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[Patrick O’Neill] 83-Year Old Nun Found Guilty of Sabotage

We’re proud to host this report by Patrick O’Neill, whose writing appears in the National Catholic Reporter, the Independent Weekly, and the Raleigh News and Observer, among other places.  Patrick and his wife, Mary Rider, are co-founders of Garner’s Fr. Charlie Mulholland Catholic Worker House, an intentional Christian community that provides hospitality for men, women and children in crisis. They have 8 children.


NOTE — During a Thursday morning hearing to decide if Michael, Greg and Sr. Megan would get released pending their Sept. 23 sentencing, the judge, a George W. Bush appointee to the federal bench, was clearly struggling with his decision because it appeared that he might have “no choice” but to remand them to custody because the U.S. Attorney told him a congressional law might require him to do so because the three were found guilty of sabotage — an “act of violence” against the United States. “It is preposterous that Congress would pass a law that would not distinguish between peace protestors and terrorists,” the judge said — and off to jail they went.

Knoxville, TN – In the annals of “Plowshare” lore there was nothing like it. An 83-year old nun, Sr. Megan Rice, and two other “senior citizens” as one defense attorney called Rice and her companions, Michael Walli, 63, and Greg Boertje-Obed, 57, seemed to pass through the midst of what was considered the most secure nuclear weapons facility on the planet.

Like the “unsinkable” Titanic, the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge — aka the “Fort Knox of Uranium” — was supposed to be terrorist-proof, but it turned out to not even be pacifist-proof. Rice, a member of the Sisters of the Holy Child Jesus, only needed a cheap pair of bolt cutters, a Google map and Boertje-Obed to clear a path through the darkness and the brush to hit pay dirt. Four cut fences, a series of mal- or non-functioning sensors, good timing, a guard in a gun tower who never noticed anything and “Presto,” the trio of determined, veteran peace activists were face-to-face with a building the Department of Energy calls the Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility (HEUMF), where there’s enough weapons-grade uranium stored to end life as we know it on Planet Earth.

On May 8, a jury of 12 stern-faced jurors returned guilty verdicts on two felony counts that will likely mean lengthy federal prison sentences for the trio who claimed it was a miracle that they were able to get to the “inner sanctum” of the Y-12 plant where they used blood, spray paint, hammers and crime-scene tape to “transform” the HEUMF. A sentencing date of  September 23   has been set for the three.

Even though the damage was largely symbolic – vandalism was a descriptive term used at times during the group’s three-day trial – the government came down hard, charging the three with intentionally and willfully harming “the national defense of the United States,” a sabotage charge that carries a 20-year maximum prison sentence. They also were charged with “depredation” (to plunder, lay to waste or to prey upon) of government property, a 10-year felony. Sentencing guidelines will likely keep the defendants’ actual prison terms at less than five years, but still formidable for Rice, who has a heart condition.

The trial produced plenty of fascinating twists and turns as witnesses for the government explained in great detail how Y-12’s security was compromised, leading to a 15-day shut down of the plant primarily to evaluate the security failures. While many outside observers — and at least one Congressman — appreciated the fact that the anti-nuclear activists exposed major security flaws at the site, the jury showed no gratitude, returning with a “guilty on all counts” verdict after just 2.5 hours of deliberation.

“The security at Y-12 has never been stronger,” the head of operations testified during the trial, but Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeff Theodore, a Catholic, wasn’t giving any of the credit to Rice, Walli and Boertje-Obed, telling the jury in his closing argument that that would be like saying: “I broke into your house, but it’s your fault because your security wasn’t good enough.”

Defense lawyers Bill Quigley and Francis Lloyd and Boertje-Obed, who represented himself, did their best to convince the jury that none of the defendants “intended” to compromise national security with their protest, but the message didn’t stick. The trio actually turned down a plea deal that would have spared them the sabotage charge, which might have also spared them years in prison because the depredation charge has much less-severe sentencing guidelines.

Yet, at no time during the days leading up to the trial or during the trial did any of the defendants appear concerned about their plights, smiling and sharing lots of intimate time with their more than 100 friends who came from throughout the nation to attend the trial.

