Social justice advocates ask Obama to support torture commission

WASHINGTON – Catholic social justice leaders are calling on President Barack Obama to support the formation of an independent commission to investigate the use of torture by U.S. interrogators on suspected terrorists.

The call, coming May 6 from the leaders of a dozen organizations such as Pax Christi USA and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, follows the recent release of declassified Justice Department memos that outline the legal justification for the enhanced interrogation of detainees since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States.

The memos set the stage for the use of techniques deemed to be torture by human rights activists, such as waterboarding, which causes the sensation of drowning, and actions that included exposing detainees to extreme temperatures, sleep deprivation and physical violence.

While commending Obama for his Jan. 21 executive order that banned torture and mandated the closing within one year of the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where about 240 detainees are being held, the advocates said in a statement that a commission will help expose “these horrific practices” and allow the nation to move toward reconciliation and healing.

“We need to know what we did so we don’t fall into the same trap again,” Russell Testa, executive director of the Washington-based Franciscan Action Network and one of the advocates issuing the call, told Catholic News Service. “We need to do an examination of conscience and to do our own reform.”

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has not yet considered the issue of a torture commission, focusing its efforts instead on enacting the particulars of Obama’s executive order into law, said Stephen Colecchi, director of the U.S. bishops’ Office of International Justice and Peace.

“We are now working to see that the elements of his executive order are incorporated into the law of the land so that we would have the full force of law and it would not be able to simply be changed from one administration to another,” Colecchi said in an interview. “This needs to be above partisan politics. It needs to be a fundamental commitment that we are making as a nation and not simply as an administration.”

Meanwhile, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture continued its push for a commission to investigate the use of torture during a May 7 teleconference.

Maintaining a stance first advocated in January, campaign president Linda Gustitus said a commission of inquiry would not only specifically discover what had transpired in the past but also would allow for safeguards to be put in place to ensure that such actions would never occur again.

In their statement, the Catholic advocates said the Justice Department memos “expose a litany of abusive interrogation tactics that shock the conscience of anyone committed to the universal principles of human rights and the rule of law.”

“As Catholic social justice leaders, our faith compels us to speak out against these grave violations of human dignity as an intrinsic evil that must never be tolerated,” the statement said. “Torture demeans perpetrators and victims. It violates our nation’s highest ideals, endangers our own prisoners of war and often yields unreliable information.”

Signing the statement were representatives of the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns; Catholics United; the leadership team of the Institute of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas; the Conference of Major Superiors of Men; Network, the Catholic social justice lobby; the Center of Concern; Catholic Scholars for Worker Justice; the Tri-State Coalition for Responsible Investment; and the Joan and Ralph Lance Center for Catholic Studies and Social Thought at the University of San Francisco.

Joining the advocates was Joshua Casteel, a former U.S. Army interrogator at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, one of the facilities where torture is alleged to have occurred. Casteel, a theology student at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana who now tours the country speaking about his military experiences, said in a statement that torture fails to yield valuable information.

“It leads only to the bodies of human persons, transformed into objects of submission, which is to say, it is idolatry,” he said. “Torture is the transformation of human persons into gods and objects. Only one remedy heals the wounds of such idolatry: repentance.”

The calls from religious leaders come on the heels of a poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press that found people who attend church weekly support the use of torture at higher levels than those who attend religious services less often.

Among regular churchgoers, 54 percent said torture often or sometimes can be justified. That compares with 51 percent of those who attend church monthly or a few times a year and 42 percent of respondents who seldom or never attend religious services who said torture can often or sometimes be justified.

White evangelical Protestants responded with the highest level of support for torture at 62 percent. At the same time, 51 percent of white non-Hispanic Catholics said torture can often or sometimes be justified. Among white mainline Protestants, 46 percent of respondents support the use of torture.

The poll was conducted April 14-21 with 742 adults and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

The full statement of the Catholic social justice advocates is posted online at More information on the National Religious Campaign Against Torture is available online at

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.