Top Jesuit leaders from seven countries have launched an effort to make contact with a Guatemalan priest of their order who, they charge, was kidnaped and brainwashed by Guatemalan authorities and made to "confess" alleged church collaboration with leftist guerrilla movements.
The Rev. John J. O'Callaghan, president of the U.S. Jesuit Conference, announced new efforts yesterday to press Guatemalan authorities to turn over the Rev. Luis Eduardo Pellecer, 35, to any "acceptable agent of an international organization" to arrange "an impartial examination of . . . his present physical and psychological condition."
O'Callaghan said he is convinced that Pellecer has been brainwashed.
Another representative of the order said he feared Pellecer may be killed once his usefulness to the Guatemalan government is ended.
According to witnesses interviewed by Jesuit leaders, Pellecer was pulled from his car in Guatemala City on June 9, beaten unconscious and dragged away. For 113 days, repeated inquiries to the authorities yielded only the response that he was not being held by the government.
But on Sept. 30, Pellecer reappeared at a government-sponsored press conference to recite a long personal history that purported to detail his involvement in a rebel group called the Guerrilla Army of the Poor and to accuse the Jesuit order and the Latin American church generally of "conspiring in this subversive process."
Jesuits who know Pellecer and who watched the press conference, which was videotaped and shown in Guatemala and other Latin American countries, have cited a number of discrepancies in Pellecer's performance to support their contention that he was brainwashed:
* Despite the testimony of witnesses who say he was dragged from his car and beaten, Pellecer maintained in his Sept. 30 press conference statement that he staged his own kidnaping, and that he had spent the following three months with the police, whom he said he found to be "true friends and brothers." Yet the government had denied any knowledge of his whereabouts.
* In reciting his biography, Pellecer claimed four university degrees, including one in civil engineering. He has completed none of the degrees he claimed and never even studied civil engineering. He was, however, listed in the Guatemala City telephone directory as an engineer as part of an elaborate security scheme devised by his superiors outside the country.
"The Jesuits were concerned about his safety," explained the Rev. Chris Gjording of New York, who has been detailed to pursue the Pellecer case, "so he carried a beeper, and when they colleagues across the border wanted to check on him they would page 'Engineer Pellecer.' Then he would go to a phone and call them."
* Gjording and others who watched the tape of Pellecer's press conference found his performance strange. "His speech is mechanical, monotone, with few gestures, at a very fast clip. Those who know him well insist that Father Pellecer just wasn't like that," said Gjording.
Perhaps even more telling was a confrontation Pellecer had with Guatemalan bishops immediately before the press conference. "They were very angry and began shouting at him, calling him a traitor," said Gjording. Pellecer seemed to become disoriented, the Jesuit recounted, and responded by beginning his press conference statement: "My name is Luis Eduardo Pellecer Faena. I am a Jesuit priest . . . ."
No North American journalists have been permitted to question Pellecer, who remains in government custody, O'Callaghan said.
Gjording said that a dozen priests "have been killed or have disappeared" in Guatemala in the past 14 months. Last month a nun, seriously ill with cancer, was dragged from her convent and is presumed dead.
Guatemala's Army chief, Gen. Benedicto Lucas Garcia, said last month, "Many priests and monks are implicated in subversive actions."
Jesuits in Canada, Ireland, Spain, France, Mexico and Venezuela joined American leaders of the order yesterday in the appeal to the Guatemalan government to turn Pellecer over to an "impartial" group that could arrange a psychiatric evaluation.
The Jesuits were prompted to act yesterday by fears that Pellecer's life may be in danger. Pellecer's last television appearance was in late November, said Gjording, and it "was not nearly as effective as his earlier appearances."
Gjording said the Jesuits now fear that as the alleged brainwashing wears off and Pellecer is less convincing, "he will be disposed of."