A `Great Evil' -- Mystery Surrounds Slaying Of Crusading Priest Who Helped Lost Boys Of Kathmandu

KATHMANDU, Nepal - In the 27 years the Rev. Thomas Edward Gafney ministered to the lost boys of Nepal, the orphans and the addicts, he never once allowed them to celebrate his birthday.

A Jesuit from Lakewood, Ohio, Gafney had a weakness for bad puns and cheap cigarettes but other than that he was as serious as the Ten Commandments.

He also was revered, not so much as a Catholic, or even a Christian, but as a man of compassion who introduced the concept of social work into a country where cows, not people, are sacred.

He was the "Beloved One," the spiritual father of thousands and thousands of Hindus and Buddhists to whom he gave a second life, one beyond the garbage-strewn streets and the hard drugs that sour the Shangri-La image of this ancient Himalayan kingdom nestled between China and India.

Over the years, Gafney set up a network of social-service centers in Patan, the oldest city in the Kathmandu Valley, just across the Bagmati River from Kathmandu - including the country's first treatment center for drug addiction as well as its first free medical clinic.

It was a one-man operation, and the last few years Gafney looked more frail than feisty. There were bouts with skin cancer, and the local cigarettes and air pollution had him coughing like a consumptive.

He agreed with his regional superior that it might be time to plan for his retirement in heaven, and train a successor.

Gafney chose David Ekka, a young Jesuit seminarian from North Bengal, India. And Ekka decided the best way to thank his mentor was to finally celebrate his birthday.

On Nov. 28, 1997, Gafney turned 65. Ekka arranged a party at the Social Service Residence, an orphanage Gafney started with nine street boys in 1970. Now it is home to 76 boys. They didn't have money for a big cake or lots of presents. Instead, they decided to honor Gafney with a show.

But Gafney didn't want to go. Ekka argued with him.

"This is an expression of gratitude," he said. "We're thankful to God for your gift of life."

Reluctantly, Gafney agreed to attend.

After a couple of song-and-dance routines, the boys lined up and one by one presented Gafney with bouquets and garlands of flowers.

Ekka was delighted. Gafney was grim.

"This looks like my funeral," he says.

And 16 days later he was dead, assassinated as he slept Nepali-style on the floor, his head nearly severed by a single blow from a curved tribal knife known as a khukuri.

Gafney was the first murdered American and the first Catholic martyr in the world's only Hindu kingdom.

Four months later, the police have made no arrests. They are still investigating.

"It is one of those great evils," said the Rev. Jim Donnelly, who worked with Gafney in Nepal. "A good man done in for no good reason."

Looking back . . .

Gafney was a nice kid, but nobody figures he'd become a Jesuit. He grew up Catholic, the son of a cleaning supplies salesman.

He smoked. He drank. He dated. He drove a beat-up '34 Chevy. He graduated from high school and did two years pre-med at John Carroll University.

His plan was to attend medical school in St. Louis. He wanted to be a doctor.

But God wanted something else.

The plan took shape at a university retreat led by a Jesuit priest named Dismas Clark, famous for his work with ex-cons in the 1950s.

Gafney drove him to the airport afterward. As they walked through the terminal, Clark went up to a stranger, talked to him, gave him a blessing and then walked back to Gafney.

"That fellow was contemplating suicide," Clark said. "Thank God I stopped to talk to him."

It stunned Gafney.

"I wish I could be like that," he told friends later. "That I could see people who were in trouble and spend a little time helping them."

That summer, Gafney told his buddy Todd Lee that he'd been accepted. Lee figured medical school and congratulated him. But Gafney corrected him.

"The Jesuits," he said.

"It hit me like a ton of bricks," Lee admitted. "He never talked about religion. It was always doctor, doctor, doctor."

On Sept. 1, 1952, two months before his 20th birthday, Gafney entered the Society of Jesus Novitiate of the Sacred Heart outside Cincinnati.

Two years later, he took his first vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.

On mission to Nepal

It takes years of formation - study, work and prayer - to become a member of the Jesuits, the largest religious order of men in the Roman Catholic Church.

Today, there are some 20,000 Jesuits working for "God's greater glory" in 112 nations on six continents.

After the Sacred Heart Novitiate, Gafney earned a master's degree in philosophy and theology at West Baden College in Indiana.

Then, in 1959, Gafney went "on mission" to Nepal, the birthplace of Buddha, a medieval and landlocked country of majestic mountain peaks and abject poverty that had opened its borders to the world only eight years earlier. The Hindu state's constitution forbids proselytizing, so the Jesuits - invited here in 1951 by King Tribhuvan Bir Bikram Shaha Deva to establish the country's first school system - must keep a low profile. They teach and serve as witnesses to a good life.

