Sister Dianna Ortiz, a former Daviess County teacher and Brescia University graduate who became an international leader in the fight against torture, died Friday after a battle with cancer.
She was 62.
The New Mexico native died in Washington, D.C, where she had served as deputy director of Pax Christi USA, a Catholic peace and justice movement that rejects war, violence and systemic racism.
Sister Dianna was serving as a missionary in Guatemala, teaching Mayan children in the highlands, in 1989 when her life changed dramatically.
She said she was kidnapped from a retreat center there and tortured and raped repeatedly in November 1989.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights concluded that “Sister Ortiz was placed under surveillance and threatened, then kidnapped and tortured, and that agents of the government of Guatemala were responsible for these crimes. ... including violating Dianna Ortiz’s rights to ‘humane treatment, personal liberty, a fair trial, privacy, freedom of conscience and of religion, freedom of association and judicial protection’.”
One of the men who tortured her appeared to be an American, Sister Dianna said.
No one was ever charged with the crime.
Fight against torture
She devoted the rest of her life to fighting against torture.
In an interview with Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, an organization that dates back to 1968, Sister Dianna said, “I want to be free of these memories. I want to be as trusting, confident, adventurous, and carefree as I was in 1987 when I went to the western highlands of Guatemala to teach young indigenous children to read and write in Spanish and in their native language and to understand the Bible in their culture.”
But, she said, “On Nov. 2, 1989, the Dianna I just described ceased to exist. I tell you this story only because it reflects the suffering of hundreds of thousands of people in Guatemala, a country ravaged by a civil war that began in 1960 and lasted 36 years. Most of the victims, like me, were civilians targeted by government security forces.”
Sister Dianna grew up in Grants, New Mexico.
From the time she was 6, she was interested in joining a religious order.
Sister Dianna came to Daviess County for her senior year of high school at the old Mount Saint Joseph Academy.
After graduation in 1977, she became a postulant with the Ursuline Sisters and officially entered the community the following year.
Sister Amelia Stenger, congregational leader of the Ursuline Sisters at Maple Mount, has known Sister Dianna since 1978.
“She was young back then, very energetic and always trying to help,” she said. “She loved teaching.”
Sister Dianna taught at Immaculate Conception School in Hawesville from 1983 to 1985 and Blessed Mother School in Owensboro from 1985 to 1987 before going to Guatemala.
Sister Amelia was superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Owensboro back then.
‘Children loved her’
“The children loved her and she loved them,” she said.
Sister Dianna was last at Maple Mount in July 2019.
“We all come back each year in July,” Sister Amelia said. “We couldn’t do that last year because of COVID. But we kept in touch with her by phone, FaceTime and ZOOM.”
She said Sister Dianna “had lots of counseling. But she learned to use her experience to help others who had been tortured.”
Following years of prayer and counseling, she became a grassroots organizer for the Guatemalan Human Rights Commission in Washington, D.C., from 1994 to 2000.
In 1998, Sister Dianna founded the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition International to advocate for the abolition of torture and to support its victims.
She served as its executive director for the next decade.
In 2002, Sister Dianna published, “The Blindfold’s Eyes: My Journey from Torture to Truth.”
She testified before Congress about human rights and torture and received numerous awards and honors for her work from peace and victims advocate organizations, including three honorary doctorates, the Pax Christi USA Teacher of Peace Award and the Rothko Chapel Oscar Romero Award.
“We will truly miss Sister Dianna’s prayerful spirit and total dedication to helping others,” Sister Amelia said. “She suffered much during her life but continually tried to help others who were suffering. We pray for her, our community and her family.”
Sister Dianna served as deputy director of Pax Christi USA in Washington from 2010-2012 and with the Center of Concern on its Education for Justice Project in Washington from 2012-18.
In 2020, she returned to Pax Christi.
“As anyone who ever encountered Dianna knows, she was an extraordinary person,” the organization said on its website Friday.
It added, “We have lost a member of our family, the heart at the center of our life together as a staff who lifted all of us with her unceasing encouragement, support, kindness and gentleness. Our heartbreak and grief are only tempered by our gratitude and love for all Dianna has been for us, and for the rest and peace that she now has.”
Won $47.5 million judgmentIn 1991, Sister Dianna and nine other people sued retired Gen. Hector Gramajo, former Guatemalan minister of defense, for human rights abuses.
Four years later, the New York Times reported that a federal judge in Boston had ordered Gramajo to pay $47.5 million to Sister Dianna and eight Guatemalans who were terrorized by that country’s military in the 1980s.
Of that, $5 million was to go to Sister Dianna.
But Gramajo, who died in 2004 after being stung by a swarm of Africanized bees, never paid the money.
During her 24-hour ordeal, Sister Dianna said she suffered 111 cigarette burns and was thrown into a well full of cadavers and rats.
In an interview once, she said, “Only one week after my abduction, before any true investigation had been conducted, the U.S. ambassador suggested that I was a political strategist and had staged my own kidnapping to secure a cutoff of U.S. military aid to Guatemala.”
Sister Dianna said, “In January 1990, the Guatemalan defense minister publicly announced that I was a lesbian and had staged my abduction to cover up a tryst. The minister of the interior echoed this statement and then said he had heard it first from the U.S. embassy. According to a congressional aide, the political affairs officer at the U.S. embassy, Lew Anselem, was indeed spreading the same rumor.”
She added, “The Organization of American States, after completing a four-year investigation of my case, found in 1997 that I indeed was abducted and tortured by agents of the Guatemalan government, that the details of my testimony were credible, and that the Guatemalan government had ‘engaged in repeated unwarranted attacks on (my) honor and reputation’.”
In 2005, Robin Wright appeared as Sister Dianna in the play, “Speak Truth to Power: Voices from Beyond the Dark.”
The play, based on Kerry Kennedy’s book, was meant to honor people Kennedy described as defenders of freedom — people who fight against police brutality, genital mutilation, torture, sex slavery and child labor.
Funeral arrangements are pending.