LA PLATA, Argentina, Sept. 10 A simple wooden cross hanging from his neck, the Rev. Rubén Capitanio sat before a microphone on Monday and did what few Argentine priests before him had dared to do: condemn the Roman Catholic Church for its complicity in the atrocities committed during Argentinas dirty war.
Juan Mabromata/A.F.P. Getty Images
The attitude of the church was scandalously close to the dictatorship that killed more than 15,000 Argentines and tortured tens of thousands more, the priest told a panel of three judges here, to such an extent that I would say it was of a sinful degree. The panel is deciding the fate of the Rev. Christian von Wernich, a priest accused of conspiring with the military who has become for many a powerful symbol of the churchs role.
The church was like a mother that did not look for her children, Father Capitanio added. It did not kill anybody, but it did not save anybody, either.
Father Capitanios mea culpa came nearly a quarter century after the junta was toppled in 1983 and democracy was restored. But in some ways, it occurred at just the right time. Through the trial of Father von Wernich, Argentina is finally confronting the churchs dark past during the dirty war, when it sometimes gave its support to the military as it went after leftist opponents.
That past stands in stark contrast to the role the church played during the dictatorships in Chile and Brazil, where priests and bishops publicly condemned the governments and worked to save those being persecuted from torture and death.
Officially, the church has maintained its silence throughout the trial, even knowing weeks in advance that Father Capitanio had been compelled by the tribunal to testify. The priest said in an interview that he was not ordered by the church to testify and was not speaking on its behalf.
Father von Wernich worked as a police chaplain during the dictatorship, from 1976 to 1983. He escaped to Chile but was found in 2003 in the seaside town of El Quisco by a group of journalists and human rights advocates. He was working as a priest under the name Christian González.
Some three months of often chilling testimony in the trial illustrated how closely some Argentine priests worked with military leaders during the dirty war. Witnesses spoke about how Father von Wernich was present at torture sessions in clandestine detention centers. They said 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.
His lawyer, Juan Martin Cerolini, said Father von Wernich was a Catholic scapegoat for those who wanted to prosecute the church. The witnesses did not say that he tortured, kidnapped or murdered, Mr. Cerolini said in a recent interview. Nobody said he participated in any act of torture.
Calls to Father von Wernichs home parish were not returned.
[Testimony in the trial ended Thursday. Now a three-judge panel will read documents into the record before convening to decide Father von Wernichs fate; a decision is not expected until October. He stands accused of involvement in seven murders and 42 cases of kidnapping and torture. He faces life imprisonment if found guilty, though many expect the 69-year-old priest will be sentenced to live out his days under house arrest.]
Father von Wernich has declined to testify; he appeared only a few times during the proceedings at the request of the judges seeking clarification in other witness testimony. At those appearances, he wore a bulletproof vest and sat behind a glass screen.
There is little question that human rights advocates hope to make an example of him. Hernán Brienza, a journalist who helped find the priest in Chile and wrote a book about the case, said he believed that about 30 other Argentine priests, some already dead, could have been brought up on human rights charges for their involvement in torture. But Mr. Brienza said that if Father von Wernich was found guilty, he was likely to be the last to be tried.
Either way, Father Capitanio, a 59-year-old priest from the town of Neuquén who attended the same seminary as Father von Wernich, said he saw the trial as a noble effort. There are some who think that this trial is an attack on the church, and I want to say that this is a service to the church, he said in his final words to the tribunal. This is helping us search for the truth.
The von Wernich trial takes place as Argentinas neighbors are also continuing to unearth human rights violations from their dictatorships. In Brazil, the government of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva just last month released a 500-page report after an 11-year investigation that sought information about the cases of government opponents who were killed or disappeared by state security forces from 1961 to 1988. More than 350 people are known to have been killed.
And in Chile late last month, a court said it would put on trial a Catholic priest for his suspected involvement in the assassinations of 28 opposition figures in October 1973, at the beginning of Gen. Augusto Pinochets rule.
In Argentina, however, there was a much tighter relationship between the clergy and the military than existed in Chile or Brazil. Patriotism came to be associated with Catholicism, said Kenneth P. Serbin, a history professor at the University of San Diego who has written about the Roman Catholic Church in South America. So it was almost natural for the Argentine clergy to come to the defense of the authoritarian regime.
Those days may be over. After he finished his testimony on Monday, Father Capitanio was surrounded by a sea of elderly women from the Mothers of May Plaza, a group that has pushed successive Argentine governments for answers since the dirty war began in 1976. They wore white scarves in their hair bearing the names of family members who disappeared. Dabbing away tears, they clung to the priest, kissing him on the cheek and whispering their thanks.
Father Capitanio said that he felt that a weight had been lifted and that he was not alone. Many men and women of the church, bishops as well, have come to agree with my way of looking at the reality of the churchs role, he said. We have much to be sorry for.