Argentine cleric becomes first priest on trial for ‘dirty war’ crimes

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – A former Argentine police chaplain became the first Catholic priest on trial for human rights violations against leftist dissidents during Argentina’s “dirty war” in the 1970s.

Father Christian von Wernich went on trial July 5 on charges of complicity in seven murders, 31 cases of torture and 42 kidnappings during Argentina’s 1976-83 dictatorship, in which an estimated 30,000 people died or disappeared.

Father von Wernich denied the charges and said his job was to provide pastoral care to police officers.

Argentine President Nestor Kirchner said priests like Father von Wernich “dishonor the church.”

Speaking at a event in La Plata, the capital of the province of Buenos Aires where the trial is taking place, Nestor said, “Today is a historic day for Argentina … because von Wernich is beginning to be judged.”

Looking serene and wearing a clerical collar, Father von Wernich was shielded by a security glass screen from the courtroom, where victims’ grandmothers and mothers who have lobbied for years for justice were seated, wearing their trademark white head scarves.

The screen was one of the heightened security measures implemented after the disappearance in September of a key witness in Argentina’s last “dirty war” trial. Julio Lopez, who is widely feared dead, went missing on the eve of the verdict in the trial of Miguel Etchecolatz, a former deputy police chief of Buenos Aires who was jailed for life.

The 126 witnesses in Father von Wernich’s case, who will be called during the twice-weekly court sessions expected to culminate in September, have been offered greater protection as a result of the Lopez disappearance.

The Argentine bishops’ conference has not commented on the case.

Witnesses accuse Father von Wernich of being involved in the organization of kidnappings and death squads. In addition, they say they saw him at two secret detention centers, where state security forces held and tortured alleged leftist opponents.

There, his role was to try to convince victims to talk during breaks in their torture. Some witnesses recalled him asking if victims had learned their lesson and urging them to talk “because God wants that.”

Father von Wernich was the personal confessor of notorious former Buenos Aires police chief Ramon Camps, who was convicted of running a string of detention centers and for scores of cases of kidnappings, torture and murder, before being freed under amnesty laws in the late 1980s.

Those laws were overturned by the Supreme Court in 2005, opening the way for a flood of trials.

Father von Wernich, who has been under arrest since 2003, said there were no detention centers at the police buildings where he was seen.

However, according to documents quoted by Argentina’s official news agency, Telam, Father von Wernich “had a conspicuous presence in the so-called Camps circuit of clandestine detention, torture and murder centers,” and exerted “psychological and moral torture.”

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.