A Church Wrestles With Its Conscience Over ‘Dirty War’ : Argentina: Catholic hierarchy failed to oppose past abuses, critics say. Bishops promise December statement.


The infamous name of Father Christian von Wernich, a parish priest in the quiet town of Bragado, Argentina, has been in the news again lately. Von Wernich’s resurgent notoriety has to do with the torture, disappearance and murder of political prisoners under military rule in the late 1970s, when he was a police chaplain.

Many Roman Catholic priests have been criticized for their role in that period--for failing to denounce human rights violations, for condoning them, even for collaborating with the violators. Witnesses have testified that Von Wernich urged torture victims to give information to police and that he was an accomplice to the murder of three prisoners in 1977.

“That man was a collaborator in the illegal repression,” said Mona Moncalvillo, a sister of one of those prisoners. “He collaborated so that there could be killings and state terrorism.”

Yet Von Wernich, 57, has never been disciplined by the church. For more than six years, he has been giving Communion and baptizing babies at his Bragado church, about 110 miles southwest of Buenos Aires. Asked by telephone to comment on the accusations against him, he said, “I don’t give any kind of reply, any kind of clarification, any kind of denial, any kind of anything.”


Until recently, Argentina seemed almost to have forgotten Von Wernich and the church’s role during the bloody years of military repression known as the “dirty war.” But in March, a former lieutenant commander revived the issue when he confessed that he helped throw drugged political prisoners from navy airplanes into the sea in 1977. The former officer, Adolfo Scilingo, said a Catholic chaplain had lent him comfort by telling him “that it was necessary to eliminate them, that war was war.”

Similar allegations had been well documented in books, testimony and investigative reports after the dictatorship ended in 1983. But with the controversy over Scilingo’s confession, the Argentine Catholic Church has begun wrestling anew with its conscience.


The conservative church hierarchy has yet to acknowledge any institutional responsibility or take measures against priests such as Von Wernich. Human rights activists charge that the most powerful bishops are reluctant to talk about church guilt because they personally failed to stand up forcefully against brutal repression when it was occurring.


After a meeting in late April, the Conference of Argentine Bishops said it would reflect on the matter and make a statement in December. Meanwhile, the issue simmers as priests and bishops discuss what should or should not be said or done.

Some liberal members of the bishops conference, including Msgr. Justo Laguna, say the church should issue a “clear acknowledgment of our guilt.” But Laguna said in an interview that he has “no idea what will be decided, whether we will get what we want,” and his views are known to conflict with those of more conservative church officials.

The indecision is reminiscent of the late 1970s, when the bishops conference often showed more caution and prudence than moral outrage in its statements on human rights abuses.

“When they accuse us of being silent accomplices, that’s a lie,” Laguna said, citing numerous church declarations against abuses. But critics say those declarations were often tempered by conciliatory language.


Laguna acknowledged that more vigorous action by the church against the abuses of the dictatorship could have saved many lives.

“I am convinced that is certain,” he said. “At least it would have stopped the disappearances of many people. That is one of the criticisms that I accept.”

He and several other bishops have made headlines lately with similar statements, recognizing errors and advocating a fuller acknowledgment by the church. Still, the critics are far from satisfied.

Church Purge Sought


Ruben Dri, a philosopher and former priest who now is a university researcher, said the church must purge itself to atone for its role in the “dirty war.”

“There are bishops who should have to resign. They should have to, but they won’t,” Dri said.

For many human rights activists, especially leftists such as Dri, the church acted as an “accomplice to genocide.” The activists argue that leading bishops hobnobbed with military leaders, accepted the military’s arguments that harsh repression was needed to save the country from godless communism and looked the other way as security forces abducted suspected enemies. Human rights groups estimate that 30,000 people disappeared, mostly from 1976 to 1979.

Some bishops have said that they were not fully aware of the extent and brutality of the repression. But critics say that is impossible because thousands of families whose members were abducted illegally by security forces went to the church with desperate appeals for aid.


The Argentine church, traditionally conservative, was strongly influenced by “national Catholicism,” a school of thought that favored a symbiosis between church and state. At the same time, Argentine generals portrayed themselves as devout Catholics who were fighting to preserve Christian values and defeat Marxism. So, many church officials were reluctant to trigger a confrontation with the military authorities over human rights.

On the other side of the ledger, some priests and bishops risked their lives by helping victims and taking strong stands against human rights abuses. Bishop Enrique Angelelli of northwestern La Rioja province, in sharp conflict with the army there, was slain in 1976. His body was left at the scene of a staged auto crash. Nearly 20 other priests were killed or disappeared in the repression.