The Jesuits opened their first school, St. Xavier's Godavari School, in a former prime minister's summer palace eight miles south of Kathmandu. Gafney spent three years here teaching English grammar and literature as well as moral science ("Do good, avoid evil"). Then he went to Kurseong, India, where he trained for the priesthood. He became a priest in 1965, in Patna, India.

Gafney completed two more years of formation work before he took his final vows as a Jesuit. On that joyful day, he returned to Nepal, where he spent the rest of the decade as an educator and administrator, first at Godavari and then at the second school the Jesuits opened in Jawalakhel, a neighborhood of Patan.

By then, Gafney was speaking fluent Nepali. The simplicity of life and the gentle nature of the country's people struck a chord in him. But he feared for their survival under the onslaught of Coca-Cola ads and red-eyed hippies.

Cheap and legal marijuana, hashish and opium made Nepal the doper destination of the '60s. Kathmandu became a magnet for street boys, runaways who fled their remote mountain villages for a better life in the big city.

They didn't find it.

Gafney grew restless. Teaching rich kids and working as a bureaucrat in the Jesuit hierarchy bored him. He wanted to get onto the street where the real problems were.

First there were nine

In 1970, his prayers were answered by two French graduate students. They spent a year in Kathmandu caring for nine street boys. It was time for them to leave.

Gafney didn't hesitate. He temporarily moved the boys into a nearby youth host mission of his fellow Jesuits until he could buy a house two doors down from the Jawalakhel School. At the new St. Xavier Social Service Residence, the nine boys became 20, and then 50, and then 80. Gafney persuaded the Jesuits to buy a farmhouse and two acres of land about three miles away in the village of Nakipot.

There he opened a second social-service center, this one for 20 boys, most of them blind. Others had tuberculosis or leprosy.

In 1972, he became a Nepali citizen and opened the third and most controversial center, the Freedom Center for "psychologically troubled, drug-abusing youth."

It was the first facility of its kind in Nepal, and it changed Gafney from a social worker into a social activist.

The king had recently outlawed drug use, and so officially there was no drug problem. This infuriated Gafney, who treated thousands of heroin addicts, first using acupuncture to detoxify them and then months, sometimes years, of counseling.

It took a decade before the first public forum was held to discuss the problem of heroin addiction. It drew quite a crowd - social workers, doctors, psychologists as well as police and government officials.

Gafney started it off with a bang.

"The people who are supplying the drugs," he said, "some of them are sitting right here in the hall with us."

This was the first time friends feared for Gafney's life.

But he didn't back down.

In 1985 the Washington Post reported on how government corruption had made Kathmandu a popular transit point for international heroin shipments. The article quoted a newsletter in which Gafney wrote that among those involved in smuggling drugs were "people claiming membership in royal intelligence and government service."

Gafney still ran the country's only drug-treatment and rehabilitation center, but that changed in the early 1990s with the introduction of a U.N.-sponsored $1 million anti-drug master plan.

Literally overnight, 45 drug treatment centers opened up. None of them ever actually treated an addict, but they got funded anyway.

"Dangling $1 million before the eyes of officials in a country like ours," Gafney wrote to the plan's administrator in Vienna, "has predictably produced a situation in which it is now virtually impossible to work effectively in the drug scene."

That caused some embarrassing questions and red faces in political circles.

But Gafney didn't care. He had watched the world transform this village kingdom into a place he hardly recognized. A meanness had emerged, a moral corruption that infuriated him.

"We all know how unconcerned the ones in power are about the well-being of those from whom they amass their fortunes," Gafney told the local Lions Club. "Good moral behavior has gone out of style. Care and concern for people, other people, has been lost in the battle to get ahead, to get wealthy."

The St. Xavier Social Service Centers celebrated their silver anniversary in 1995. Gafney and a staff of 13 Gafney-trained social workers and drug therapists - most of them street boys who grew up in his orphanage - were looking after 122 "boys" between the ages of 12 and 23.

Gafney ran the whole operation from a tidy bungalow he rented in a middle-class Patan neighborhood. From 8 to 10 a.m. every day, it was also a free medical clinic. Carpet weavers and coolies, rickshaw drivers and runaways lined up outside Gafney's door. He cleaned and bandaged their sores. He handed out aspirin. He took the sick to the hospital.

"He is a giant," said Dr. Mark Zimmerman, the American medical director of Patan Hospital.

"He is the Beloved One," said Sampurna Maskey, 33. Through Gafney's intervention, the former heroin addict had become a teacher and librarian at St. Xavier's Jawalakhel School.

Since 1970 Gafney had served as a powerful witness for the greater glory of God. The year 1995 should have been a happy time for him, but it wasn't.

