Sean O'Brien | October 19, 2017
“Some days it was routine. Other days I would sit at the microfilm reader and weep,” says William Cavanaugh ’84.
In those early spring days of 1990, Cavanaugh had just returned from serving as a Holy Cross Associate in Chile and was preparing to begin his doctoral studies in theology. He was asked by Father Bill Lewers, CSC, then the director of Notre Dame’s Center for Civil and Human Rights, and Father Tim Scully, CSC, ’76, ’79M.Div., to assist with a new project.
He would help the human rights center index 84 microfilm rolls containing hundreds of thousands of pages that documented the horrific human rights violations committed by Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.
“Eight hours a day, I would read accounts of torture,” says Cavanaugh. “I remember having nightmares, maybe two times a week.” His years in Chile had left him intimately familiar with the impact of these crimes on mothers and fathers, daughters and sons. His next-door neighbor had been picked up by security forces and was never seen again. He simply disappeared. And he left behind a wife and a 1-year-old son.
It was the Vicaría de la Solidaridad, a human rights office set up by Cardinal Raúl Silva soon after Pinochet’s violent 1973 coup, that kept the records of the regime’s human rights abuse — ultimately more than 30,000 cases of disappearances, killings and torture. In meeting after meeting with the bereaved family members who would line the halls of their offices attached to the Cathedral in Santiago, the Vicaría’s meticulous documentation program helped to ensure that the wronged would not also be the forgotten.
Through an agreement between the Vicaría and the order of Holy Cross, those documents were microfilmed and smuggled by Father Lewers to South Bend for safekeeping.