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BUENOS AIRES, Feb 1 2010 (IPS) - More than two years after he was sentenced to life in prison for crimes against humanity committed during the 1976-1983 dictatorship in Argentina, former police chaplain Christian von Wernich has not been penalised by the Catholic Church.
IPS found out that the 71-year-old priest even celebrates mass in prison.
Von Wernich was sentenced on Oct. 9, 2007 by a court in the city of La Plata, 57 km southeast of Buenos Aires, as an accomplice in the murders of seven members of the Peronist guerrilla organisation Montoneros, which was active in the 1970s, 31 cases of torture, and 42 cases of deprivation of freedom during Argentina’s dirty war.
According to human rights groups, 30,000 people fell victim to forced disappearance during the military dictatorship.
The Cámara de Casación, Argentina’s highest criminal appeals court, upheld von Wernich’s sentence in 2009.
As chaplain for the notorious Buenos Aires provincial police, von Wernich held the rank of inspector and frequently visited the regime’s secret torture camps, encouraging political prisoners to provide information in order to avoid being tortured.
“There will definitely be a penalty,” the source predicted, although he said what form it would take would depend on von Wernich’s superior, Bishop Martín Elizalde of the Nueve de Julio diocese.
Priests involved in progressive ecclesial base communities, which follow liberation theology, at the other end of the spectrum from von Wernich’s far-right views, preferred not to comment on the case.
Von Wernich’s parishioners in Marcos Paz are a unique lot. The priest shares the prison with dozens of former torturers, including high profile participants in the dirty war like ex-Navy Captain Alfredo Astiz, also known as the Blond Angel of Death, and former Navy Captain Jorge Acosta, alias “The Tiger”, who was head of intelligence at the Naval Mechanics School (ESMA), the regime’s most notorious torture centre.
Other fellow inmates are former police chiefs Luis Abelardo Patti and Miguel Ángel Etchecolatz.
Von Wernich had dropped out of sight for seven years after he was relocated to Chile in 1996, where he served as a parish priest in the city of Valparaíso, under a false name.
But although an arrest warrant was out for him, he was not captured until 2003, after he was tracked down by investigators and extradited to Argentina when Congress struck down the amnesty laws that put an end to prosecutions of human rights abusers in the mid- to late 1980s and human rights cases were reopened.
In the trial held in 2007, the witnesses testifying against him included 41 torture survivors.
One of them, Luis Velazco, testified that when one desperate torture victim begged the priest “Father, please, I don’t want to die,” von Wernich responded “Son, the lives of the men who are here depend on the will of God and the cooperation that you can offer. If you want to stay alive, you know what you have to do.”
Since Argentina’s return to democracy in 1983, the position taken by the Church with regard to the accusations against Von Wernich was that it was up to the courts to decide.
And when the sentence was handed down, the only reaction was a brief statement from Bishop Elizalde saying “we are praying for him, for God to assist him and to grant him the necessary grace to comprehend and repair the damages caused.”
The statement, which made no mention of penalties for the priest, apologised for the fact that “a priest, by action or omission, was so far from the requirements of the mission commended to him.”
The bishop also said that “at the appropriate time von Wernich’s situation will have to be resolved in accordance with canonical law.” He never again referred to the issue in public.
When the sentence was handed down, Father Guillermo Marcó, who was spokesman for conservative Buenos Aires Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio at the time, said it was a case of political manipulation by the court in La Plata.
Marcó also accused the government of then-president Néstor Kirchner (2003-2007), of the centre-left faction of the governing Justicialista (Peronist) Party, of being involved in the manipulation.
In Marcó’s view, which was taken by analysts as a reflection of the Catholic Church hierarchy’s stance, von Wernich “deserved to be tried,” but the sentence was used to “undermine the Church’s image.”
During the dictatorship, most of the Church’s leadership had a close relationship with the regime, which they publicly supported.
However, hundreds of church activists, along with around 30 members of the clergy and 60 lay leaders, were murdered or forcibly disappeared, like bishops Enrique Angelelli and Carlos Ponce de León, and three priests and two seminarians who were killed in the San Patricio church in Buenos Aires.
Church leaders have only issued a few demands for justice for their murders.
“The great majority of the bishops believe von Wernich has not committed any crime,” Fortunato Mallimaci, a researcher on the sociological history of Catholicism at the public National Council for Scientific and Technological Research (CONICET), told IPS.
In their view, he said, von Wernich merely “fulfilled his role as a priest, which at that time was to support the military during a terrible time caused by the attack by Marxist subversives.”
Mallimaci, who is also a professor at the University of Buenos Aires, said the close ties between the Church and the armed forces are due to historical factors.
“Since the country’s independence, Church leaders have seen themselves as a pillar of support for the fatherland and the nation, above and beyond political parties.”
In keeping with that view, “the official stance of the enormous majority of Argentina’s bishops is that the trials (for crimes against humanity) should be stopped,” said the analyst.
The concept of “complete memory” supported by Cardinal Bergoglio “runs along these lines: reconciliation must be brought about in Argentine society by acknowledging that crimes were committed on both sides,” said Mallimaci.
In the cardinal’s view, he explained, “if only one side is going to be tried, that is because the country is now ruled by a government of the Montoneros” leftwing guerrillas, which the far right insists on associating with President Cristina Fernández and her predecessor and husband Néstor Kirchner.
Bergoglio was criticised for his behaviour during the dictatorship by different religious orders, including the Society of Jesus (Jesuits), to which he belongs.
Since the return to democracy, the cardinal has protested against “impunity” and “revanchism” or political retaliation against the military’s performance during the dictatorship, and has sent friendly messages to far-right organisations that say the dictatorship’s state terrorism was needed to combat “Marxist” guerrillas.
Mallimaci said the position taken by the bishops’ conference is in line with the Vatican’s conservative stance on issues like artificial birth control, which it says runs counter to “natural law”, and homosexuality, which it calls a “deviation.”
A bill on same sex marriage and adoption by same sex couples that has the support of the government will create further tension between the Church and the Fernández administration, he said.
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