MAY 30, 1997

Page 2

Argentine mothers want Laghi prosecuted

By NCR Staff

A leading human rights group in Argentina, Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, has petitioned Italian authorities to prosecute Cardinal Pio Laghi for compliance with the military regime during Argentina's so-called "dirty war" against leftists during the 1970s and early 1980s.

Laghi, a highly placed Vatican official who formerly served as papal ambassador to Argentina, strongly denied complicity.

The human rights group, founded by mothers of the country's disappeared, said it had spent 20 years building its case and finds Laghi responsible for participating in the torture, murder and kidnapping of thousands of dissidents, including the executions of liberal priests.

Laghi's accusers are asking Pope John Paul II to remove the cardinal's diplomatic immunity so he can be tried.

Laghi, 75, said in a May 21 statement released by the Vatican that the assertions are "simply defamatory" and lacked substance with regard to facts, ethics or law.

Laghi served as papal ambassador to Argentina from 1974 to 1980 and as the Vatican's representative in the United States in the following decade. He now serves as head of the Vatican's Congregation for Catholic Education.

The Mothers have collected testimony from a bishop, several priests, a nun who is superior of her order and others who say they saw the cardinal at the government's secret prison and torture centers. The accusers say Laghi, who welcomed the military coup in 1976, directed an anti-communist crusade that sent "thousands of youths to their deaths."

In his statement, Laghi said he had received messages from religious leaders in Argentina and worldwide attesting to his "sensitivity and dedication" in aiding people who suffered under the military regimes. He said documentation of his work in Argentina was in the hands of the Argentine bishops and the Vatican Secretariat of State.

The Argentine government has acknowledged that at least 9,000 people "disappeared" during the "dirty war." Human rights groups say the number is at least 30,000.

Laghi has previously been accused of, and denied, complicity. In April 1995, Pagina 12, an Argentine newspaper, alleged that Laghi had participated in deaths or disappearances of citizens and had been "perfectly aware of the criminal actions" at a notorious torture site an Argentine navy school.

Five Argentine bishops supported Laghi's denial in an open letter of support.

Laghi told a radio station in Buenos Aires, "I am not going to present myself as a hero, because I surely had fear during the dictatorship. But I can say that I never shut up when I was aware of an injustice."

This story is based on information from Catholic News Service.