From .............National Catholic Reporter

September 20, 1996

page 14


By Horacio Verbitsky The New Press, 207 pages, $22


It was called "the dirty war'' in Argentina, indicating it was nastier than the many other wars in Latin America that in the past quarter-century pitted popular insurgents against dictators, military juntas or other repressive regimes. The liberation movements embraced various vague hues of Marxism, which caused both U.S. might and the Vatican to be mustered against them.

It focuses, once again, a tantalizing spotlight on the career of Cardinal Pio Laghi, then pro-nuncio to Argentina and later to the United States.

The author, a newspaper columnist who had written a history of the dirty war, was approached in the Buenos Aires subway one day in 1994 by a man who said he had been attached to the notorious Navy School of Mechanics, also known as ESMA. Among the more brutal atrocities said to be engineered at ESMA was taking prisoners out over the Atlantic and dropping them alive into the ocean.

Naturally this was a difficult allegation to prove in a country governed mostly by fear. But the man in the subway, Lt. Cmdr. Adolfo Francisco Scilingo, said he had participated in such dumping. The shell of silence was broken.

A man who has dumped others from planes doesn't rush to tell the world about it, even 10 years later, without good reason. The reason was politics and very complicated. Argentina's new president, Carlos Menem, forgave the top military leaders, that is, the most guilty, but not the smaller fry. This caused Scilingo to spill the political beans.

Author Verbitsky questioned Scilingo mercilessly, repeatedly rubbing his nose in his evil deeds. Step by relentless step, Scilingo tells how the killing, so organized and yet so personal, was done.

Every effort was made to bureaucratize the murders, to keep the killing clinical and impersonal:

If it was tough on the soldiers, it wasn't too great for the victims either.

Adm. Ruben Jacinto Chamorro was commander of the concentration camp where much of the torture and killings took place and a public apologist for torture as policy.

The doomed prisoners were told they were being transferred, which always cheered them up. They were given injections that turned them into zombies. They were, however, able to board the planes under their own steam.

Asked to describe the flight itself, Scilingo falters, haunted by the memories:

His interrogator humors Scilingo. They argue in circles about responsibility, logistics and such, but eventually must come back to the main event.

"There are four things that give me a very bad time," Scilingo says.

"The two flights I did, the person I saw tortured and the memory of the chains and shackles that were put on the prisoners. ..... I don't want to talk about it."

But he does. Beyond the political considerations there is the compulsion to confess. He describes how he told his wife the sordid story, a little at a time. Then a couple of friends. And, before she died, his mother.

Much of Scilingo's private trauma was triggered on the first of two murderous flights he made. In the primitive Skyvan there was no sophisticated equipment, so "we started to lower the subversives through" the open rear hatch. Scilingo slipped. "I almost fell out into empty space." The incident brought home to him, despite all the brainwashing, what was really taking place.

But, Scilingo repeatedly insists, this was no rogue operation by a few thugs. He mentions "special guests" on the second flight,

This wide knowledge of what was going on is crucial. There was a flight every Wednesday. Between 1,500 and 2,000 people were dumped, unconscious if they were lucky, into the ocean. Without a trial. For several years the government refused to provide a list of the missing, so friends and families could never be sure of their fates and come to closure.

In a country 91 percent [Roman] Catholic, the church was inevitably a key player.

A 1986 book, Witness to the Truth, by Emilio F. Mignone [Orbis], is subtitled The Complicity of Church and Dictatorship in Argentina, 1976-1983. Mignone, whose 24-year-old daughter was among the disappeared, documents a web of sordid alliances between church and government officials.

Chaplains had to tread on the trickiest of thin ice. One priest, who used to hear confessions of prisoners before they were secretly executed, was later institutionalized for psychiatric treatment, but he never publicly denounced the killings. Another told a prisoner that it was a sin to torture only if it lasted more than 48 hours.

Scilingo, feeling bad after his first dumping mission, told his tale to the chaplain:

But the major responsibility was higher up the ecclesiastical ladder. With few exceptions, the Argentine hierarchy was a clear supporter of the regime and its killing, of which it sometimes denied all knowledge, at other times defended.

Mignone is categorical:

The generals had little to worry about. Scilingo, describing the genesis of the policy of dumping prisoners in the ocean, quotes the chief of naval operation:

Laghi had the misfortune to be posted to that place at that time, 1974 to 1980. When stories began to circulate, already in 1976, of the papal nuncio's friendly relations with the generals, various people rushed to his defense, saying he had helped get some doomed prisoners out of the country. But Mignone points out that

When Verbitsky's book was published in Argentina in 1995, Laghi, then in Rome, told a radio interviewer,

Writes Verbitsky:

Laghi, every two weeks, played tennis with the commander in chief of the navy, Eduardo Massera, a member of the junta that overthrew Peron, later sentenced to life in prison but pardoned in 1990 by President Menem. Perhaps Massera never told Laghi, between sets, what was going on, but it would take one obtuse diplomat to move for any length of time in such high circles without picking up some clues.

Mignone relates an interesting story. In 1976, three Pallottine priests and two seminarians were murdered. A former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald, Robert Cox, testified at the trial that he was a neighbor and friend of Laghi; that he visited with Laghi after the murders; that Laghi was convinced they were done by the security forces; and that this was not an isolated incident. Cox claimed to remember exactly what Laghi said:

He didn't hit the general, or deny him communion, or speak out. Concludes Mignone:

There is a musty irony about his denial, 10 years later, that he and others knew what was happening, when that ploy had been long abandoned by his former colleagues and friends.

By that time, Bishop Miguel Hesayne of Patagonia was saying in an Easter message:

Even if one sets aside all consideration of what the founder, Jesus Christ, might have done, one must still ask if this turning a blind eye is in any circumstances compatible with a respected, worldwide institution like the church.

Laghi served in Washington from 1980 to 1990. He is invariably described as a charming man, but he was a no-nonsense nuncio. His was an activist approach. More than half the country's bishops bear the unmistakable Laghi imprint: vigorous theological orthodoxy and loyalty to Rome. This is an enormous impact for one man to have on a significant segment of the universal church. On his return to Rome, he was quickly rewarded with a cardinal's hat. He is said to be one of the most influential prelates in the church, though Verbitsky's claim that he "is now mentioned as a prospective pope" is probably hyperbole.

It is said Laghi feared for his life in Argentina. Perhaps it would take a hero, even martyr material, to speak out and condemn, and that's not in Rome's job description for ambassadors.

But even if one were to give him the benefit of the doubt and conclude that he was unaware of the torture and killing going on around him, one must then ask whether such an unaware man should be, these many years, such a power in the church.