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Bishops apologize, sort of, in Argentina: document skirts church role in 'dirty war.'

The Argentine episcopal conference has issued a document partially recognizing the involvement of some members of the Catholic church in the atrocities of the military's "dirty war" of the 1970s and early '80s.

The statement was issued in response to a request from John Paul II for the church throughout the world to recognize errors of the past to prepare for the new millennium. It follows two decades of silence from Argentina's bishops about church involvement with the dictatorship.

Many church leaders throughout Latin America broke their traditional ties with the region's political and military elites during the 1970s, becoming outspoken critics of state-sponsored terror. Some even created church-sponsored organizations to document human rights atrocities.

With a few exceptions, Argentina's bishops not only maintained what some have called a "criminal" silence, hut several openly defended the bloody repression of the military junta.

Analysts say the recent statement marks the first time the hierarchy has admitted complicity between members of the church and the dictatorship. But the bishops assume no institutional responsibility for the church's acceptance of the dictatorship. They also place equal responsibility for the violence on Catholics who inspired left-wing guerrillas and on those who "responded illegally" to the rebels -- a euphemism for the military regime. There is no mention of the disappearance of approximately 30,000 Argentineans, the majority of whom had no link to the guerrillas. In fact, as one observer noted, the word disappearance is absent from the text.

In a pastoral letter dated April 27 the 80 Argentine bishops said, "Without admitting the responsibilities that the church did not have in these occurrences, we should recognize that there were Catholics who justified and participated in the systematic violence as a means of 'national liberation,' to take political power and establish a new form of society, inspired in Marxist ideology, painfully carrying with them many young people." The bishops admit "there were other groups which included many sons of the church, that responded illegally to the guerrillas in an atrocious and immoral manner, and this brings shame to us all."

Enrique Dussel, one of Latin America's most prominent church historians, said the bishops are "attempting to erase with their elbows what they did with their hands." Dussel was forced to flee Argentina in 1975 after Archbishop Adolfo Servando Tortolo of Parana denounced him as a Marxist -- a move comparable to a death sentence at the time. The denunciation prompted Dussel's removal as president of the historical commission of CELAM, the Latin American bishops' council.

Church complicity

"The bishops gave total support to the process of repression," Dussel said in a May 3 phone interview from Mexico City. "There were bishops who turned in members of their own church. The institution denounced its own priests, using its secular arm to liquidate religious that made it uncomfortable. There was nothing like it in Latin America," Dussel said. He was referring to the deaths of 17 priests, nuns and seminarians, the disappearances of scores of Catholic activists and the murder of one bishop, Enrique Angelelli of La Rioja, killed in an accident staged by the military.

Argentine sociologist Fortunato Malimachi said the pastoral letter is important because it marks the first time the bishops have "characterized that epoch as a time of horror." He said the bishops "admit they could have done more for the people, for life."

These, however, are the only redeeming aspects of the document, Malimachi said, speaking from Buenos Aires. The bishops, he said, "do not assume any responsibility as leaders of the church for priests and bishops who with their words and presence legitimized torture and the physical elimination of scores of people. They never admit they committed any errors. All the wrongs are attributed to the sons of the church."

In a statement received by marry as a direct evasion of institutional responsibility, the bishops say if any members of the church endorsed acts of violence, "they acted under personal responsibility, committing grave error or sin against God, humanity and their conscience."

The prelates ask forgiveness "in solidarity with our people and with the sins of all of us."

Both Malimachi and Dussel said the bishops' equation of the activities of the political opposition with the terror imposed by the dictatorship distorts the gravity of the military's actions.

In one of the strongest statements in the document, the bishops "profoundly regret that we were not able to mitigate more the pain that was produced by this great drama." They express solidarity with "all of those who feel wounded by this" and they "sincerely lament the participation of sons of the church in the violations of human rights."

But, as Malimachi said, the document never "identifies the armed forces as the cause of the horror, nor does it mention the words military dictatorship." Also absent from the text, he added, are the words disappeared, martyr and democracy, he said.