Recently, one of the most controversial figures has been an Italian priest named Pio Laghi. He was the papal nuncio, or envoy, in Buenos Aires in the late 1970s and then in the United States. He now is a cardinal in Rome and reportedly is a dark-horse candidate to succeed John Paul II as Pope.

Laghi worked closely with human rights organizations and met frequently with relatives of people who had disappeared. His defenders say he helped save the lives of numerous people by helping them flee the country.


But critics say Laghi was too much the diplomat, too careful not to upset relations between the Vatican and the military government. It is frequently noted that the nuncio played tennis with Adm. Emilio Massera, a member of the military junta.

Father Ruben Capitanio, a priest in the western Neuquen province who is famous for barring military officers from Mass during the “dirty war,” said Laghi should share the Argentine church’s guilt.

“He knew what was happening,” Capitanio said. “He had to choose between being a Christian or a diplomat.”

Capitanio speculated that if the Vatican and the Argentine church had forced a showdown with the government, the government would have backed off. The church should have threatened to excommunicate military commanders, to withdraw military chaplains and to request that the Vatican withdraw the nuncio, he said.


“The military government couldn’t have resisted that pressure,” he said.

Church as Accomplice

Capitanio, 47, said the church knew that the military dictatorship was “genocidal.” Yet “only three out of nearly 80 bishops assumed a firm public attitude about this,” he said. “The church was an accomplice--by omission or through indirect or direct complicity, but it was an accomplice.”

Capitanio said that the bishops conference is seriously divided on the issue, as indicated by the postponement of a statement on the issue until December. Although many progressive new bishops have joined the conference since the days of military rule, conservatives still wield considerable power.


Capitanio believes that:

* The church must tell everything it knows about the “dirty war,” reporting what it did with thousands of requests for help from victims’ families. “We have to help reconstruct the truth.”

* Priests accused of complicity in repression must acknowledge their sins. “These priests, until they make a public recognition and rectification of their actions, should not exercise their ministries,” he said.

* The system of military chaplains, which was closest to the repression and sometimes directly involved, should be terminated.


Hebe de Bonafini, president of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo--mothers whose children disappeared during military rule--said in a separate interview that such measures as Capitanio proposes are still not enough.

“What the church must do is send everyone who collaborated in the dictatorship to prison,” Bonafini said. “If not, it is a totally sick church, worse than during the Inquisition.”

Like many relatives of victims, Bonafini has unpleasant memories of contacts with the Catholic clergy. Looking for a missing son in 1977, Bonafini went to Msgr. Emilio Grasselli, who was secretary to the military vicar.

“He said: ‘Yes, your son is being held. If he didn’t do anything, you will find him,’ ” Bonafini said. “I asked what he meant. He said, ‘You know.’ He was very curt. He ended the interview when he felt like it.”


According to many people who went to Grasselli’s office, he had files on political prisoners held in a notorious clandestine torture center at the Navy Mechanics School.

“He knew where the disappeared people were,” Bonafini said. “He met with us one by one and looked in his files, and he told us what he pleased.”

Even more bitter are Moncalvillo’s memories of Von Wernich. Much of what she knows about the priest came from a commission formed after the return of civilian government to investigate past abuses. Several pages of testimony to the commission implicated Von Wernich in police abuses.



Julio Emmed, a former police officer, told the commission that Von Wernich was present when three prisoners were killed. One of the victims was Moncalvillo’s brother, Domingo.

Emmed said Von Wernich had helped convince the prisoners that they were to be sent to freedom in neighboring Uruguay. Instead, they were taken away by car to be killed, the former police officer said. He said Von Wernich was in the car and was splashed with blood when one of the victims was beaten with a pistol butt.

When the car reached its destination, the prisoners were killed.

“They stripped them, shot them, burned their clothes and burned their bodies with tires,” said Moncalvillo, summarizing the testimony she has read many times. Afterward, Emmed testified, Von Wernich told him “that we had done what was necessary, that it was a patriotic act and that God knew it was for the good of the country.”


In his own testimony to the commission, Von Wernich denied Emmed’s story. Emmed later recanted, but Moncalvillo said the ex-police officer’s original testimony, given in great detail, has the ring of truth.

Her brother has never been found. Moncalvillo and Ines Arbio, Domingo Moncalvillo’s widow, are still waiting to hear something official from the Catholic church about that case, and about many others involving priests.

“The church hasn’t even said, ‘We will investigate the persons who have been implicated,’ ” Arbio said.