This is the cover of "Woman-Killing in Juarez: Theodicy at the Border" by Father Rafael Luevano. Father Luevano, who is in residence at Holy Family Cathedral in Orange, Calif., writes about the unknown numbers of women who have disappeared or murdered on the outskirts of Ciudad Juarez in northern Mexico, on the border near El Paso, Texas. CNS

Brief news item about victims led priest to tackle issue of 'femicide'

By  Elisabeth Deffner, Catholic News Service
  • May 30, 2012

ORANGE, Calif. - Father Rafael Luevano's life was never been the same, he says, since he spotted that small story in the newspaper almost 20 years ago.

"At the breakfast table one morning back in 1993, I read the briefest of newspaper accounts reporting on the discovery of what would be merely the first of the hundreds of women's bodies that would be found in the desert on the outskirts of Ciudad Juarez in northern Mexico.

"In that instant my life changed."

Thus begins the priest's new book, "Woman-Killing in Juarez: Theodicy at the Border," published by Orbis Books in March.

A slim volume of research into the unknown numbers of women who have disappeared and been murdered on the border near El Paso, Texas, the book is no true-crime thriller, notes the priest, who is in residence at Holy Family Cathedral in Orange.

"It's about the problem of suffering, and God's relationship to that suffering -- and, particularly, innocent suffering," he said. "The problem of innocent suffering in Mexico remains a pressing problem -- as it does for all of us."

In theology, "theodicy" is the discipline that seeks to explain how the existence of evil in the world can be reconciled with God's justice and goodness.

Ordained in 1981, Father Luevano was sent to Rome for further studies after completing his first assignment, a three-year stint at St. Joachim Parish in Costa Mesa. He earned his licentiate degree at Pontifical Gregorian University and a doctorate at Nijmegen Catholic University in the Netherlands.

Upon his return to Southern California, he began to teach at St. John's Seminary College. Following a term at St. Hedwig in Los Alamitos, Bishop Tod D. Brown named Father Luevano the ecumenical and religious affairs officer for the Diocese of Orange. It was at that time that he began teaching at Chapman University, where he is also the chaplain for the Newman Catholic Fellowship.

He held a few different titles at the Orange university -- "adjunct professor" and "lecturer" -- and in March of this year he received tenure.

Going for tenure involves more than just classroom teaching; educators on that track also must conduct research, write new works and publish. "Woman-Killing in Juarez" is Father Luevano's second book. The first was "Endless Transforming Love: An Interpretation of the Mystical Doctrine of Saint John of the Cross."

When he prepared for priesthood, he "never imagined" a ministry shaped the way his is now -- but he noted that teaching is an integral part of the priesthood, whether a priest is tenured or not.

"Jesus is a teacher; that's his primary title," he said simply in an interview with the Orange County Catholic, newspaper of the Orange Diocese.

Though he recalls that his "life immediately changed" upon reading about the discovery of the bodies of several victims back in 1993, it wasn't until 2004 that he began his formal research -- which was something other than peaceful reading in library stacks.

"My family, friends, academic colleagues and brother priests all advised against such dangerous research," he writes in the preface to the book. "My bishop cautioned me three times to stop this work -- though later he would come to fully support my effort."

But Father Luevano was not deterred by potential threats to his safety. In the very first chapter, he describes a run-in with armed Mexican soldiers who wonder why he is photographing a makeshift memorial to murder victims. The situation in Juarez had captured him.

"No one really knows how long these killings have been going on," he explained.

The women who are the victims of this ongoing "femicide" have been subjected to horrific violence; many of the bodies that have been discovered were mutilated. Countless other women have simply vanished, and it is unknown whether they ran away, or were kidnapped, trafficked or murdered. The estimate of the number of women murdered since 1993 is in the hundreds. In Ciudad Juarez and its environs, the state prosecutor said 147 women were murdered last year, down by 45 percent from 2010.

Throughout the book, Father Luevano writes about -- and includes photographs of -- posters featuring missing women, asking for help locating them, as well as simple memorials to those who are known to have been killed. Sometimes a memorial cross will bear the word "Desconocida" ("Unknown") instead of a name. Remembering the missing and murdered is a ministry the survivors carry out.

Father Luevano is already working on another book, which will focus on the 50,000 people who have been killed in drug-related violence in Mexico since Calderon became president in 2006.

"It's a pressing issue ... for everyone who lives in the United States," he said, "but especially for us who live close to the border."

"Woman-Killing in Juarez: Theodicy at the Border" is available at

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