The announced closure of the legal aid office of the Archdiocese of San Salvador has sparked controversy in El Salvador, as well as reflection on the impact Archbishop Oscar A. Romero has had in the field of human rights. In retrospect, the impact that the small office opened by Archbishop Romero has had is remarkable. The office can be credited with, among other things, documenting and highlighting the Massacre of El Mozote, investigating and documenting the activities of the death squads during the Salvadoran conflict, gathering evidence that resulted in the report of the U.N. Truth Commission for El Salvador in 1993, and the investigation of more than 50,000 cases of human rights violations in that country, including forced disappearances, torture and extrajudicial killings (including Archbishop Romero). Notable alumni of the office include Florentin Melendez, now a justice of the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court of El Salvador; Luis Ramirez, who became a United Nations representative; David Morales, current Human Rights Ombudsman for the government of El Salvador; Roberto Cuellar, former Executive Director of the Interamerican Institute of Human Rights; and, of course, Maria Julia Hernandez, the head of the office who became an internationally renowned champion of human rights.
Defining him as a pioneer of human rights in El Salvador, Roberto Cuellar says that, “It is worth pointing out that Monseñor Romero began to use the general principles of law and the doctrine of human rights at a time when international conventions and pacts were still few in number and adequate international human rights legislation did not yet exist.” Cuellar says that, “Monseñor Romero was the first Human Rights Ombudsman our country ever had.” Cuellar recalls how Romero would provide guidance and leadership to young lawyers who handled cases in the office:
Naturally, Monseñor [Romero] was not a lawyer by training. However, in the course of those three years, I witnessed how he woke up and grew in his interest in the law, becoming a clever and profound legal reasoner. Often he would study the Constitution, which in those fateful years he considered the only remedy available to defend the “just right,” as he called it. Those who worked in the archdiocese Legal Aid received many cases from his very hands, with Monseñor [Romero]’s personal annotations about possible ways to channel and direct each case.
Florentin Melendez recalls another important function that the legal aid office fulfilled for Romero: fact-checking his denunciations. "Monsignor Romero digested the information that would reach the legal aid office for his homilies, for the part about the events of the week and the denunciations. We were collecting evidence. As a notary, I would go out to legalize testimonies, to make field visits where dead bodies had appeared, to search the prisons for the ‘disappeared’ from the UCA [university], the National [university] or the unions.” Similarly, Roberto Cuellar also recalls that Romero was “demanding with respect to legal issues, he was very rigorous about ascertaining the facts.”The Apostolic Exhortation «Pastores Gregis» of John Paul II (written in part by Cardinal Bergoglio) states that “the Bishop is the defender of human rights, the rights of human beings made in the image and likeness of God … the Bishop is the defender and the father of the poor, concerned for justice and human rights.” The archdiocesan Legal Aid Office shows how Archbishop Romero fulfilled that role. So much so that a U.S. District Court concluded that when Romero was assassinated, “The people were deprived of their protector.” Doe v. Rafael Saravia, 348 F. Supp. 2d 1112, 1141 ( E.D. Cal. 2004). The court went on to say that: “For many, his role as the ‘Voice of the Voiceless,’ meant that he was their only protection against attack.” Roberto Cuellar praises Archbishop Romero as an “apostle of human rights.”
Post ScriptMsgr. Ricardo Urioste, Archbishop Romero’s vicar general and one of his closest collaborators, who chairs Fundación Romero, told the Vatican Insider that he does not believe “that the situation that has been created will hurt the process” of beatification. The closure does not jump out as being outside the range of actions of previous archbishops. For example, Archbishop Arturo Rivera Damas set up “Tutela Legal” precisely after closing the “Socorro Juridico” that Archbishop Romero had established, when Rivera wished to impose a more “moderate” line over the human rights work of the archdiocese. Archbishop Fernando Saenz Lacalle also stirred controversy by dismissing a prominent lawyer with Tutela Legal (David Morales), also over differences in direction. The attention that the closure has generated is encouraging in the sense that it highlights the great awareness that has been aroused in the area of human rights in El Salvador, which allows us to think that the crisis will be diffused when all parties approach the issue with reflection.