Sister Dianna Ortiz, OSU: The mission of TASSC is to abolish torture wherever it occurs

After transferring to the Mount for her senior year at the Academy, Dianna returned home to New Mexico briefly before returning to Kentucky to begin her novitiate and to continue her education at Brescia College.

Her lifelong desire to teach young children became a reality when she launched her teaching career at Immaculate Conception Grade School in Hawesville, teaching first and second graders there for two years. She then taught kindergarten at Blessed Mother School in Owensboro for two years before she began her missionary work in Guatemala. The years that followed changed her life forever.

“When I was stronger and reacquainting myself with the community during the recovery process, Sister Annalita (Lancaster) walked with me on that journey,” says Sister Dianna.

Sister Alice Zachmann, SSND, now office manager and outreach director for TASSC, was director of the Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA at the time Sister Dianna was abducted. She recalls, “As soon as we learned of it, we rushed out the word concerning Sister Dianna’s abduction and ‘disappearance,’ requesting information and the release of Sister Dianna. No stone was left unturned. It was with great gratitude when the news announced her release.”

The early news releases did state that the security forces had released Sister Dianna, but as she quickly points out, she was not released…she escaped.

Sister Mary Matthias Ward was the congregational leader of the Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph at the time Sister Dianna returned to the Mount to begin her recovery. Now director of the Sacred Heart Retreat Center in Gallup, New Mexico, she has witnessed the progress of her recovery from the beginning to the present. “Sister Dianna was a fragile, broken and wounded woman when she returned from Guatemala in 1989,” she recalls. “I had the good fortune of speaking with her when she was the dinner speaker at Bishop Pelotte’s Mardi Gras Fundraiser here in Gallup in 2005. She was a strong, vibrant and confident woman who told her story to a full, quiet house, a packed group of family, friends and others from the area.”

Sister Dianna began her ministry in Washington, D.C., in 1994, doing outreach work for the Guatemalan Human Rights Commission/USA. It was while she was doing public speaking for the commission that she became aware that torture went far beyond Guatemala. “While I was doing public speaking, survivors from other countries would approach me and it was then that I realized that torture was widespread,” she says.

Sister Dianna visits with a special Ursuline friend, Sister Rose Emma Monaghan.

In 1998 the United Nations declared June 26 as U.N. International Day in support of torture victims and survivors. Sister Dianna knew of other survivors who lived in Washington, got them together and they decided to commemorate that date. Reaching out to a number of non-governmental organizations and some treatment centers, the group held a 12-hour vigil in front of the White House on June 26, 1998. “We had about 30 people there,” Sister Dianna recalls,” including six survivors.”

The group has returned each year on June 26 for the vigil, and it has grown steadily each year. Last year’s crowd was estimated at 3,000, including between 60 and 80 survivors and, as Sister Dianna points out, the survivor count could be higher. She says, “It used to be easier for survivors to obtain visas, but today many of our folks are denied visas when they attempt to come here.”

Why are the vigils held in front of the White House? Sister Dianna says, “Because we think that the people who live in that building need to know what is transpiring throughout the world and U.S. involvement in torture. We also select that particular place because we know there are a lot of visitors, people will stop and see what we are doing and will see that we are a very peaceful organization. We do not believe in violence; we’ve already been through that violence.

The first vigil in front of the White House in 1998 led to Sister Dianna’s founding of TASSC, the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition, later that year. The TASSC mission is to end the practice of torture wherever it occurs and to empower survivors, their families and communities wherever they are.