Argentine priest conviction puts Church in hot seat

Buenos Aires, Argentina - A Roman Catholic priest's conviction on crimes against humanity during Argentina's "dirty war" has revived demands that the Church apologize for its murky role under military rule.

The Catholic Church was quick to condemn Christian Von Wernich's involvement in kidnapping, torture and killing during the 1976-1983 dictatorship after he was found guilty at trial on Tuesday.

But human rights groups want a broader mea culpa for what they describe as the hierarchy's support for the military junta and its silence on dirty war atrocities, which contrasted with church opposition to repressive military rule in Chile and Brazil.

"The Church wants us to seek forgiveness when we commit sins. Well, I'm waiting for the Church to ask for forgiveness," said Estela de Carlotto, head of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a group that searches for babies born in detention centers during the dictatorship and given away in clandestine adoptions.

"After all the investigations into the role played by the majority of its hierarchy, the Church must go much further," said Rodolfo Mattarollo, the government's undersecretary for human rights. "There should be a recognition of their omissions and the open collaboration that existed in some cases."

Argentina's Episcopal Conference said it was pained by a priest's participation in such crimes and called for reconciliation. "This is a call to distance ourselves from impunity, but also from hate and rancor," it said.

The diocese to which Von Wernich belongs, in northern Buenos Aires province, also condemned his actions. But the bishop in the town of Nueve de Julio did not immediately revoke his right to give communion or lead mass.

"We lament that there has been so much division and hatred in our nation, which the Church neither knew how to prevent nor cure," the bishop said in a statement.

Many rights activists view such comments as doublespeak, and accuse the Church of equating the sometimes-violent leftist insurgencies of the 1970s with the dictatorship's systematic killing of leftist dissidents.


President Nestor Kirchner, a center-leftist who persuaded Congress to overturn amnesty laws protecting rights abusers from prosecution for dictatorship-era crimes, described Von Wernich's conviction to life imprisonment as a model ruling.

"It was an important day for consolidating Argentina's democracy," Kirchner said in a televised speech.

Some investigations have been reopened into the deaths and disappearances of between 11,000 and 30,000 people during the dirty war purge of dissidents, which also swept up Argentines who were not involved in politics.

Extreme leftist groups also staged violent attacks around the time of the dictatorship, planting bombs and killing business executives and police and military officers.

"Our Father Christian had to bury the victims of terrorism in police ranks and console widows and orphans ... for whom there was not one minute of silence in that courtroom," a Von Wernich supporter said in an email sent to news organizations.

Some Argentines seem ready to leave the past behind, however, 24 years after the dictatorship ended.

"It's the same difference if (the Church) asks for forgiveness or not," said Matias Pretel, a young man taking his lunch break at a park downtown. "It's in the past." (Additional reporting by Katie Paul)