BUENOS AIRES — 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.