Sister Dorothy Stang was a missionary who spent a good part of her life in Brazil organizing poor rural settlers and fighting alongside local environmentalists to protect their land. She was labelled a martyr when she was killed for fighting alongside locals for the conservation of a jungle area in Brazil. Read more about her work and the conviction of her murderer.

Given Sister Dorothy Stang’s deep Christian faith and her work for justice and ecology, it was most appropriate that the decision of a Brazilian court to convict the man behind her murder and to hand down a 30 year prison sentence, should have come after Easter. On Monday April 12th 2010, after 15 hours deliberation a jury in Sao Paulo reached its verdict on Monday April 12, 2010, convicted Vitalmiro Bastos de Moura a local rancher, for the murder of Sister Dorothy Stang in 2005 and sentenced him to 30 years in prison.

Vitalmiro Bastos de Moura, was convicted of ordering the murder of Sister Dorothy Stang in 2005. Sister Dorothy was a missionary who had spent most of her 30 years in Brazil organizing poor rural settlers and fighting alongside local environmentalists to protect their land from being taken from them by powerful cattle ranchers and timber merchants.

In 2007, Mr. Moura was convicted in 2007 of ordering the killing and received a 30-year sentence, but that verdict was overturned in a retrial the following year. Under Brazilian law, a retrial is required for first offenders who are sentenced to more than 20 years. In that retrial in the city of Belem in 2008, the jury voted 5 to 2 to accept the defense contentions that Mr. Moura had no motive to be involved in Sister Dorothy’s killing and that it had been carried out solely by Rayfran das Neves Sales, who confessed to shooting her and is serving a 28-year sentence. The prosecutor claimed that Mr. Sales had been offered $25,000 to kill Sister Dorothy after she fought to preserve a piece of jungle that ranchers wanted to clear for logging and cattle ranching. Mr. Sales said in court that he had acted alone and in self-defense, contradicting previous testimony in which he said he had used Mr. Moura’s gun.

The trials of suspects in her killing have been seen as tests of Brazil’s willingness to prosecute murders over land use in the violent and largely lawless Amazon frontier. The 2008 trial drew international attention because, though Sister Dorothy was a naturalized Brazilian, was originally from Dayton, Ohio. The Brazilian president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, vowed in 2005 that his government would “not rest until the killers are caught.” Brazil’s Supreme Court once considered a motion to have the killing declared a federal crime, which would have taken the case out of Pará’s courts.

Paulo Vannuchi, the minister for the government’s Special Secretariat for Human Rights, expressed “vehement disagreement” with the Belém jury’s verdict. The acquittal “reinforces the feeling of impunity that is so widespread in our country, opening a road to more crime and violence,” Mr. Vannuchi said. According to the Catholic Church’s Land Pastoral which monitors land violence in Brazil as many as 800 settlers, union members and priests have been killed in Pará in disputes over land in the last 30 years.

Sister Dorothy was shot while visiting a remote encampment near the Trans-Amazon Highway in Pará, in a region known for corruption and land violence. A biography, “Martyr of the Amazon,” described her killing: “Her hired assassins found her eventually on a lonely path in the forest, walking toward a meeting to support the local farmers. When they asked her if she carried a weapon she reached into her bag and produced a Bible. Then she began to read to them from the Beatitudes. “And then they shot her.” The gunman, Rayfran das Neves Sales, who has confessed, reportedly shot her six times. He was convicted of murder in 2008 and was sentenced to 28 years in prison.

A 2008 documentary film, “They Killed Sister Dorothy,” narrated by the American actor Marin Sheen gave an account of Sister Dorothy’s organizing efforts and her murder. She was seen as leader in the movement for justice and ecological sustainability on par with Chico Mendes, the rubber tapper who was killed in 1988.

At a time when much of the media headlines about the Catholic Church are focused on cases of sexual abuse by clergy and how the authorities in the Catholic Church handled these accusations, the life, work and death of Sister Dorothy Stang, are a clear reminder of what the mission of the Church ought to be. In line with the gospel and ministry of Jesus, his followers are called to stand with those who are on the margins of society, to support the poor, oppressed and endangered earth even when such a course of action might have dire consequences. Like Jesus, Dorothy gave her life for “the life of the world.”

Fr. Seán McDonagh, SSC


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