Iglesia y Dictadura
Role of Vatican in Argentina's Dirty War
By Uki Goñi, 1995
The Vatican Embassy in Argentina kept a secret list of thousands of people who disappeared during Argentina's Dirty War of the late 1970s which it failed to make public at the time and which may have since been destroyed, according to recent revelations regarding the Catholic Church's poor human rights record in this country. Italian Cardinal Pio Laghi, who was Papal Pro-Nuncio in Buenos Aires during the time of the military dictatorship - and who later served as John Paul II's Pro-Nuncio in the United States - has openly admitted to the Argentine press that he had knowledge of some 6,000 cases of people who "disappeared."
After leaving Argentina, Pio Laghi became the Pope's representative in Washington D.C. for the ten years leading up to 1990. Until 1984 he was the Vatican's Apostolic Delegate in Washington. After former President Ronald Reagan established diplomatic relations with Rome that same year Pio Laghi stayed on in the U.S. as the first Apostolic Pro-Nuncio. He is now a Cardinal in Rome.
Pio Laghi's admission - in an interview published by Gente magazine in Argentina - came only after press reports in early 1995 that his own office and the Catholic Church in Argentina kept secret lists of part of the 30,000 people who are believed to have died at the hands of the dictatorship of General Jorge Rafael Videla.
Details of the Church's grizzly lists were provided by one of its own members, Father Federico "Fred" Richards, a Catholic priest of Irish descent at the Church of the Holy Cross in Buenos Aires, in an interview on 13 April 1995.
"I know of two lists kept by the Church. One was at the office of Pro-Nuncio Pio Laghi and the second at the office of the Military Vicariate. What happened to these lists? Did they burn them? Did they throw them away? Why does the Church hierarchy not bring forth the lists these dignitaries had?" asked Father Richards, who despite being a third-generation Argentine and 73 years of age still speaks fluent English with a thick Irish brogue.
Although Pio Laghi claimed that his silence enabled him to save some few lives, this help was limited only to the cases of individuals from influential families who had access to him. But some of those same influential few condemn Pio Laghi for withholding information which could have prevented the "disappearance" of thousands of other victims.
Father Richards said that Pio Laghi and Argentina's bishops received their information directly from the military repressors themselves.
During the 1970s Father Richards was editor of The Southern Cross, the newspaper of the Irish community in Argentina, a brave weekly written in English which published reports of the "disappearances" as they happened while the local Spanish-language press maintained a deadly silence. The 120-year-old newspaper is still published today for the community of Irish descendants in Argentina.
Father Richards clearly recalled 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, from her apartment in the neighborhood of Belgrano in Buenos Aires, and she '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, who was my first cousin, to seek the help of the Vatican Embassy."
Father Richards said he discovered a macabre system in place at the Vatican Embassy through which Argentina's military rulers constantly updated information regarding the dead and missing: "The Nuncio's secretary was an Irish priest, Kevin Mullen. He told us that the Vatican Embassy used to periodically, every ten or fifteen days, send a list up to the Ministry of the Interior of people it knew had disappeared, requesting news or information." Mullen told Father Richards that according to the wording of the reply Pio Laghi's office knew who was dead and who alive.
Other relatives of missing people have stated that Pio Laghi kept precise information on the fate of the "disappeared" but Father Richards was the first clergyman to go on record confirming the existence of these lists.
The failure of the Catholic Church to take decisive action to end the thousands of disappearances in the 1970s remains a thorny issue in a nation tormented by its failure to come to terms with a nightmarish past.
Father Richards said he discovered a second secret list of 2,100 missing people kept by Argentine Bishop Adolfo Tortolo, Argentina's Vicar of the Armed Forces: "From the Pro-Nuncio's office we went to the office of the Military Vicariate. At the time the Vicar-General was Bishop Tortolo, who always had an excuse for everything the military did. He was behind them with that strange maneuvering or politics that the majority of the bishops had. We passed into the office of his secretary, Monsignor Grasselli, who pointed to the stack of letters he was receiving from all over the country from people asking for help and information about their missing relatives."
Monsignor Grasselli kept a list for the Army Vicariate, Father Richard recalled. "It was a file of some 2,100 missing people. Beside the names on some of these files there was a cross, meaning that that person had been confirmed dead. Grasselli told me the case of a young boy who was serving the military draft and who planned to marry when he finished. But he disappeared while still a soldier in the Army. His sweetheart came desperately seeking information from the Military Vicar. Grasselli took all the data he could and after about ten days he called her with good news. The boy had been located and was being held in the city of La Plata. But five days afterwards he received another call from La Plata, and Grasselli had to call the girl and tell her that her future husband was confirmed dead." The priest noted that neither the Vatican Embassy nor the Military Vicariate could inform him of the fate of his niece, who still remains missing.
Father Richards belongs to the Passionist Order, founded in 1720. Its members are pledged to keep alive the memory of Christ's suffering on the cross. The first Passionists arrived in Argentina from Ireland 115 years ago, and there currently are about 30 priests from the Order locally. A large sign inside the Church of the Holy Cross in Buenos Aires pledges "solidarity with the crucified of today."
A U.S. prelate, Monsignor Theodore Folley, was the General of the Order during the years of the Argentine military dictatorship. Monsignor Folley, on a visit to Buenos Aires at that time, received a letter from Argentina's Cardinal-Primate Antonio Caggiano who was enraged by an editorial Father Richards had written titled The Silence of the Bishops in The Southern Cross. It condemned the hierarchy of the Argentine Catholic Church for not speaking out against the excesses of the military government. Folley ignored the pressure from the Cardinal and praised Father Richards for his brave work.
More recently, he received personal congratulations for his courage from Irish President Mary Robinson, who met Father Richards during an official visit she made to Buenos Aires in March this year.
Due to action on the human rights front, the two Irish parishes of Saint Patrick's and of the Holy Cross in Buenos Aires were faced with constant threats from the military. Since both churches represent Irish orders and are run by Irish and Irish-Argentine priests, Argentina's hard-line bishops were unable to silence them.
In 1976, three Pallatine priests and two seminarians were shot to death by military security forces at Saint Patrick's. The following year, two 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 at the Church of the Holy Cross, along with four other people, a kidnapping which was witnessed by Father Richards. Both these crimes remain unpunished by Argentina's courts to this day.