Monday, September 17, 2007

Holding the Catholic Church Responsible in Argentina

Twenty-four years after the end of Argentina's military dictatorship that killed perhaps as many as 30,000 people, at least one member of the Catholic Church is being held responsible. The trial of priest Christian von Wernick wrapped up last week (with a decision being made in the next few months). The fact that this trial was even brought forth is important, even if it could end up being the only one of its kind. Unlike in Brazil and Chile, where the Catholic Church initially supported the overthrow of the state but came to be a major campaigner for human rights (particularly in Brazil), the Church in Argentina was always far more approving of and participatory in the regime in Argentina, never coming out to condemn the absence of democracy or human rights violations. Nor have they ever really even apologized for their role in supporting the military regime in Argentina (again, in contrast to the Church in Chile and Brazil). Thus, the fact that even one priest has been brought to trial matters.

The charges against von Wernich are particularly insidious, even by military regime standards - "he extracted confessions to help the military root out perceived enemies, while at the same time offering comforting words and hope to family members searching for loved ones who had been kidnapped by the government". That he not only is charged with attending torture sessions, but then two-facedly and hypocritically consoling the families of the disappeared. His legal defense isn't exactly the strongest, either, as his lawyer claims that "The witnesses did not say that he tortured, kidnapped or murdered...Nobody said he participated in any act of torture," which of course dodges entirely the question of whether he was present at torture sessions. To my view, it doesn't matter if he wasn't personally involved in the attaching of electrodes to genitalia, violation with blunt objects, dunking under water, etc. - if he was even remotely tied to this, he should go to jail. Period.

Certainly, this trial may be the only one of its kind (as the article points out, many of the other priests whose involvement in torture has been documented have already escaped justice by dying). Yet the fact that it has forced the issue of the Church's involvement back into the public arena is important. With the likelihood of bringing any individuals from the Church to justice becoming increasingly difficult, making the Church uncomfortable and trying to force it to acknowledge its past (with the hope of preventing a repeat in the future) is one of the better things that could happen to the Catholic Church in Argentina