By Marcela Valente
BUENOS AIRES, Oct 10 (IPS) -
The life sentence handed down to former police chaplain Christian Von Wernich, a symbol of the Argentine Catholic Church’s complicity with the 1976-1983 military dictatorship, was described Wednesday by Argentine President Nestor Kirchner as "a good example for the world." "There are still certain factions that have some power…but the verdict was an achievement in the administration of justice and is a great defeat for those sectors," said Kirchner. The spokesman for Argentina’s bishops’ conference, Father Jorge Oesterheld, said Wednesday that "we Catholics hope that Von Wernich will repent and ask for forgiveness." After a three month trial in which more than 60 witnesses testified, a court in La Plata, the capital of the province of Buenos Aires, found the 69-year-old priest guilty late Tuesday of being an accomplice to murder, torture and kidnapping. Survivors, the families of victims and members of human rights groups burst out in applause and cheers when Judge Carlos Rozanski, who presided over the court, described Von Wernich’s crimes as "crimes against humanity committed within the context of the genocide that took place between 1976 and 1983." Human rights groups estimate that some 30,000 people were forcibly disappeared during the seven-year dictatorship. The trial, which took place three decades after the crimes in question were committed, was the first against a clergyman accused of genocide, and exposed the Church hierarchy’s support for the regime’s "dirty war" against leftists, trade unionists and others deemed "subversive." Although many priests, nuns, Catholic lay workers and even bishops were among the regime’s victims, the Church hierarchy had close ties to the dictatorship. Tati Almeyda, a member of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo Founding Line, celebrated the verdict and said it also "brought to justice a Church that was an accomplice, which 30 years on has not yet acknowledged the atrocities committed." "We did not think we would live to see this," she added, visibly moved. Shortly after the ruling was handed down, the Argentine bishops’ conference said it was "pained by the participation of a priest in these extremely grave crimes, according to the sentence." "We believe that the steps taken by the justice system in clarifying these events must serve to renew the efforts of all citizens towards reconciliation, and are a call to distance ourselves not only from impunity but from hatred and rancour as well," said the statement, signed by the president of the bishops’ conference, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Buenos Aires. He also said that any Catholic who participated in the "dirty war" "did so on his own responsibility, erring and sinning gravely against God, against mankind, and against his own conscience." Von Wernich’s superior, Bishop Martín Elizalde, who has the responsibility to decide whether or not to defrock the priest, merely stated Wednesday that "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 sanctions 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." Von Wernich’s defence attorneys had argued that there was "more doubt than certainty" as to his shared responsibility in human rights violations. The priest, meanwhile, gave vague testimony that evaded the underlying question of his involvement. He said "a false witness is the devil, impregnated with malice," and that "if we want to arrive at the truth, we must do so in peace." As chaplain for the notorious Buenos Aires provincial police, headed by then police chief Ramón Camps, 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. One of his victims was journalist Jacobo Timerman, the founder of the newspaper La Opinión, which was shut down by the dictatorship. His son, Argentina’s current consul in New York, Héctor Timerman, testified that his father remembered seeing the priest standing next to Camps while he was being tortured. The former chaplain was also accused as an accomplice in the murders of seven members of the Peronist guerrilla organisation Montoneros, which was active in the 1970s. According to several witnesses, Von Wernich asked the victims’ families for money in exchange for a promise that he would get their loved ones out of the country. Families of at least three victims said they gave him 1,500 dollars. But police officer Julio Emmed told the National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons in 1984 that the chaplain personally witnessed the murder of three of the seven victims. Lawyer Marta Vedio with the Permanent Assembly for Human Rights told IPS that she was pleased with the verdict. "We were confident that the court would find Von Wernich guilty of the seven murders" for which he was convicted, she said. In the trial, Vedio represented Mercedes Molina, the daughter of Ricardo Molina and Liliana Galarza. Her father, who had been held in the provincial police investigation unit, one of the clandestine prisons visited by Von Wernich, testified in the trial. When Galarza was abducted, she was four months pregnant. She gave birth to Mercedes in captivity in 1976. The baby was baptised by Von Wernich, as he himself admitted and as the baptism certificate shows. She was then handed over to her grandparents. Survivor Luis Velazco testified during the trial 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." Velazco also said the priest told other torture victims that "pain is a way of redeeming the evil within oneself."
Expert witnesses included 1980 Nobel Peace Prize-winner Adolfo Pérez EsquivelPérez Esquivel said that on various occasions he notified the Church leadership of the atrocities that were being committed during the dictatorship, but said he never received any response. "With honourable exceptions, the Church was the accomplice of the military," he told IPS. In his book "The Silence", Argentine journalist Horacio Verbitsky revealed that in 1976, two months after the coup, the Argentine bishops’ conference met to deliberate, and a small group of bishops said they were aware of cases of kidnapping, torture and murder. But when a vote was held, only 19 bishops voted in favour of publicly speaking out against the human rights crimes while 38 opted for silence. Verbitsky, who has written other books on the ties between the Catholic Church and the regime, argued that unlike in other countries of Latin America, the Church in Argentina has traditionally identified itself with the elites. Von Wernich’s trial was the third human rights trial held this year. In 2005, the Supreme Court declared the two amnesty laws approved in the mid-1980s unconstitutional, thus allowing the prosecution of human rights violators to be reopened. In the first trial, former police officer Julio Simón was sentenced to 25 years in prison in connection with a case of forced disappearance, and in the second, former Buenos Aires police chief Miguel Etchecolatz became the first to be convicted of genocide. But during Etchecolatz’s trial last year, a former torture victim Jorge Julio López, the key witness, disappeared. President Kirchner referred to López when mentioning the lingering influence of "certain factions." (END/2007)
and former Jesuit priest Ruben Dri, a theologian and philosopher who was one of
the founders of the Third World Priests Movement in the late 1960s.