Catholic Courier

Posted: October 9, 2008

Last Updated: December 17, 2009

Doctor recounts surviving imprisonment, torture in Chile

By Jennifer Burke/Catholic Courier

GENEVA -- Sheila Cassidy, a British doctor imprisoned and tortured in Chile in the 1970s, recounted her experiences in front of about 60 people Sept. 30 at Hobart and William Smith Colleges.

The Geneva presentation was one of four Cassidy gave in the Diocese of Rochester between Sept. 30 and Oct. 3. Diocesan Catholic Charities asked Cassidy to come to America and share her story in the hopes of persuading people that torture is unacceptable, said Ruth Putnam Marchetti, justice-and-peace coordinator for Catholic Charities in Livingston, Wayne and the Finger Lakes counties.

"It's against our whole Catholic concept of human dignity," she told the Catholic Courier. "We also believe that whatever we do to another human being we do to Jesus."

Cassidy's Geneva presentation was cosponsored by the colleges' Office of Intercultural Affairs and Religious Studies, and her Oct. 1 appearance at Ithaca's First Unitarian Church was presented by the Margaret Bigham Driscoll Justice and Peace Memorial Fund of Catholic Charities of Tompkins and Tioga Counties in conjunction with more than a dozen local congregations and organizations. Cassidy also spoke Oct. 2 and 3 at Nazareth College in Pittsford as part of the school's William H. Shannon Chair in Catholic Studies lecture series.

Cassidy told her audience Sept. 30 that she had been blissfully naive about politics and torture before abruptly learning much more about the subjects than she ever wanted to know.

She'd graduated from Oxford University Medical School in the 1963 and later befriended a Chilean surgeon. She decided to go to Chile to practice medicine, a year after Salvador Allende won the nation's presidential election. People had elected this socialist leader to try to bridge the wide gaps and inequalities between the upper and lower classes, but this prospect was frightening for many in the upper classes and for the United States government, Cassidy said.

Allende was overthrown and killed during a military coup on Sept. 11, 1973, when Gen. Augusto Pinochet and his oppressive regime gained control of the nation. Cassidy, who was living and working in the capital city of Santiago that day, said she saw warplanes flying overhead on their way to bomb the House of Parliament.

Thousands of Allende supporters and suspected leftists were rounded up and herded into the city's two athletic stadiums, where they were individually interrogated, tortured and often killed, Cassidy said.

In 1975 one of Cassidy's friends, a Jesuit priest, asked her to treat a political opponent of Pinochet's regime who'd been hit by a bullet while fleeing the secret police.

"He was hiding. I was rather excited. I thought it was all very dramatic stuff," Cassidy said.

Cassidy knew that if a Chilean doctor was caught treating this man, that doctor would be arrested, tortured and probably executed. The worst thing that she thought could happen to her if she were caught treating this man was that she'd be expelled from the country.

"It never occurred to me that I could be tortured," Cassidy said.

By the time Cassidy arrived with her medical equipment, another doctor had treated the man. The secret police had somehow been tipped off, however, and when she was visiting a friend the next day the police suddenly began shooting into the house.

"I had no idea they'd come for me. Then those guys broke in with their rifles and I was arrested and I remember the words, 'It's her we're looking for.' I can't tell you what a surprise that was," Cassidy said.

Cassidy was beaten, blindfolded and taken to the Villa Grimaldi detention facility, where she was stripped and tortured with electric shocks.

"It was very humiliating. They tortured me and they asked me about whether I had treated the guy and they wanted to know who had asked me to do it," she said.

When the torture finally ended Cassidy was moved into a room with several other female prisoners, who cared for her and boosted her spirits. Three days later she was put into solitary confinement at another facility, where she was terrified but prayed constantly. She clung to her faith, which she said helped her immensely.

"I think it helped me to know that I was kind of part of the prayer of the church. All the way around the world people were praying. I didn't have a sense of people praying for me, but I had a sense that I was part of that," she said.

In her first few days of imprisonment, Cassidy prayed constantly for her release, but after a few days her prayer changed.

"After a few days it came to me that a better way would be to say, 'Do what you like. I'm yours,'" she said.

Cassidy likened her prayer to writing a blank check for her life to God, and it brought her a tremendous sense of peace. When she was released from solitary confinement she spent five weeks in a prison camp with 120 other women. She was then released and allowed to return home to England, and she spent the next 18 months speaking out about the human rights violations in Chile. She later resumed her medical practice and wrote several books, including one -- The Audacity to Believe -- about her experiences in Chile.

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