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Fr Jorge Hourton: Priest who fought for human rights in Chile


Jorge Hourton, one of the few survivors of a generation of leading Latin American Catholics unequivocally committed to social justice and the fight against the region's scandalous inequalities, died in the southern Chilean city of Temuco where, until his retirement in 2001, he had been Auxiliary Bishop.

Although he was often ignored in Chile, his words sound sharp and relevant after his death.

Born in 1926 at Saubusse, a village near the French town of Dax, he and his six siblings were taken by their parents from Depression-stricken Europe to a new life in Chile. He decided to become a priest, going to study at the Angelicum in Rome. He was ordained to the Santiago diocese in 1949, two years before his younger brother Mauricio. Both young priests threw themselves into work for the capital's poorest.

Jorge was seen as episcopal material and at the early age of 42 was ordained Auxiliary Bishop of the southern diocese of Puerto Montt. Raul Silva, Archbishop of Santiago, later Cardinal, who knew him well, appointed him his auxiliary in 1974 within months of the start of General Augusto Pinochet's reign of terror. Hourton, the immigrant's son, stood alongside Sergio Valech, son of a wealthy Levantine family and another recently appointed auxiliary. Together they backed Silva, the son of peasants, as he defied the military dictatorship and refused to be silenced on matters of human rights.

Soft-spoken and owlish behind his large spectacles, Hourton was never shy in proclaiming his view of justice. In 1977 he gathered with 20 other Latin American bishops in the Colombian capital to deliver a blast against regimes which adduced "national security" to justify West-approved campaigns of terror and the use of death squads. The document on non-violence was prepared for the 1979 meeting of Latin American bishops in Puebla. In words which resonate today the group declared that subversive acts, which he condemned, could not justify "the total suppression of many constitutional guarantees and numerous human rights and the climate of insecurity generated by measures presented as a guarantee of security".

In 1983 his former colleague Valech informed Father Ronaldo Muñoz that episcopal approval had been withdrawn from Pastoral Popular, a radical journal he was editing. Hourton, alone of the Chilean bishops, wrote a letter of support to Muñoz. His willingness to speak out on matters which others were keen to sweep under the carpet did not endear him to all his fellow bishops. Unsurprisingly, he never progressed beyond the rank of an auxiliary and his later appointment as helper to the Bishop of the remote southern city of Temuco was seen as a method of marginalising him.

Nevertheless in the 1990s his presence in Temuco allowed him to be active on behalf of the native Mapuche, Pehuenche and Huilliche people as they started to protest against their marginalisation in Chile's deeply racist society. On the 20th anniversary of the murder in 1976 of Bishop Enrique Angelelli of the Argentine city of La Rioja by the dictatorship of General Jorge Videla, Hourton attended a memorial service for him in his former diocese.

In 1998 Hourton accompanied the Lutheran bishop Helmut Frenz, who had been expelled from Chile in 1975 by Pinochet, to Madrid, where they both gave evidence to Judge Manuel García Castellón, who was seeking to bring the former dictator to justice.

Hourton was always a reformer, conscious of the gap between the church in all its formality and the ordinary worshipper. He said, "The organised pastoral activity that we bishops and priests organise gets to only a small group of people and it has little 'bite' even with them. On balance, it seems there is no proportion between the plans, committees, staff, resources and time on the one hand, and the results on the other." He was comprehensively slighted by civil and church hierarchies till his death, as exemplified by the long periods of absence of any reference to him on the website of the Catholic University of Temuco, whose rector he was for many years.

He resigned his auxiliary bishopric on 21 September 2001. Shortly before, he joined with other distinguished Chileans – such as the writer Ariel Dorfman, Roser Bru, the artist previously married to Pablo Neruda, the film maker Miguel Littin as well as church people and scholars – in a detailed criticism of a society in which, the privatisation of the cliques around the Pinochets was leading to immense concentrations of wealth which often made companies effectively independent of government. It castigated quasi-monopolies in such businesses as insurance, pension provision, the paper industry and privatised water (more than 80 per cent of Chileans have to buy water expensively from foreign suppliers). "It is false that all public-sector activity is inefficient and all private-sector activity is efficient," the document said.

Jorge Hourton, priest: born Saubusse, France 27 May 1926; ordained 1949;Auxiliary Bishop of Puerto Montt 1969-74; Auxiliary Bishop of Santiago 1974-2001; retired as Auxiliary Bishop of Temuco 2001; died Temuco, Chile 5 December 2011.