Of 42 citations, 39 are taken from documents written by the Argentine bishops or the Vatican; only three are biblical texts. "This reveals their true mentality," Malimachi said.

'Only God knows,

The bishops recognize that sectors of Argentine society believe they should have severed relations with the government, "thinking that a rupture would have represented an efficient gesture to obtain the freedom of the detained." While they admit that "everything that was done did not impede so much terror," they back off from any regret that a rupture was not considered, saying "only God knows what would have occurred had this road been taken."

Malimachi said the bishops have lost an opportunity to regain their credibility. "They will believe they have fulfilled their mission of self-criticism. But they are not believable. Argentine society knows they distributed communion in the military school, they attended the military ceremonies, they commended the military leaders to the Virgin Mary."

The faithful, Malimachi said, "will continue voting with their feet -- leaving the church because it no longer holds any importance for them or maintaining their own religious practices."

Two bishops contacted by telephone said the document lacked substance. "During a year of discussions, there were bishops who wanted to take things further, to be more explicit about the reasons why we wanted to ask for forgiveness from God and society," said Jorge Novak, bishop of "Other bishops ... wanted to reduce the request for forgiveness to a minimum."

Novak added that the document circumvents the issue of members of the hierarchy who knew about torture. "This is insinuated, but it is not expressed directly," he said.

Miguel Esteban Hesayne, the retired bishop of Viedma, who now runs an institute for training the laity, said the document fell short of what several bishops wanted. For example, it does not ask for forgiveness from the family members of the disappeared, the majority of whom were turned away by high-ranking members of the hierarchy. "We visited with the military in their schools, we gave communion to the torturers we denounced, but we did not visit with the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. We did not exhibit prophetic gestures at the time," he said.

Human rights and progressive Catholic organizations claim Hesayne, Novak, the murdered Angelelli and the late Jaime de Nevares are the only bishops who stepped out of the silence and complicity maintained by the hierarchy.

Evel Petrini, a member of the Association of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, said the April pastoral letter is a continuation of hypocrisy by the bishops.

"They speak of examining consciences, but they do not admit guilt for anything. They speak of reconciliation, but they do not take responsibility for anything. They speak of repentance, but they do not take the blame for anything. All they do is blame other Catholics," she said.

When asked whether she was Catholic, Petrini responded, "I used to be." It was the bishops stance during the dictatorship that forced her into the ranks of the "unbelievers," she said.

Petrini's 21-year-old son, Oswaldo, an engineering student who taught catechism in poor barrios, was ripped from his bed by "horribly armed" men on July 7, 1977. Like an estimated 30,000 others, he never returned.

Petrini said even though her son was a Catholic activist,the church "closed its doors" together when she sought help. "I went to ask Bishop (Manuel) Menendez of San Martin for help. He said the diocese could not receive the Mothers (of the Plaza de Mayo) because that would be showing too much 'commitment,'" she said.

"How can they possibly justify never having used their influence to tell the world about the atrocities, the torture, the assassination? That would have been the appropriate action of denunciation. But we didn't see that from them then and we are not seeing it now," Petrini added. "Each day they get further and further away from the man they claim to represent -- Jesus Christ."

While occasional, private meetings were held, the Argentine hierarchy never officially received a delegation of relatives of the disappeared. In fact, Buenos Aires Cardinal Juan Carlos Aramburu at one point issued a ban against the celebration of Masses for the families of the disappeared. According to reports of that era in NCR, the mothers were never invited into the cathedral on the Plaza de Mayo. On one occasion, when the mothers fled the tear gas and clubs of the Argentine riot police, the cathedral doors were literally slammed shut, denying them refuge there.

The military certainly believed the church was on its side. In 1977, Gen. Roberto Viola, chief of the armed forces, described church-state relations in a secret directive: "While there has not been an active participation by the church in the process (of repression), such participation has been demonstrated through the church's acceptance and comprehension of the government's policies." He went on to say that the military could rely on the bishops' support, even though it had been necessary to carry out uncertain operations" against progressive clergy. He also said he expected church authorities to cooperate with the regime by "detecting" subversive priests.