“I was born in 1930 in the depths of the Depression,” Rice said told jurors during her testimony. She told the story of a neighbor — who she later found out was a scientist working on the Manhattan Project — who went to work each day, but never revealed to his family what he did at work, a story similar to the last 70 years in Oak Ridge, which claims as a moniker: “The Secret City.”

“He was doing something there that he could not that tell his wife or family about,” Rice said. “That was stunning to us.”

Rice said the three “prayed together many months” as they prepared for their Y-12 action. “We were filled with love for and compassion for the people who had to work at this very dangerous facility.”

In his testimony, Steven Erhart, a senior Y-12 official, ate some crow for the security beach and other failures, but he also gave his personal opinion regarding Y-12’s role in the world, saying it was the atom bombs dropped on Japan that ended World War II, and that the U.S. nuclear arsenal deterred “rogue states” from aggression. “Without Y-12 we don’t have a nuclear weapon,” Erhart said, noting that Y-12 workers were responsible for what’s known as the “secondary function” in production that is vital for the detonation of a nuclear weapon.

When asked by Quigley if the July 28, 2012 “event” — a reference to the surprise visit Rice, Walli and Boertje-Obed paid to Y-12 — represented what one report called “a security culture of complacency,” Erhart, who is an electrical engineer, replied: “A better term would be a normalization of the deviation from the optimum.”

Still, Erhart boldly stated that the new and improved “Y-12 plant is well-equipted  to deter any threat thrown its way.”

Walli, who at various times referred to himself as homeless, a mystic, a missionary and a “garlic farmer” in the garden he toils in at the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker House in Washington D.C., offered the most colorful testimony of the trial.

When he took the witness stand to testify on the Wednesday, Walli was asked to do a mic-check: “Testing, testing, testing, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John,” he said.

“I’m Catholic and I know that Jesus Christ and the Blessed Mother do not have an arsenal of any kind,” said Walli, who is a Vietnam-era Army combat veteran. “I was employed as a terrorist for the United States Government,” he said. “Since Dorothy Day, the great prophet” and Martin Luther KIng Jr. both “condemned nuclear weapons,” Wallli said he was merely following in their footsteps by acting at “the criminal site Y-12.”

On the witness stand, Boertje-Obed, who also served in the U.S. Army, said the fact that the trio made it to the HEUMF building “was very clearly a miracle. There’s no other way that I could explain it.”

Boertje-Obed said he, Walli and Rice “worked real hard at attempting to be nonviolent,” and that the Y-12 workers “are acting in blindness, and our role is to help them come out of the way of death.”

The three, who call themselves the “Transform Now Plowshares,” have followed in a long line of “Plowshare actions,” which usually involve some form of symbolic-yet-real damage to weapons systems. The first Plowshare action was carried out on Sept 8, 1980 at a General Electric nuclear weapons facility in King of Prussia, PA. The late Philip Berrigan, and his brother, Fr. Daniel Berrigan SJ, were among the 8 defendants in that inaugural action. More than 100 actions have happened since, many of them conducted throughout Europe, but with far less-severe prison sentences.

While the defendants’ deeply spiritual testimony was moving to their supporters, few others in the courtroom seemed to grasp it. Assistant U.S. Attorney Melissa Kirby, who identified herself to Rice as Catholic, asked the nun during cross examination why, as a courtesy, she had not notified the local bishop of her plans to engage in the Y-12 protest. Kirby also asked Rice if the late Columbia University economist Seymore Melman, whom Rice had mentioned in her testimony, was a socialist.

On the other side, Fr. Bill Bechsel, SJ, who came to the trial from Tacoma, WA, said he was inspired by the actions of the three. The 85-year-old priest, who was involved in a Plowshare action of his own in 2009, said he has spent close to three years in jail, prison or under house arrest for civil disobedience.

“We are the ones we have been waiting for,” Bechsel said, quoting author Alice Walker. “I believe that, and so the kingdom begins to happen by our actions, by what we’re doing. I have the utmost hope that – I don’t know when that’s going to happen — but that it will happen.”

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