Given that the guests of honor face federal prison terms for civil disobedience,
there was a fair bit of joking last week at a going-away party for Bay Area Roman
Catholic priests Louis Vitale and Bill O'Donnell.
"My speech before the judge will be short," said Vitale, a Franciscan friar.
Pointing at his longtime friend, O'Donnell, Vitale feigned fear and repeated
the Apostle Peter's denial of Jesus: "I do not know the man!"
Jesuit Fr. Bill O'Donnell of St.Joseph the Worker in Berkeley with actor Martin
Sheen (Photo/National Catholic Reporter Online)
About 150 friends and supporters at the Franciscan School of Theology in Berkeley
laughed and shook their heads in amusement and affection. By just about any standard,
both Vitale, 70, and O'Donnell, 72, are considered near- saints in their activist
Vitale has garnered respect and devotion as pastor of St. Boniface Church in
San Francisco's Tenderloin District and through decades of peaceful protest against
everything from nuclear weapons labs to the purported drug eradication program,
Plan Colombia. Earlier this year he received a Paul VI Teacher of Peace Award
from the international pacifist organization, Pax Christi.
An Oakland diocesan priest, O'Donnell has become something of a legend during
30 years of similar peace-and-justice activism at St. Joseph the Worker Church
in Berkeley and through a drug-and-alcohol rehab center, Options Recovery, that
he co-founded with Dr. Davida Coady. He logged his first arrest for civil disobedience
alongside Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers in the 1960s. The count now
stands at 224, many with his pal of 20 years, actor Martin Sheen.
If previous cases are any indication, Vitale's and O'Donnell's social works
won't impress U.S. District Judge G. Mallon Faircloth next month in Columbus,
On July 8, both priests will join 35 other defendants in Faircloth's court
to be tried for "crossing the line" during a mass demonstration at the Western
Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation -- better known by its former name,
the School of the Americas -- at Fort Benning, Ga.
Despite its dramatic sound, crossing the line means peacefully trespassing
onto the Army base. Each November, hundreds of protesters -- who contend that
the school trains foreign soldiers in such black arts as assassination and making
biological and chemical weapons -- trespass and get themselves arrested.
Louis Vitale, O.F.M.
Instructor in Spirituality and Practice of Nonviolence
The following summer, dozens go before Faircloth; most receive maximum six-
Among the many people Faircloth sentenced last July to six-month stays in federal
prison was an 88-year-old Franciscan nun, Dorothy
Hennessey. Three years ago, he slapped consecutive six-month sentences on
a Vietnam War hero who won the U.S. Medal of Honor for dragging 27 G.I.'s to safety
during a firefight in 1967.
Liteky, a former Catholic priest who lives in San Francisco with his human
rights activist wife, Judy, was among the well-wishers at last week's bon voyage
party. After he listened to O'Donnell read a speech he plans to give in Faircloth's
courtroom, he told the throng: "Say goodbye to Bill now because you're not going
to see him for a long time if he reads that statement."
Along with calling the court "a pimp for the Pentagon," O'Donnell will ask
Faircloth to sentence him to study at the Fort Benning school so he can "tell
the world: indeed the new institute has amended its ways and teaches only nonviolence
and democracy to its students."
For all the joshing, Vitale and O'Donnell both know that what's ahead is serious
business. Besides his usual pastoral duties, Vitale is in the middle of a multimillion-dollar
renovation and earthquake retrofitting of St. Boniface. O'Donnell's Options Recovery
center, which primarily serves the East Bay poor, is perpetually in need of funding.
But both men also believe priests can be called to live their faith in ways
beyond their pastoral duties.
"I really, actually, did not intend to get arrested at Fort Benning," said
Vitale. "But there's something just deep down inside of me that says this is the
right thing to do. I'm really glad to have the opportunity to make this witness."
©2002 San Francisco Chronicle