The Jesuits had just discovered they were given a phony deed to the land they bought around the Nakipot farmhouse. Gafney wrote to the editors of Newsweek and the Far Eastern Economic Review, proposing they send a team of reporters to investigate "corruption in Nepal."

A year later, he was still waiting for a reply, but the land appeared lost.

In 1997, he had a letter published in the local newspaper with the headline, "Ashamed to be a Nepali!"

"We squat and wait while our fellow men trample our rights and the world moves on ahead of us," he wrote.

No sign of struggle

When Rachan Yonjan, Gafney's cook and handyman for 15 years, showed up for work at 8 a.m. on Dec. 14, 1997, and noticed the front gate ajar, he was not surprised. Maybe Gafney had an early appointment with someone who couldn't wait for regular office hours.

Yonjan, a 33-year-old Buddhist, was a member of an indigenous hill tribe. He didn't believe in a Christian God, but he knows a holy man when sees him, and Gafney was that.

Gafney took Yonjan in when he was 18 years old, fresh from his mountain village, wandering wide-eyed through the seething streets of Kathmandu.

Gafney taught him how to drive, sent him on his first plane ride and bought a house for Yonjan and his wife.

Yonjan called him "Father" because that is the role Gafney assumed in his life.

Yonjan pushed open the door to the room where Gafney slept. The priest was lying on his back on the floor, his mouth open, a gaping wound where his throat should have been. Yonjan called for help.

Nothing seemed to be missing. The computer, the fax machine, the video recorder, the CD player, even the little black-and-white TV set were all there.

There were no signs of forced entry.

Yonjan noticed two cups on the kitchen counter. Each contained a spoonful of instant coffee and sugar. It looked as if Gafney was expecting a visitor.

But who?

The Patan police arrived in force. Apparently Gafney was murdered while he slept. The police found a curved, thick-bladed knife known as a khikuri.

The superintendent asked Yonjan if he recognized it. He didn't.

They took Yonjan into custody and searched his house.

Investigation takes a turn

On Dec. 16 a funeral Mass was held. The American ambassador attended, but the absence of Nepali government officials and even one representative of the royal family seemed almost an insult.

Gafney's body was cremated as he had requested. The fire was lit by Rajendra Shrestha, who grew up in the orphanage and now runs the Freedom Center. At 37, he is the oldest of Gafney's "boys."

At first, the police told the Jesuits they believed Gafney's murder was a professional hit. Then the investigation abruptly changed direction. The police turned on Yonjan, beating him during questioning.

Then the police arrested and tortured other social-service staff members. Stories began to surface about Gafney that no one had ever heard before. Anonymous police sources were quoted in the Nepali tabloids saying Gafney was gay; that his murder was a sex date that went bad for some unknown reason, possibly robbery (136,000 rupees - about $2,300 - was missing from his office).

The allegations took the Jesuits and the foreign community by surprise. Gafney had been a prominent and outspoken social activist for almost 30 years. His reputation was impeccable.

The police had two suspects. One of them had "absconded," and the other was "under our eyes," said Deputy Superintendent Shiva Lamichhane. The man was to remain in custody until DNA tests were completed in India on a blood-stained T-shirt he was allegedly wearing. The police said there was a single killer, he met Gafney for a date, and then for some mysterious reason murdered him.

The police said they expect to make an arrest soon.

U.S. Embassy officials are monitoring the progress of the murder investigation, according to State Department sources. Although Gafney became a Nepali citizen in 1972, he did not give up his American citizenship.

Who killed Gafney?

The Jesuits and observers in the foreign community say his murder was part of a larger drug-related criminal conspiracy that has co-opted the police investigation.

"He knew dirt," the Rev. Jim Donnelly says. "He knew names. He was privy to highly explosive information."

"The general feeling is that it was drug-related and it involved people pretty high up," says the Rev. Larry Brooks.

The police deny there is any evidence of a drug-related conspiracy, or any kind of conspiracy.

The important thing is that Gafney's work continues, says the Rev. Bill Robins, who has taken over the St. Xavier Social Service Centers. Together with David Ekka, the young Jesuit in formation whom Gafney chose as his successor, Robins plans to continue to care for the orphans and the addicts.

They have turned the murder scene into a preschool for indigent kids. Gafney had paid his rent through 2000.

"It is usually hard to find an occupant for a house where someone has been murdered," says the Rev. Anthony Sharma. "God is always good."

But Gafney's first "son," Rajendra Shrestha, is still angry with God.

"Father Gafney did so many good things," Shrestha says. "But he died in that way. I ask to myself, `Where is the God?' "

And that, of course, is the biggest mystery of all.