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Priest guilty of Argentine abuses

Times Staff Writer

A Roman Catholic priest accused of collaborating with the Argentine military dictatorship more than two decades ago was convicted Tuesday of crimes against humanity and sentenced to life in prison.

The case of Christian Federico von Wernich, 69, a former police chaplain, had become a rallying cry among human rights activists who said it was the first time the church’s alleged complicity with the junta had been addressed in court.

Hundreds of spectators inside the courtroom and thousands more who gathered in a steady rain on the streets outside burst into cheers as the nationally televised case reached its conclusion.

“This is a historic decision,” Argentina’s Secretary of Human Rights Eduardo Duhalde told reporters outside the courtroom in La Plata, 35 miles south of the capital. “It is a just condemnation for the crimes committed.”

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Von Wernich was accused of passing on to authorities sensitive information gleaned from prisoners and others who trusted him as a priest. He also was the confessor of a provincial police chief who was notorious for overseeing the arrest, torture and killing of suspects considered “subversive.”

The prosecution said Von Wernich abused his clerical status by offering spiritual comfort to prisoners, then informing on them to the police. The prisoners later were tortured and killed.

The prosecution accused the priest of complicity in seven murders, 42 kidnappings and 31 cases of torture.

At least one witness in the three-month trial testified that the priest was present during torture sessions.

A three-judge panel found Von Wernich guilty of crimes against humanity in connection with what it called a genocide committed during the dictatorship.

Official figures indicate that about 11,000 people were killed or “disappeared” during the military regime’s rule, from 1976 to 1983, but human rights activists say the number is closer to 30,000.

Wearing a bulletproof vest and his priest’s collar as he sat in the courtroom, Von Wernich turned briefly to his lawyer as the verdict was read, jotted a few notes and was quickly escorted out by police.

Earlier, the priest denied the charges in a rambling statement, accusing witnesses of fabricating testimony.

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“False witness is the devil, because it is filled with malice,” Von Wernich declared. “In 2,000 years of history, no priest of the Roman Catholic Apostolic Church has violated the sacraments.”

The sensational case has thrown a spotlight on the role of the church during dictatorships in Latin America, which is overwhelmingly Roman Catholic.

Although scores of priests were killed in Argentina and elsewhere as suspected leftists, some priests and church authorities were accused of abetting military governments.

In a statement after the priest’s conviction, a church official here declared that it was “moved by the pain caused by the participation of a priest in grave crimes,” as found in the verdict.

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“We believe that the steps that justice takes in the clarifying of these deeds should serve to bolster the efforts of all citizens on the road to reconciliation and as a call to leave behind impunity as well as hate and rancor,” the church said in a statement from the office of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, the archbishop of Buenos Aires.

Whether Von Wernich would remain a priest was unclear.

Argentina’s left-leaning government has aggressively pursued former military and police officials implicated in the dictatorship’s so-called dirty war against what it called communist subversion.

But the prosecutions remain a divisive issue in Argentina, pitting human rights activists and relatives of victims against former officers and their families, who say they are being persecuted.

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patrick.mcdonnell @latimes.com

Andres D’Alessandro of The Times’ Buenos Aires Bureau contributed to this report.


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