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Priest's conviction awakens old ghosts

The case in Argentina casts new light on the church's role in Latin America during the era of military regimes.

October 21, 2007|Patrick J. McDonnell | Times Staff Writer

buenos aires -- He was a Catholic priest who roamed the gulag of secret Argentine detention centers like a kind of spiritual predator.

"The life of men depends on God -- and on your collaboration," Father Christian Federico von Wernich once advised an inmate before betraying the prisoner's trust, according to testimony.

Von Wernich, 69, was sentenced to life in prison this month for crimes against humanity, the first priest convicted of human rights abuses during Latin America's era of military dictatorships and civil wars.

Testimony showed that Von Wernich worked as a police informant for Argentina's 1976-83 military government, using his role as police chaplain to garner information from detainees. He was convicted as a "coauthor" in seven murders, 42 kidnappings and 31 cases of torture.

His ghoulish case has thrown new light on the role of the Roman Catholic Church in Latin America during that turbulent time for the church and society. Leftist rebellions challenged priests and bishops caught between the church's traditionally conservative, anti-communist teachings and Vatican II dictates to engage the world.

"The church itself in Latin America was undergoing tremendous changes independent of what was happening in the political arena," said Kenneth P. Serbin, a historian at the University of San Diego, a Catholic institution.

Throughout the region, courageous priests, nuns and lay workers were often staunch advocates for human rights, frequently paying with their lives. That was true even in Argentina, where the church hierarchy enjoyed an unusually close relationship to the thuggish military.

"The army represented for the Argentine church the place where the essence of national identity was guarded," said Loris Zanatta, a professor of Latin American Studies at the University of Bologna in Italy. "There was almost a symbiotic relationship between the church and the military."

Outside Argentina, church hierarchies often earned plaudits for standing up to repression.

The most acclaimed case was that of San Salvador Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was assassinated in 1980 after imploring the armed forces to "halt the repression" during El Salvador's civil war.

Church leaders in Brazil and Chile, Argentina's largest neighbors, also spoke out against military abuses, despite initial church support for coups in both countries.

In Chile, Cardinal Raul Silva Henriquez became a symbol of opposition to the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet. The church facilitated the escape of activists whose lives were at risk.

"For many years the Catholic Church was the only force that was able to somehow constrain the brutal repression of Pinochet," said Jose Miguel Vivanco, a Chilean lawyer who heads the Americas division of Human Rights Watch. "Many Chileans are alive today thanks to the Catholic Church."

In Brazil, the world's most populous Catholic country, the church was a vehicle for political reform during the 1964-85 military dictatorship.

"In the Brazilian case, the church became one of the most important poles of opposition," Serbin said. "The case of Argentina is atypical."

Von Wernich was surely an extreme example, even in Argentina. But critics of the church say his case is illustrative of the hierarchy's collaborative stance during the "dirty war."

Von Wernich had a spotty record as a seminarian before being ordained in 1976, the year of Argentina's most recent coup. He immediately became a police chaplain, a branch of priestly service especially close to the state apparatus.

The vicar general of the Argentine army, Msgr. Victorio Bonamin, was especially outspoken in support of the brutal campaign against "subversives."

"The army is extracting the impurity from our country," Bonamin declared.

Von Wernich became the spiritual advisor of an infamous provincial police chief, Ramon Camps, who controlled a network of clandestine detention centers. By all accounts, the two were very close.

In testimony, Von Wernich was alleged to have been present during at least three murders, at one point washing blood off his hands with the executioners. He called the killings a "patriotic act" performed "in the name of God," according to sworn statements.

A former captain told authorities that Von Wernich also comforted officers on "flights of death" -- military flights from which drugged prisoners were tossed into the ocean. The priest told the officers that the flights were "for the good of the homeland," the captain stated.

Still, as Von Wernich put his man-of-the-cloth status in service to the dictatorship, other Argentine clerics and religious workers stood up to the apparatus of repression.

Among the "disappeared" in Argentina were two French nuns who aided the celebrated Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, whose crusade on behalf of missing sons and daughters helped sap support for the junta.

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