When Pope Francis announced he was unblocking the canonization process for Salvadoran Archbishop Óscar Romero, killed in 1980 by a death squad during his country's civil war, it was heartening and frustrating. Romero stood up to a murderous army on behalf of the poor in El Salvador. President Obama visited his tomb in 2011, and his statue stands on a wall of Westminster Abbey, among modern Christian martyrs including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Yet the archbishop's murderers remain free. Judges in El Salvador have said a controversial amnesty law forbids prosecuting war crimes, though the nation's Supreme Court is considering a challenge to that decision. Most notoriously, Romero's brother bishops, who might be expected to call out for justice, have dragged their feet or blocked progress toward legal redress for Romero's killing and the rest of El Salvador's wartime crimes.
"Sainthood, yes — for us he is already a saint," said a Salvadoran friend after he heard the pope's news about Romero. "But without going after the perpetrators, this will induce a form of amnesia, pushing away the violence while creating a kind of myth that serves the country." The perpetrators are alive, he pointed out, as are their financiers.
Romero died at the beginning of a 12-year civil conflict, a leftist attempt to overthrow a repressive, military-backed government. The war ended in 1992 with a truce between the government and rebels of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front. The United Nations-backed Truth Commission for El Salvador described horrific massacres, calling Romero's murder "a brutal symbol of the nightmare the country experienced during the war." Its report said about 70,000 people died, most of them unarmed civilians, at the hands of a military supported by the United States.
A bespectacled provincial bishop with a reputation as a conservative, Romero was appointed in 1977 as archbishop of the small Central American country, a nation riven by inequalities. The Salvadoran church had long enjoyed a marriage of convenience with wealthy families who ruled with help from the army. Romero, however, responded like a pastor to growing violence.
He ventured into the countryside to hear out the faithful, who spoke of murders among peasants, many of them organizing for land reform. He decried killings of priests and catechists who took the side of peaceful change. He started a legal aid office at the archdiocese to document human rights violations.
I visited that office after he died, and I saw families looking through photo albums containing images of cadavers bearing marks of torture, a way of identifying disappeared loved ones.
Most of the other Salvadoran bishops did not support Romero. Only one co-signed an important 1978 pastoral letter, "The Church and Popular Political Organizations," defending free assembly and the right of peasants to organize. Making his case, Romero referred to papal encyclicals and documents from Vatican II.
"I beg you, I order you, halt the repression," Romero said in a homily broadcast the day before he was killed by a sniper's bullet to the chest, as he celebrated Mass.
When I reported on the war in El Salvador, peasants in the countryside and residents of threadbare urban neighborhoods referred to Monseñor as a martyr who had sacrificed himself for them. Some showed pictures they had been hiding because, they told me, openly displaying his image could mark them as subversive.
In 1980, a government raid produced documents implicating the founder of the far-right Arena party, Maj. Roberto D'Aubuisson, and others, including one Capt. Álvaro Saravia, in the crime. D'Aubuisson died in 1992. By 2004, however, a small, nonprofit human rights law office in San Francisco, the Center for Justice and Accountability, confirmed Saravia was operating a used-car dealership in Modesto. He fled, but the center obtained a judgment against him in a U.S. District Court for crimes against humanity, the only case to date pertaining to Romero's assassination to reach the courts of any country. The judge said, "The damages are of a magnitude that is hardly describable."
Meanwhile, the Roman Catholic Church in El Salvador remains silent or deliberately obfuscates legal progress. In 2007, the archbishop of the time fired the church's legal aid office counsel, David Morales, when Morales supported attention to Romero's case before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington. In 2012, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled that El Salvador's amnesty law did not cover war crimes, but the decision seems to have made no difference to the bishops.
Last September, I asked Ovidio Mauricio, then director of the archdiocesan legal aid office, how the pursuit of Romero's killers was going. "We have abandoned the case of Msgr. Romero because of the hierarchy," he said quietly. In October, the current archbishop, José Luis Escobar Alas, fired Mauricio and his staff. Last week, the director of archives at the new legal aid office told me by phone that Romero's case and others related to the civil war massacres were closed.
"Our hands are tied" by the amnesty law, he said, despite the Inter-American decision and the fact that the Salvadoran Supreme Court has yet to rule.
Are the bishops ignoring Romero's prophetic voice, harking back to times when the church and the Salvadoran oligarchy presented a united front, determined not to the rock the boat? There is still time for them to stand up for human rights and justice, lest they look like hypocrites when Pope Francis arrives one day at Monseñor Óscar Arnulfo Romero International Airport (it was renamed this year) to canonize their brother.
For those who already regard the slain archbishop as San Romero de America, legal pursuit of his killers would strengthen faith in the rule of law on Earth, honoring Monseñor as deeply as sainthood.
Mary Jo McConahay is the author of "Ricochet: Two Women War Reporters and a Friendship Under Fire."