Christian von Wernich is a big name here in Buenos Aires. People know him as the priest who participated in the torture and killing of a number of people during the Argentine military dictatorship of the 1970s.
The Roman Catholic Church runs the gamut politically between liberal progressive types, including the liberation theologists of Latin America and theologians like Hans Küng, to those on the extreme right, including the institutional Argentine church.
A military takeover on March 24, 1976 led to a reign of terror which ended only on December 10, 1983, with the debacle of the Malvinas/Falkland Islands war. Thanks to modern communications, the world remembers this time because of the images of the ‘mothers of the Plaza de Mayo’ who marched in front of the Pink House, Argentina’s White House, every Thursday at 3:30, demanding an accounting of their missing children. Officially that number is 9000, but human rights organizations, including the mothers – and now, grandmothers – put it at over 30,000. Suspected “enemies of the nation,” including teenage students, were kidnapped, held in clandestine locations where they were tortured, and ultimately thrown from planes and helicopters into the La Plata River, so there would be no record of what they experienced. The word in Spanish, “desaparecidos,” ultimately created a novelty in the English language, an intransitive past participle used as a noun – “The Disappeared.”
While this was going on, Pope John Paul II visited Argentina but refused to acknowledge all evidence of the tortures and executions, thus setting the tone which the Argentine church followed, enabling ultimately the line of defence taken by von Wernich that the real enemy of Christianity is communism, and, in the words of the realist school, any means of fighting communism was justified. Evidence is plain for anyone seeking it that people like Kissinger and Jean Kirkpatrick, to mention two fighters of communism at random, understood and supported the dictatorship nonetheless.
In Latin America, with its history of political corruption, including military dictatorships supported by virtually all modern U.S. presidents with the exception of Jimmy Carter, it is not surprising that many young people should find marxism attractive. Nor is it surprising that at least some in the institutional church, like von Wernich, would believe killing and torturing these deluded youth, as they would see them, is a necessary evil. Von Wernich is quoted as actually saying at one point that sin can be overcome by pain.
The question here is how far up this all goes. John Paul II would not have approved of torture, one assumes, but his silence over the ruthlessness of the fight against communism (if indeed that is a fair description of what was going on) stands in contrast to his outspoken criticism of similar brutality behind the Iron Curtain. And his nuncio, Pio Larghi, was seen routinely in public with the leaders of the dictatorship.
For now, though, the court, which is finishing up his deliberations today in La Plata, capital of Buenos Aires Province, is quick to insist this is not a trial of the catholic church, but of one of its priests.
Maybe not. But this priest, once found out, was whisked off by the church to a provincial parish in Chile and given a new name.
Keep tuned for details. Channel 7 in Buenos Aires is carrying the trial live. Something tells me the Papal Nuncio, who lives across the street from me at the moment, will be watching.