The Daily Telegraph

SECTION: International

May 22, 1997


By Bruce Johnston in Rome

THE Pope's envoy to Argentina during the years of the former military regime has been accused of playing an active role in the country's "dirty war", in which thousands were killed, tortured, or disappeared.

Cardinal Pio Laghi, a prominent Vatican figure often tipped as a potential future pope, has been implicated by a leading Argentinian human rights group, the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo. The Mothers charge that, while he was Papal Nuncio from 1974-80, Cardinal Laghi welcomed the advent of the military regime. They claim that he had intimate knowledge of the torture, extermination and disappearance of political opponents of the repressive military junta, and that he knew of, and visited, prison camps.

They also allege that he collaborated closely with the dictatorship, including giving advice on the "most Christian and compassionate way" to put people to death; hiding evidence of the true dimensions of the "dirty war"; and allowing the execution or deportation of liberal nuns and priests.

The Mothers, named after the Buenos Aires square where they first marched 20 years ago to demand news of their missing children, or desaparecidos, have now lodged a formal complaint with Italy's Justice Ministry. In addition, they met the Pope's private secretary earlier this week to press their case for the cardinal's immunity as a diplomat and Vatican citizen to be removed, so that he may be prosecuted.

Cardinal Laghi, 75 yesterday, holds an important Vatican post overseeing Church schooling worldwide. He has dismissed the charges as "defamatory and without foundation". He blamed the allegations on the "malice" of the Mothers and said: "They have no proof. Nothing."

Later, in a statement, the cardinal said that he had "an infinite number of solidarity statements" praising his actions in Argentina and "my great sensitivity toward the many suffering people I have met" as a papal ambassador.

But Hebe de Bonafini, the Mothers' president, and Sergio Shoklender, a lawyer acting for the group, said that their claims were backed by 20 witnesses. Among them are several priests, a mother superior, and Mgr Miguel Esteban Hesayne, the Bishop of Azul in Buenos Aires province. Two people say they saw Cardinal Laghi at the government's secret prisons and torture centres. "If he is an honest man, the cardinal should ask for his own immunity to be lifted," Ms de Bonafini said.

Cardinal Laghi, who was also the Pope's emissary to Washington, is now the Vatican's Prefect of the Congregation of Catholic Education, which is in charge of seminaries, schools and Roman Catholic universities around the world. He is also the Patron of the Knights of Malta.

An Americophile, he is a common sight on the tennis courts used by American clergy in Rome. He is a close friend of ex- President Bush. During the military regime in Argentina, he was close to, and frequently played tennis with, Admiral Emilio Massera, a member of the junta.