Christic Institute (CI)

Christic Institute (CI)


* Radical law firm that brought fraudulent drug-conspiracy charges against the CIA during the 1980s
* Viewed the United States as a nation rife with racism and inequity
* Defended Catholic workers who provided sanctuary to Salvadoran refugees who were in the U.S. illegally during the 1980s
* Filed charges against 28 individuals involved in the Iran-Contra Affair
* Defunct since 1992

Founded in 1980 by antiwar activist Daniel Sheehan, National Organization for Women official Sara Nelson, and Jesuit priest William J. Davis, the Christic Institute (CI) was a nonprofit, tax-exempt, public-interest law firm consisting of radical attorneys and political activists. “Grounded in the idea of social justice,” CI embraced the doctrines of liberation theology and sought to “unit[e] Christians, Jews and other religious Americans on an effective and practical platform for political change.”

CI derived its name from the writings of the Jesuit philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), who coined the term ‘Christic” to describe the spiritual energy which he believed was drawing all of creation toward an ultimate state of unity. “Christic,” explained CI, both (a) “expresses our commitment to spiritual values and their proper place in society and government,” and (b) “distinguishes us and our supporters from the pressure groups of the Religious Right, who misuse the words ‘moral’ and ‘Christian’ as banners for sectarian intolerance and ideological extremism.”

CI grew out of the famous case of Karen Silkwood, a Kerr-McGee Nuclear Power Company chemical technician who died in 1974 from contamination by radioactive plutonium. In 1977, CI’s three principal founders (Sheehan, Nelson, and Davis) filed a lawsuit against Kerr-McGee on behalf of Silkwood’s children, blaming the company for the woman’s death.

In 1979, many of the allies and architects of the Silkwood case gathered in Washington, DC to begin laying the groundwork for the establishment of the Christic Institute.[1]

Viewing the United States as a nation rife with racism and inequity, CI sought to involve itself only in “carefully selected” cases (like Silkwood) that had a large “potential to advance human rights, social justice and personal freedom—at home and abroad.” In those cases, the Institute employed a multi-faceted approach that included investigation, organizing (by grassroots activists and religious communities) for “political change,” “progressive political education,” and litigation on behalf of “the victims of injustice.” CI’s larger goal was to help Americans “understand that single cases of injustice are often symptomatic of deeper threats to the freedom of every United States citizen.”

Also in the 1980s, CI:

  • won a federal civil suit against five members of the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party for the 1979 murders of five anti-Klan demonstrators in Greensboro, North Carolina;
  • represented victims of the 1979 incident which it termed “the nuclear disaster at Three Mile Island”;
  • defended Catholic workers who provided sanctuary to Salvadoran refugees who were in the U.S. illegally;
  • filed charges against 28 individuals involved in the Iran-Contra Affair; and
  • joined the American Civil Liberties Union in helping black voters in Keysville, Georgia “win back the right to elect their town government, abolished by the town’s white minority in 1933.”

CI’s most famous case was brought forth in 1986, when the Institute claimed that “a criminal enterprise of retired military officers, former intelligence officials, and private ‘soldiers of fortune’” had allowed Colombian drug traffickers to smuggle crack cocaine from their native country to the United States through Contra-controlled bases in Central America. According to CI, that cocaine was then sold—with the full knowledge of officials in the Reagan White House, the Justice Department, and the Central Intelligence Agency—to dealers and users in mostly-black U.S. ghettos. The revenues from those sales, in turn, were allegedly used to finance the Reagan-supported Contra war against the Marxist Sandinistas in Nicaragua. These accusations by CI gained much publicity through a series of exposé articles in the San Jose Mercury-News by reporter Gary Webb.[2]

Ultimately, however, most of the witnesses whom CI named in the case turned out to be fictitious people, prompting U.S. District Court Judge James Lawrence King to dismiss the “frivolous” suit on grounds of insufficient evidence. In February 1989, King also mandated that CI pay more than $1 million to cover the legal fees of five CIA officials whom the Institute had falsely accused. Nine years after that, an Inspector General’s report cleared the CIA of complicity with the inner-city crack cocaine trade and refuted charges that CIA officials had known that their Nicaraguan allies were dealing drugs. Even journalist Gary Webb finally conceded that there was no hard evidence indicating that the CIA as an institution, or any of its agent-employees, had participated in, or profited from, the trafficking of drugs.

In her 1989 book, Legal Terrorism: The Truth About the Christic Institute, author Susan Huck claimed that the Christic Institute’s lawsuit against CIA agents had helped to advance “Soviet interests,” and that the Institute was ultimately devoted to “weakening the United States and supporting our enemies.”

In its heyday during the 1980s, CI employed approximately 40 legal professionals and boasted a network of some 70,000 supporters nationwide, including Roman Catholics, Protestants, Anglicans, Unitarian Universalists, Jews, New Agers, adherents of “traditional Native American religion,” and individuals described by the Institute as “Americans who identify with no religious faith but share our values of compassion and justice.”

Throughout the course of CI’s history, its financing was derived largely from foundations (e.g., the New World Foundation), churches, synagogues, and private citizens. Occasionally, prominent entertainers such as Bonnie Raitt or Bruce Springsteen held concerts to raise funds for the Institute. But CI was essentially bankrupt by the early 1990s, largely as a result of the enormous penalty imposed upon it by Judge King in 1989. The final blow was delivered in 1992, when the IRS, charging that the Institute’s lawsuit against intelligence officials had been politically motivated, stripped CI of its 501(c)(3) nonprofit status. At that point, the organization collapsed.

Among the more noteworthy individuals who were affiliated with CI at various times were Chip Berlet (who served the group as a paralegal) and the Rev. Joseph Lowery (who served as a formal advisor).


[1] In a trial verdict rendered that same year, Kerr-McGee was ordered to pay $10.5 million in personal injury and punitive damages to Karen Silkwood’s family. This decision was later reversed by a federal appeals court in Denver. But in 1986, with the case headed for retrial, Kerr-McGee paid $1.38 million in an out-of-court settlement. CI co-founder Daniel Sheehan later boasted that this case “established new precedent in liability law and effectively ended construction of all new nuclear power plants in the United States.”

It is noteworthy that at the time of the Silkwood settlement, Sheehan promised that he would eventually provide reporters with proof that Karen Silkwood had been killed intentionally to prevent her from going public with information she had discovered about an international plot to smuggle bomb-grade material out of nuclear fuel plants in various U.S. locations. Yet Sheehan never came forth with any evidence to that effect, nor did he ever produce even a single witness.

[2] A number of high-profile leftists confidently believed CI’s account of the foregoing events. Jesse Jackson, for one, said: “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, derided “the failed policies of [Reagan’s] covert war based on lies and violence.” And Humanitarian Law Project founder Aris Anagnos contributed some $600,000 to CI’s legal efforts against the alleged conspirators in the drug-money plot.

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