October 14, 2015
In the early 1990’s, as a personal interest, I began doing research on the murder of a Catholic parish priest in Benque Viejo del Carmen which occurred in 1961, a case that, according to the existent records, was never resolved.
I was particularly drawn by a letter in the issue of The Amandala dated September 20, 2015 and reprinted on September 27, alluding most certainly to this case. After all, only one priest has been killed in Benque Viejo’s history.
I am moved to respond to the content of this letter given the statements the writer makes, which has stirred much concern among the people in the community of Benque Viejo where this unhappy episode is still alive. It is my intention, therefore, to address those allegations made with the purpose of setting the record right.
The letter takes on the case of the longest incarcerated prisoner in Belize alluded to have killed a priest in Benque Viejo. I must say that when I first heard about this back in the 1990’s, I was tempted to take it as one of the leads that could shed light on one of the most intriguing crimes in Belize’s history.
Very soon, however, I was led to discard this story given the inconsistencies and the lack of historical support and substance. The writer of the said letter gives the story a twist, alleging sexual abuse, a lurid story, I must say, more fitting for the tabloids.
The narrative, as portrayed in the aforesaid letter, takes us back to Benque Viejo del Carmen in the 1950’s and a character referred to as “Papito” – a boy “born into a solid Catholic family […] who [since] at the age of 7 took his religious duties [as an altar boy] very seriously.” Back then, it was customary in the Catholic Church for young boys to serve as altar boys after their First Holy Communion.
However, they had to go through a period of training in which they assisted and learned from the older ones. Prior to the liturgical reforms of the Vatican Council II (1962-65) that introduced the vernacular language in the liturgy of the Catholic Church, it was a practice to have older boys and men as acolytes for they had to be versed with the responses in Latin as the Tridentine Mass required. In addition, they were assigned other duties like the lighting of the candles, the preparation of the altar, and certain readings in the liturgy. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01106a.htm).
It is, therefore, quite unlikely that a 7-year-old would be put to serve as an acolyte in 1956, or end up being the only altar boy, as the writer suggests.
The account takes a turn in 1961 when “Papito” comes to the realization that he was being abused sexually by the priest. He was 12 years old and still an altar boy. Early on, I stated that there has been one priest, and the only one, as a matter of fact, who has been murdered in Benque Viejo. This happened on January 18, 1961. The time of the murder was determined as shortly before midnight given that, on the priest’s desk where he was found dead, lay the breviary, open at the Te Deum, a sign that his prayers for the day had not been completed.
Among the witnesses called to the stand at the trial involving one of the principal suspects, was the acolyte at that time, Everardo Cocóm, from Benque Viejo. The Belize Billboard of July 9, 1961 reports on it as follows: “Everardo Cocum [sic], a 16-year old acolyte and handyman at the Benque Viejo Catholic Presbytery, Thursday evening, commenced giving evidence […] Cocum said his duties included ringing the church bell, serving Mass, and carrying the priest’s food from the Convent to the Presbytery.”
The Daily Clarion of July 7, 1961 concludes the acolyte’s statement in court thus: “Everaldo Cocom [sic], 16 years old, acolyte, on being further examined […] concluded his […] evidence stating that on entering the presbytery on the morning of the 18th January last he saw the dead body of [the priest] in a chair.” Nowhere else in the documents at the time is mention made of an altar boy of 12 years of age.
The story alleges that the priest “slowly [bled] to death on the floor in the sacred space behind the altar” after “Papito,” enraged about “all those years of abuse,” assaults him one night in response to the priest’s sexual demands. The priest then goes to his office “to meet his Maker.”
It is at the presbytery that “Papito” confronts him. “Papito” runs off in a rage and returns with “the machete with which he cut the church yard,” hacking the priest to death.
One of the key witnesses in the case in 1961 was a school teacher, Viola Wade, who testified that she had been at the office in the presbytery doing clerical work until 8:30 p.m. the night of the murder when she last spoke to the priest. It was proven that the generator was up and running until 10:30 p.m. that night.
One can put forth the question whether a 12-year old could undertake such an act, confronting the priest at the presbytery, after having assaulted him at the altar, and then fetching a machete to finish him off. This is definitely an act that would require premeditation and strength of all sorts.
The priest was a heavy-set man. Dr. Victor Ernest Bela Gulyassy, Government Medical Officer, who examined the body, reported that the priest had received six wounds: two superficial ones on the left side of his face crossing the ear, another deep wound cutting through the jaw, a deep cut on the left side of his neck which cut through the external and internal carotid arteries, a superficial wound grazing the right shoulder, and his wrist was completely severed and found lying on the floor (The Belize Billboard, July 4, 1961).
It is further alleged that the 12-year old “disappeared” across to Petén and that he was convicted for “the manslaughter of the priest in Benque” through a trial held “behind closed doors” – most likely to protect the Catholic Church, upon his return to British Honduras in 1974. So ends the story.
There is an incarcerated prisoner at the Belize Central Prison known to us in Benque Viejo as “Papaito”. He was six years old when Fr. Gregory Sontag, S.J., was butchered at the rectory in Benque Viejo in 1961. “Papaito” is now 61 years old. The “Papaito” we know was convicted in 1974, but not for having killed “the priest” in Benque.
As a matter of fact, no one was ever convicted for Fr. Sontag’s murder. All the suspects brought before the court were outsiders, not natives of Benque Viejo, including the principal suspect, a 52-year old Guatemalan who was brought before the Supreme Court on a trial that lasted 14 days.
It is rather odd that this connection is made, at some point, in the life of this prisoner, who “was pardoned by the Queen,” yet remains in prison, and, worse of all, for it to be associated with sexual abuse, which, in my view and having substantiated with the records of the time, is totally unfounded and scandalous.
I could not end without saying a word or two that would do justice to the person of Fr. Gregory Sontag, who served as pastor in Benque Viejo for 18 months prior to his death. In my research on the life and character of this man, I was able to reach some one hundred people who had crossed paths with him. They witnessed to his asceticism, moral worth, and evangelical zeal.
In the obituary published in the journal of the Catholic Education Association of January 1961, he is described as “a social worker of great zeal.” Fr. Sontag’s essence and character is captured in the pictorial essay of famed US photographer Margaret-Bourke in Time-Life Magazine dated October 11, 1954, coincidentally the eve of “Papaito’s” birthdate. The priest we know as being killed in 1961 in Benque Viejo was certainly not a paedophile.
However, we may run the risk of missing the point in all of this, that is, the person of our “Papaito” and the writer’s “Papito” – whether it is the same person or not, by virtue of the extra or missing “a”. The fact is that there is an incarcerated prisoner in Belize who has been there for a long time and has completed his sentence. Given his emotional condition, his family is unable to care for him. The person of “Papaito” or “Papito” points to the failure of our system in being inclusive of the young, the sick, and the old, the most vulnerable in society who remain marginalized.
In our quest to live better lives, we have been bedeviled by greed and its lures, and have chosen progress over development at the expense of the needy. This should bring us to the realization that our society is in crisis, that the state and the economy have failed to be inclusive, and that we need to do some serious reflection with the intention of renewing our social structures and its leadership.
I wish, therefore, that what I have shared may serve to put the myth of the altar boy and the priest to rest and that it may draw us towards the healing of our memory as we seek to regain control of our destiny as Belizeans for the sake of the majority who are most in need.
David Nicolas Ruiz