Argentine court convicts priest of complicity in 'dirty war' deaths

BUENOS AIRES — More than two decades after the end of Argentina's dirty war, an Argentine federal court on Tuesday convicted a Catholic priest of participating in a series of crimes that it said were "akin to genocide."

A panel of three federal judges sentenced Christian von Wernich, 69, to life imprisonment after finding him guilty of direct participation in seven murders and direct or indirect involvement in 42 cases of kidnapping and torture.

Von Wernich had been chaplain to the Buenos Aires provincial police, which ran numerous torture centers in the province. He'd been detained since 2003 after being found in a Chilean parish by a team of Argentine and Chilean investigative journalists.

Human rights groups estimate that the 1976-83 Argentine military dictatorship was responsible for the deaths of 10,000 to 30,000 people during the dirty war.

Chief Judge Carlos Rozanski slowly read the names of the victims before a packed courtroom in La Plata, southeast of Buenos Aires, and was interrupted by cheers from members of the Madres (mothers) de Plaza del Mayo, a rights group. The mothers, who dressed in black and had maintained a vigil for the country's disappeared during Argentina's darkest years, raised their white scarves over their heads as they cheered.

When the sentence was read, von Wernich stood impassively without saying a word. Earlier in the day, he made a rare appearance in court, in his preferred bulletproof vest, and maintained his innocence. "False testimony is the devil. It is filled with malice," he told the court. Von Wernich has long claimed that he was simply fulfilling his priestly duties.

His attorneys treated the trial as a sham, producing no witnesses and offering only minimal cross-examination. But a spokesman for the Argentine Bishops Conference, Father Jorge Oesterheld, said it was "very probable" that the bishops will issue an imminent statement expressing respect for the verdict. Until now, the Argentine Church has stayed silent.

The case against von Wernich is unprecedented, not only in Argentina but throughout Latin America, and it could have ramifications around the continent, said Jose Miguel Vivanco, director of the Americas division of Human Rights Watch.

"I don't recall a single other case of a priest or a religious person who has been convicted in Latin America for criminal participation in human rights violations," he said.

One of the key charges against von Wernich is that he abused his priestly status and the sacrament of confession to collaborate with the junta. Many victims testified that he persuaded them to confess, often in the presence of police, the names of their fellow political activists, who subsequently would be kidnapped.

Ruben Rufino Dri, a theologian and former priest, told the court on the final day of testimony that such confessions were illegal. He said that a valid confession "has to have absolute explicit consent" between the two parties. He added that "it is an act totally private. Others cannot be present."

Dri also criticized the notion of chaplains working in police headquarters, arguing that they could take confession at any church.

Despite Von Wernich's violations of the pastoral mission, the Argentine Church took no action during the era of the junta, even as their colleagues in Brazil and Chile confronted their respective dictatorships.

Witnesses who testified for the prosecution in the wrenching three-month trial professed deep religious faith and included many Catholics.

Adolfo Perez Esquivel, who won a Nobel Peace Prize for founding a "non-violent Christian movement" in the '70s called Paz y Justicia (Peace and Justice) to support victims of the dictatorship, described his futile efforts to enlist church support.

Days earlier, Father Ruben Capitanio, who attended seminary school with von Wernich in the 1970s, told the courtroom: "I say this with pain. Until the church recognizes its errors, we will be an unfaithful church."

He closed his testimony by telling family members of the victims that "I apologize for still not being the church that we must be, on the side of the crucified and not the crucifiers."

The Vatican was ahead of the Argentine church, said Perez Esquivel. He told the court that the papal envoy to Argentina during the dictatorship, Pio Laghi, once told him, "'What do you want me to do? I cannot do what Argentine bishops do not want to do.'"

Other witnesses included Hector Timerman, Argentina's current consul general in New York. He said his father, Jacob, a Buenos Aires newspaper editor at the time, was kidnapped and tortured and had to bear von Wernich's anti-Semitic rants, such as how he made up an international Jewish conspiracy to take over the Patagonia.

Many victims said von Wernich led them to think he was sympathetic to them and their fates. He visited their families, frequently promising their imminent release while dining in their homes.

Cecilia Idiart, who lived in the small town of Bragado, outside Buenos Aires, was part of a group of seven students, all leftist militants, that the priest befriended while they were detained.

Her sister, Adriana, told the court, "It was a joy to see him because he brought good news." She charged, however, that the priest extorted $1500 from the families. Ultimately, Cecilia and six others were killed, and von Wernich witnessed at least three of the murders, according to a government truth commission in 1984.

Adding insult to injury, the Argentine Church authorized the transfer of von Wernich to the Idiarts' hometown in 1988. Even though his actions had been made public as of 1984, he remained the town's priest until 1996.

(Sreeharsha is a McClatchy special correspondent. Nancy San Martin of The Miami Herald contributed.)