Now defunct, the Christic Institute was a nonprofit law firm of radical attorneys and political activists founded in 1980 by antiwar crusader Daniel Sheehan, his wife Sara Nelson, and Jesuit priest William J. Davis. The organization embraced liberation theology, a movement promoting Marxist principles as the most effective means of fulfilling the Christian directive to aid impoverished people around the world. Viewing America as a nation rife with racism and injustice, the Institute sought to wage a campaign of “progressive political education” that would lead to “social reform in the United States.” It pursued cases that were “carefully selected for their potential to advance human rights, social justice and personal freedom -- at home and abroad.” In the Institute’s calculus, the chief obstacles to these objectives were what it deemed America’s militaristic nature, its ambitions for worldwide hegemony, and its capitalist economic structure that allegedly did great harm to the poor. The Institute’s goals were: “to represent the victims of injustice before the courts and create a factual basis for political education”; “to help citizens understand that single cases of injustice are often symptomatic of deeper threats to the freedom of every United States citizen”; and “to help grassroots activists and religious communities organize for effective political change.”
The Christic Institute first gained national prominence when it represented Karen Silkwood in a successful 1984 lawsuit against her employer, the Kerr-McGee Nuclear Power Company. In that case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Kerr-McGee was responsible for Silkwood's death from contamination by radioactive plutonium, and ordered the corporation to pay more than $1.3 million in damages to her surviving children. (The story of this case was later made into the motion picture, Silkwood.) The firm also won a civil verdict against members of the Ku Klux Klan, the American Nazi Party, and the Greensboro, North Carolina Police Department for the 1979 murder of five anti-Klan demonstrators.
The Institute’s most infamous case was brought forth in 1985, when it accused the CIA of conspiring to use drug money from the Nicaraguan Contras to fund the U.S.-backed Contras’ war against Marxist Sandinistas (whose cause was supported by the Christic Institute), and to finance the assassination of Communists around the globe. The accusations helped fuel the flames of the Iran/Contra scandal at the time. Said Jesse Jackson, “The Christic Institute has done this country a great service by investigating and exposing violations of law carried out by the Contra network.” The National Organization for Women's then-President Eleanor Smeal said, “The Christic Institute's La Penca Project calls on the American people to choose between the failed policies of covert war based on lies and violence, and a policy of peace and honesty." Humanitarian Law Project founder Aris Anagnos contributed some $600,000 to the Institute’s legal efforts in this matter. But the case was thrown out of court on grounds that it was, according to the judge, “frivolous,” and that the evidence had been fabricated. (Most of the witnesses named in the case were not real people.) The court mandated that the Institute pay some $1.5 million to cover the court costs of the CIA officials it had falsely accused, thereby forcing the Institute to declare bankruptcy.
While it was an active organization, the Christic Institute's financing was derived largely from foundations, churches, synagogues, and private citizens like Mr. Anagnos. Another notable supporter was singer Bonnie Raitt, who performed at a concert to raise funds for the Institute.
At its height, the Christic Institute employed approximately 40 legal professionals and claimed to have 70,000 supporters nationwide -- describing them as “followers of many faiths -- including Roman Catholics, Protestants, Anglicans, Unitarian Universalists, Jews, New Agers and the adherents of traditional Native American religion.”