Silence and inaction were accompanied by active complicity from many members of the hierarchy. Press reports, testimonies recorded by human rights organizations and even documents from the military and the bishops themselves reveal what Malimachi called an "inextricable connection" between the church and the actions of the dictatorship.

The 1976 coup d'etat that brought the generals to power was based on a defense of Western -Christian civilization. U[The dictatorship] could not have withstood open criticism by the bishops," wrote Argentine lawyer Emilio Mignone, in Witness to the Truth. The Complicity of Church and Dictatorship in Argentina.

But, as the account by Mignone reveals, leaders of the Argentine hierarchy not only accepted the military's justification, many publicly endorsed it. The night before the military seized power in March 1976, the generals met with Tortolo, acting military vicar and president of the bishops' conference. After the meeting, Tortolo, who is now deceased, urged Argentineans to "cooperate in a positive way" with the new government, Mignone wrote. According to Mignone, Tortolo later claimed the country was approaching a "process of purification," and he justified torture in meetings with fellow bishops.

Tortolo set the pace for the rest of the hierarchy. "What Tortolo did is important, for he was the president of the Argentine bishops' conference and of the military vicariate from 1976 to 1978," wrote Mignone, whose daughter, Monica, was disappeared at age 24 after gunmen yanked her from the family's home in Buenos Aires in 1976.

Mignone concluded: "By reason of the latter post, he should have demanded that the military under his pastoral care behave in accordance with the Ten Commandments and the values of the gospel. Obviously, he did not do so. On the contrary he helped elaborate a pseudo-theology that tried to justify genocide and torture."

According to Mignone's account, which is based on a wealth of documentation and on his personal experience searching for his daughter, Tortolo was not alone.

For example, the late Bishop Victorio Bonamin, who was pro-vicar for the army, said in a homily in September 1975, the month the military decided to take power, that "the army is expiating the impurity of our country. May not Christ someday want the armed forces to go beyond their function?"

According to Mignone's research, in November 1977, when the bishops were aware that thousands of Argentineans had been arrested, disappeared to clandestine torture camps and executed by the military, Bonamin said if he could speak with the government, he "would tell it that we must remain firm in the positions we're taking: Foreign accusations about disappearances should be ignored."

In 1976, Bonamin told a reporter from the Argentine daily La Nacion: "The antiguerrilla struggle is a struggle for the Argentine Republic, for its integrity, but for its altars as well. ... This struggle is a struggle to defend morality, human dignity, and ultimately a struggle to defend God.... Therefore, I pray for divine protection over this 'dirty war' in which we are engaged."

Despite such accounts -- published originally in Spanish and then in the United State in English -- the Argentine bishops say in their recent pastoral letter that "from the beginning of this tragedy, an attempt was made to announce, with all clarity, the gospel of justice, of peaceful social coexistence and of reconciliation." They also say "numerous documents ... provide testimony of this teaching on the need for a state of law, inviolable respect of human rights and the evil of all crimes against people or peaceful social coexistence."

The documents of the episcopal conference, the pastoral letter says, "give faithful testimony of how much we said at the time about these painful phenomena."

NCR contacted Mignone by telephone in Buenos Aires immediately following the release of the pastoral letter. He said the statement represented "a step forward from previous stances" and "the beginning of recognition" of complicity of members of the hierarchy in crimes of state terrorism.

Mignone criticized the bishops' denial of institutional responsibility and for not admitting that priests participated in torture sessions. He said he hoped the bishops would, in the future, make more explicit statements, and that their credibility rested on such gestures.

But when the reporter read aloud the bishops' statement in:paragraph 19 of how much they said about the atrocities, Mignone exploded. The rage he shared with tens of thousands of family members who had their children and husbands and mothers and fathers and wives ripped from their lives without a trace surged through the phone line.

"They never said anything Everyone knew it was the military regime that was torturing, that was killing, and all they said was, 'Killing is bad. Torture is tad. Making people disappear is bad,'" he said. "No other institution had the capacity that the episcopal conference had to impact the situation. They could have changed the course of events."
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Author:Wirpsa, Leslie
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:May 17, 1996
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