Argentina: Catholic Church's Role in Mass Murder, Torture

David Sangurima ( - Thu, 25 May 1995

/* --- "Argentina: Catholic Church's Role in Argentinean Deaths" -- */

** Written 11:45 AM May 24, 1995 by pacificnews in cdp:pacnews.sample **


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EDITOR'S NOTE: As Argentina grapples with the confessions of ex-military members about their involvement in its dirty wars, revelations by a Catholic priest are focusing new attention on the Church's role. PNS correspondent Uki Goni is a freelance journalist based in Buenos Aires.


BUENOS AIRES -- The Vatican Embassy here kept a secret list of thousands of people who "disappeared" during Argentina's dirty wars of the late 1970s which it failed to make public at the time and may have since destroyed, according to Church sources. The revelations have stirred heated debate about the Church's role in the kidnap, torture and murder of some 15,000 people even as the nation grapples with the confessions of ex-military members about their involvement in the killings.

Italian Cardinal Pio Laghi, who was Papal Pro-Nuncio in Buenos Aires during the military dictatorship and later served as Pro-Nuncio in the United States, confirmed last week that he knew of some 6,000 cases of people who "disappeared."

Now based in Rome, the Cardinal made his admission in an interview with an Argentinean magazine following claims by Father Federico Richards, a Catholic priest at the Church of the Holy Cross, that Pio Laghi kept one list at his office while a second was kept at the office of the Military Vicarate. Richards, a 73-year-old third generation Argentinian of Irish descent who speaks English with a thick Irish brogue, wants the church to explain why it never made the lists public and what has happened to them.

In the 1970s Father Richards was the editor of "The Southern Cross," an English-language newspaper serving the 500,000-member Irish community in Argentina. The paper published reports of the "disappearances" as they happened while the local Spanish-language press in Argentina maintained total silence.

As a member of the Passionists Order, Father Richards says he had pledged to keep alive the memory of Christ's suffering. Outside his church a sign reads: "Solidarity with the crucified of today."

Father Richards clearly recalls the two occasions when he consulted the "lists" of the Pope's ambassador and of the Argentine Catholic Church. "A niece of mine, Gloria Keogh, was kidnapped on the night of June 15, 1978, in her apartment and disappeared. She was 21 years old and a writer who a few days before had published her first book of short stories. I went with her father to seek the help of the office of Papal Nuncio Pio Laghi."

Richards discovered a macabre system at the Vatican Embassy by which Argentina's military rulers constantly updated a list of the dead and missing kept by Pio Laghi. "The Nuncio's secretary was an Irish priest, Kevin Mullen. He told us that the Vatican Embassy used to periodically send a list up to the Ministry of the Interior of people whom they knew had disappeared, requesting news or information about them." Mullen told Father Richards that according to the wording of the replies, Pio Laghi's office knew who was dead or alive.

Pio Lagahi claims his silence about the list enabled him to save the lives of several influential Argentines. But even the relatives of some of those he tried to save now condemn him for withholding information that could have prevented the disappearance of thousands of others.

Richards discovered a second list of 2,100 "disappeareds" kept by Argentine Bishop Adolfo Tortolo, Argentina's Vicar of the Armed Forces. "Bishop Tortolo, who always had an excuse for everything the military did, passed us to his secretary, Monsignor Grasselli, who showed us stacks of letters on his desk from people asking for information about their missing relatives. Grasselli's list included some 2,100 people, some with a cross by their names meaning that they had been confirmed dead."

Father Richards notes that neither the Papal Nuncio's office nor the Military Vicarate could inform him of the fate of his niece, who remains missing to this day.

In an editorial written at the time entitled "The Silence of the Bishops," Father Richards condemned the hierarchy of the Argentine Catholic Church for not speaking out against the excesses of the military government. While the editorial prompted an enraged rebuke from Argentina's Cardinal-Primate, the U.S. prelate who headed Richards' order at the time congratulated him for his bravery. Richards and members of another Irish parish active in human rights, St. Patrick's, credit their ties to the Irish orders with having prevented Argentina's hardline bishops from silencing them.

In 1976, three Pallatine priests and two seminarians were shot to death by military security forces at Saint Patrick's. The following year 12 founding members of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo (the group representing the thousands of mothers of the "disappeared") and a French nun who worked alongside them were kidnapped in the front yard of the Church of the Holy Cross, a kidnapping which was witnessed by Father Richards. Both these attacks remain unresolved by Argentina's courts.

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