Retired Pastor Receives Compensation for Torture
by Linda Bloom*
New York, UMNS, Oct. 10, 2008--Thirty-four years after being tortured by the military dictatorship in Brazil, a retired United Methodist pastor is receiving both monetary compensation and a formal request for forgiveness.
The Rev. Frederick Birten Morris, 74, who now resides in Panama, will be paid 285,000 Brazilian reais--more than $122,000 in U.S. dollars--along with a monthly pension of 2,000 reais, about $900.
The award comes from the Brazil Justice Ministry's Amnesty Commission, which also invited Morris and 12 other survivors to participate in a Sept. 26 event in the capital city of Brasilia.
More important than the money to Morris was the fact that the Brazilian government formally asked for forgiveness.
"I don't know of any government that's ever done that," Morris told United Methodist News Service in an Oct. 7 telephone interview.
A representative of the College of Bishops of the Methodist Church in Brazil attended the event and "also asked for my forgiveness," which "I found overwhelming," Morris said. "It was a very emotional day."
"The General Board of Global Ministries is thankful that a degree of justice has been achieved in the case of Fred Morris' inhumane and unlawful incarceration in Brazil," said the Rev. Jorge Domingues, a board executive who has been monitoring his case. "We honor the courage he displayed at the time of his ordeal, and we are grateful for his service as a missionary and his ministry in subsequent years."
An Associated Press story about his compensation noted that the Amnesty Commission is reviewing cases of victims of the 1964-85 dictatorship. However, unlike other South American nations such as Argentina and Chile, Brazil has never prosecuted any member of the armed forces for human rights abuses.
A 1979 amnesty law resulted in a general pardon for all involved in crimes committed under the dictatorship, although 475 people were killed or disappeared during that period, a government study found.
Among the Disappeared
Morris was briefly one of those who disappeared.
The Northern Illinois pastor first went to Brazil in 1963 as a missionary with the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries and was assigned to the Methodist Church in Brazil. From 1970 to 1974, he worked closely with Dom Helder Camara, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Recife and Olinda.
In 1974, Morris was on a leave of absence from his missionary service and managing a factory in Recife but still associated with Camara, known as Dom Helder, a leading opponent of the dictatorship. Dom Helder was their target, but Morris said the military asked torture victims who didn't know the archbishop about "Pastor Fred."
He never found out who made false accusations against him to the military. "That's one of the best arguments I know for the U.S. not using torture as a means of stamping out terrorism," he said. "People will say anything you want to hear."
During the same period, Time magazine published a positive story about the archbishop and his struggle for human rights for people of Brazil. "They knew in their investigation that I was a stringer for Time and The Associated Press … so they assumed I wrote the story," he said.
Morris had several meetings that summer with military intelligence and thought they were satisfied of his innocence--until he was abducted on Sept. 30. "They waited until the archbishop left the country," Morris recalled. "He went to Rome for a synod meeting."
Over four days, Morris was tortured through beatings and electric shock and questioned about one of his friends, but mostly about the archbishop. "They were trying to get me to confess that I was the connection between him and the Communist Party of Brazil," he said, dismissing the claim as "absurd."
The day of Morris' abduction, Tereza Cristina Assis Carvalho, whom he married at the end of 1974, "realized that I had been disappeared" and laid the groundwork for the outcry that led to his release. "She was very heroic and literally saved my life," Morris said.
He also credited the support of Richard Brown, then the U.S. consul in Recife, and John Crimmins, who was the U.S. ambassador in Brasilia.
United Methodists rallied behind the call for his release. "My father was pastor at that time of the largest Methodist church in Nebraska," he said. The Rev. Hughes B. Morris Sr., as well as his brother, the Rev. Hughes Morris Jr., helped generate more than a thousand letters and telephone calls to members of the U.S. Congress from Nebraska.
In addition, 100 of the 535 members of the House of Representatives were United Methodist. "When they started hearing that a Methodist missionary was being tortured, they started putting the pressure on," he said.
After 17 days, Morris was released. "[The Brazilian government] found it more convenient to expel me than to keep me in prison," he said. "They never bothered to charge me." Later, he became aware that the Brazilian Army, which originally had called him a Communist, had spread the rumor that he was a CIA agent.
Morris gave numerous television interviews and wrote a first-person account of his experience for the Nov. 18, 1974, edition of Time, titled "Torture, Brazilian Style."
Testifying before Congress, Morris said "torture brutalizes and dehumanizes not only those who are tortured but those who torture, those who are intimidated by the torture of others and those who try to ignore the fact that torture exists."
Morris moved to Costa Rica in 1976. He later served in United Methodist churches in the Chicago area and, after retiring as a pastor, returned to Brazil for two years in 1995. He was executive director of the Florida Council of Churches, dean of the Orlando Campus of the South Florida Center for Theological Studies and director of Latin American relations for the National Council of Churches.
File for Damages
In 2002, Morris heard that the current government of Brazil was allowing former torture victims to file suit for damages. He hired a lawyer to start the process but "never assumed he was going to produce anything."
At the end of August, Morris was contacted by the vice president of the Justice Ministry's Amnesty Commission and, in less than a month, was in Brasilia with other torture survivors for an event honoring the 100th anniversary of the late archbishop's birth. Dom Helder died in 1999.
Morris was allowed to speak at the Sept. 26 public ceremony. "They gave me 10 minutes and I took about 25," he said.
Morris traveled to Brasilia with his wife of 24 years, Argentina. Also attending were Carvalho, from whom he was divorced, and their children, Erick Morris, who lives in São Paulo, and Jessica Morris, a law professor at the University of Miami and a member of the board of directors of Amnesty International USA. Morris has five other children.
Morris said he founded Faith Partners of the Americas at the end of 2004 "wanting to build on my 40 years of experience in Latin America. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to get any funding for it." Faith Partners is a nonprofit organization dedicated to build solidarity between the churches and peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean and those in North America.
On Nov. 1, he and his wife are scheduled to move to Nicaragua, where she has extended family. They plan to revitalize Faith Partners by developing an ecumenical environmental education program with a theological twist for Sunday schools.
*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.
Date posted: Oct 10, 2008