- A passionate exponent of liberation theology and activist missionary
- Founded the human rights group School of the Americas Watch
- Met with and was enthralled by Hugo Chavez
- Excommunicated by the Vatican for preaching at the ordination mass of a female 'priest'
See also: School of the Americas Watch
Born in Lutcher, Louisiana in 1938, Roy Bourgeois graduated from the University of Southwestern Louisiana with a bachelor’s degree in geology. He went on to serve as a Naval Officer for four years and then entered the seminary of the Maryknoll Missionary Order, where he was ordained a Catholic priest in 1972.
A passionate exponent of liberation theology, Bourgeois spent the next five years as an activist missionary working with impoverished people in Bolivia before being arrested and forced to leave the country, which was then under the dictatorial rule of General Hugo Banzer. Bourgeois, who also served as a missionary in El Salvador during the 1970s, recalls: "It was [in Bolivia and El Salvador] that the poor became my teachers. Liberation theology is the theology of the poor. It's theirs. They name it. It's where they discover a God who does not want them to suffer."
After four American churchwomen -- two of whom were Bourgeois’ friends -- were raped and killed by Salvadoran soldiers in 1980, Bourgeois became an outspoken critic of U.S. foreign policy in Latin America.
In 1990 Bourgeois founded the human rights group School of the Americas Watch (SOAW) to protest the U.S. Army’s training of mainly Latin American military officers at the School of the Americas (SOA), which is located at the Fort Benning military base in Columbus, Georgia. (In 2000, Congress changed SOA’s official name to the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, or WHINSEC, though it is still more commonly known as SOA.)
According to Bourgeois and SOAW, SOA “has left a trail of blood and suffering in every country where its graduates have returned.” Bourgeois asserts that hundreds of SOA’s graduates have been implicated in human rights abuses, and that the school is itself responsible for the misdeeds of Latin militaries across the decades. One of SOA’s more renowned graduates was the aforementioned Hugo Banzer.
Nearly every news release from Bourgeois cites SOA’s "torture manuals," which allegedly motivated the commission of atrocities against “hundreds of thousands of Latin Americans.” But in fact, the manuals in question were old publications, left over from the 1960s, which had been available at SOA only briefly. In the roughly 1,100 pages that constituted these manuals, only two dozen mostly ambiguous phrases were deemed offensive in any way. Bending over backwards to mollify critics, the U.S. Army recalled the manuals in 1991.
Each November, SOAW holds a protest at Fort Benning to mark the anniversary of a 1989 incident in which some SOA graduates in El Salvador murdered six Jesuit priests as well as their housekeeper and her daughter. At this annual event, whose 2007 edition drew some 19,000 participants, demonstrators typically cut the gate locks and trespass onto Fort Benning. Among the notable figures who have participated in these November protests are Medea Benjamin (co-founder of Global Exchange, Code Pink, and Iraq Occupation Watch) and Kathy Kelly (Director of Voices in the Wilderness). Bourgeois and his fellow demonstrators are routinely arrested at these events. Bourgeois claims that as a result of these arrests, he has spent an aggregate sum of more than four years in U.S. federal prisons.
Bourgeois went to Venezuela in 2004 to meet with Hugo Chavez and to experience the latter's socialist revolution. Bourgeois was enthralled by what he saw. "Talking to the people and hearing their excitement—just seeing in their eyes hope and joy," he enthused to a leftwing interviewer. "They’re talking about schools, literacy programs, health care, hands-on stuff that they are involved in. And how they talk about 'their president' who has now brought them into a whole new future. You know, it is revolving around them and not around the rich. And, oh man, this is so rare!"
Bourgeois went on to complain about all the “lies” in the U.S. media about Chavez’s Venezuela. "We are not getting the right information, just as we never got the right information about El Salvador, or about Guatemala, or Bolivia, or about Chile in those days, and on and on,” he said. Calling his interview with Chavez "wonderful," Bourgeois continued: "The United States and George Bush are [trying] to do everything they can to make sure that this revolution fails. Because if it succeeds, if the poor here [in America] will get justice, if there will be a real redistribution of the resources here."
In August 2008 Bourgeois preached at the "ordination mass" of Janice Sevre-Duszynska (whom he had met during SOAW activities) at a Unitarian Universalist Church in Lexington, Kentucky. Duszynska claimed Catholic ordination through a group called "Womenpriests."
In response to Bourgeois' participation in Duszynska's ceremony, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith wrote to him in October 2008, asking that he disavow Duszynska's female ordination or face excommunication. Undaunted and unrepentant, Bourgeois reasoned: "I won't be able to say Mass in Catholic churches, but my ministry in SOA Watch and speaking at colleges and churches will continue." He likened the Roman Catholic hierarchy to corrupt Latin American militaries:
"The SOA is about men in Latin America who abuse their power in order to control the lives of others. Just as soldiers in Latin America and inmates in prison abuse their power and control others, it saddens me to see the hierarchy of our church abusing their power and causing so much suffering among women.... How can we speak out against the injustice of our country’s foreign policy in Latin America and Iraq if we are silent about the injustice of our church here at home?"
Bourgeois has assisted in the production of several documentary films, including Gods of Metal (1983), which dealt with the nuclear arms race, and School of Assassins (1995), whose title was the nickname which Bourgeois had assigned to SOA. Both films received Academy Award nominations.
In 1997 Bourgeois received the Pax Christi USA Teacher of Peace Award. In 2005 he received the Thomas Merton Award.
Since 1999, Bourgeois has traveled extensively, giving talks at universities, churches, and other venues across the United States.