The Christic Institute has done this country a great service by investigating and exposing violations of law carried out by the contra network.”

DANIEL ELLSBERG: “This [La Penca] lawsuit has the potential of enlightening the American public more than anything I’ve seen since the Pentagon Papers and the Church Committee investigationDon the hidden arms and instruments of our covert foreign policy over the last two generations. It needs our utmost support.”

DR. JOHN HUMBERT: “The Christic Institute is doing some of the most significant work for peace and justice in Central America of any institution in this country.” [Dr. Humbert is General Minister and President, The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).]

ELEANOR SMEAL: “The Christic Institute’s La Penca Project calls on the American people to choose between the failed policies of covert war based on lies and violence, and a policy of peace and honesty.” [Ms. Smeal is former president of the National Organization for Women.]


SARA NELSON, the Institute’s president and executive director, is a seasoned activist and leader of the women’s movement. Nelson served as director of the Karen Silkwood Fund and the Greensboro Civil Rights Fund. She was chair of the labor committee of the National Organization for Women. After graduating from the University of California at Berkeley in 1967, Nelson cofounded Community Access Television Inc. of California and served as codirector of American Documentary Films of New York and San Francisco. She was organizing director in the Equal Rights Amendment ratification campaign in Oklahoma.

DANIEL SHEEHAN, the Institute’s general counsel, has fought for justice in some of the most celebrated civil lawsuits of the past two decades: Silkwood, the Pentagon Papers, Wounded Knee, Attica and Greensboro. He was one of the attorneys representing Stacey Ann Merkt, the first activist in the sanctuary movement arrested by Federal authorities for sheltering Salvadoran refugees. Sheehan assembled the legal team that represented Karen Silkwood’s family in Silkwood v. Kerr-McGee and was coordinating counsel in the Greensboro Massacre case. Shortly after his graduation from Harvard Law School, he joined the legal team that represented the New York Times in the Pentagon Papers case. At Harvard, he was a cofounder and editor of the Harvard Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Law Review. For nearly five years, he has investigated criminal activity by United States citizens supporting the contra war and has testified on his findings before Congress.

THE REV. WILLIAM J. DAVIS, S.J., chair of our board of directors, is director of Christic Institute West. His investigation of the contra underworld helped build the case for the Avirgan v. Hull. He was a key figure in Silkwood v. Kerr-McGee, the defense of Eddie Carthan and many other cases prosecuted by the Institute. A Roman Catholic priest, he has lived in Latin America and travelled widely in the developing world. Father Davis was an official observer at the 1984 elections in Nicaragua. In 1981, he investigated the disappearance of Charles Horman, a United States citizen whose murder by the Chilean military was dramatized in Missing, a film directed by Costa Gavras. He is the former director of the National Jesuit Office of Social Ministries.

LEWIS PITTS, director of Christic Institute South, is a specialist in racial justice and voting rights. As counsel for the survivors of the Greensboro Massacre and their families, he proved in a Federal civil trial that a death squad formed by the American Nazi Party and Ku Klux Klan murdered several political activists during a demonstration for civil rights. His legal team now represents poor Southern communities trying to wrest political and economic power from powerful commercial interests. Working closely with the American Civil Liberties Union, Christic Institute South recently helped the black majority of Keysville, Georgia, win back the right to elect their own town government. A graduate of the University of South Carolina Law School, Pitts is chair of the Southern Regional Racial Justice Working Group of the National Council of Churches.

LANNY SINKIN, attorney and public policy analyst, is a specialist on the hazards of nuclear radiation and atomic power. He has a long history of community activism. In 1967 he was coordinator of the Cambridge, Massachusetts, Neighborhood Committee on Vietnam, which successfully persuaded U.S. Representative `Tip’ O’Neill to change his position on the bombing of North Vietnam. He was executive director of the Urban Coalition of Metropolitan San Antonio, Texas. He cofounded the San Antonio Aquifer Protection Association, and was the leading attorney in the ten-year struggle by residents of the San Antonio area to deny an operating license to the unsafe South Texas Nuclear Project. He was coordinator of the Institute’s campaign against legislation that would have increased Presidential power to conduct covert operations.

WHAT DOES `CHRISTIC’ MEAN? The Christic Institute unites Christians, Jews and other religious Americans on an effective and practical platform for political change. Among our team of forty professionals and our network of 70,000 supporters nationwide are the followers of many faiths–including Roman Catholics, Protestants, Anglicans, Unitarian Universalists, Jews, New Agers and the adherents of traditional Native American religion. We also count among our supporters and coworkers Americans who identify with no religious faith, but share our values of compassion and justice. The Institute’s religious pluralism, we believe, is one of our great strengths. All of us have walked down different spiritual paths, but arrived at the same destination: a conviction that faith requires a commitment to justice, peace and healing in our society. The wellspring of spiritual values, although it takes many forms in our lives, has intensified our reverence for life and our opposition to injustice. When the Institute was founded in 1980, it was difficult to find a name that would adequately express the religious pluralism of this team. After months of discussion, we turned to the writings of Father Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), the Jesuit philosopher and scientist. Teilhard believed that the future of humanity was convergence, not self-destruction, that peoples would not remain divided but were destined to become one. “Christic” was one of the concepts Teilhard used to describe the spiritual energy in history which, he believed, is drawing creation toward a future unity. Our choice of “Christic” was quite deliberate. On the one hand, it expresses our commitment to spiritual values and their proper place in society and government. On the other, it distinguishes us and our supporters from the pressure groups of the Religious Right, who misuse the words “moral” and “Christian” as banners for sectarian intolerance and ideological extremism. Although Chardin’s philosophy is by no means required reading at the Institute, our founders agreed with his vision of a future in which humanity, now divided by ideology and religion, would join hands in a society ruled by tolerance, justice and peace.

The Rev. William J. Davis, S.J.