October 10, 2007

Argentine Priest Receives Life Sentence in ‘Dirty War’ Killings

RIO DE JANEIRO, Oct. 9 — An Argentine tribunal sentenced a Roman Catholic priest to life in prison on Tuesday for conspiring with the military in murders and kidnapping during the country’s “dirty war” against leftist opponents, in a case that has become for many a powerful symbol of the church’s complicity with the former regime.

The Rev. Christian von Wernich, who worked as a police chaplain during the military dictatorship, was found guilty of involvement in seven murders, 31 cases of torture and 42 kidnappings. He is the first Catholic priest prosecuted in connection with human rights violations in Argentina, where at least 12,000 people were killed during the military regime from 1976 to 1983.

Seconds after the sentence was read, hundreds of protesters cheered and fireworks were shot off outside the courthouse in La Plata, about 50 miles from Buenos Aires. Father von Wernich, who wore a bulletproof vest in court, clasped his hands and frowned.

Nearly a quarter of a century after the junta was toppled in 1983 and democracy was restored, the trial of Father von Wernich has forced Argentina to confront the church’s dark past during the dirty war. It illustrated how closely some Argentine priests, who had strongly aligned themselves with the power of the military, worked with the regime’s leaders.

Over several months of often chilling testimony during the trial, witnesses spoke about how Father von Wernich was present at torture sessions in clandestine detention centers. They said he extracted confessions to help the military root out perceived enemies, while at the same time offering comforting words and hope to family members searching for loved ones who had been kidnapped by the government.

His lawyer, Juan Martín Cerolini, maintained that Father von Wernich had been made a “Catholic scapegoat” for those who wanted to prosecute the church. Father von Wernich fled Argentina for Chile but was found in 2003 in the seaside town of El Quisco by a group of journalists and human rights advocates. He was working as a priest under the name Christian González.

Argentina’s past stands in stark contrast to the role the church played during the dictatorships in Chile and Brazil, where priests and bishops publicly condemned the governments and worked to save those being persecuted from torture and death.

Graham Bowley contributed reporting from New York.