Bishops Apologize, Sort of, in Argentina: Document Skirts Church Role in 'Dirty War.'

By Wirpsa, Leslie | National Catholic Reporter, May 17, 1996 | Go to article overview

Bishops Apologize, Sort of, in Argentina: Document Skirts Church Role in 'Dirty War.'


Wirpsa, Leslie, National Catholic Reporter


The Argentine episcopal conference has issued a document partially recognizing the involvement of some members of the Catholic church in the atrocities of the military's "dirty war" of the 1970s and early '80s.

The statement was issued in response to a request from John Paul II for the church throughout the world to recognize errors of the past to prepare for the new millennium. It follows two decades of silence from Argentina's bishops about church involvement with the dictatorship.

Many church leaders throughout Latin America broke their traditional ties with the region's political and military elites during the 1970s, becoming outspoken critics of state-sponsored terror. Some even created church-sponsored organizations to document human rights atrocities.

With a few exceptions, Argentina's bishops not only maintained what some have called a "criminal" silence, hut several openly defended the bloody repression of the military junta.

Analysts say the recent statement marks the first time the hierarchy has admitted complicity between members of the church and the dictatorship. But the bishops assume no institutional responsibility for the church's acceptance of the dictatorship. They also place equal responsibility for the violence on Catholics who inspired left-wing guerrillas and on those who "responded illegally" to the rebels -- a euphemism for the military regime. There is no mention of the disappearance of approximately 30,000 Argentineans, the majority of whom had no link to the guerrillas. In fact, as one observer noted, the word disappearance is absent from the text.

In a pastoral letter dated April 27 the 80 Argentine bishops said, "Without admitting the responsibilities that the church did not have in these occurrences, we should recognize that there were Catholics who justified and participated in the systematic violence as a means of 'national liberation,' to take political power and establish a new form of society, inspired in Marxist ideology, painfully carrying with them many young people." The bishops admit "there were other groups which included many sons of the church, that responded illegally to the guerrillas in an atrocious and immoral manner, and this brings shame to us all."

Enrique Dussel, one of Latin America's most prominent church historians, said the bishops are "attempting to erase with their elbows what they did with their hands." Dussel was forced to flee Argentina in 1975 after Archbishop Adolfo Servando Tortolo of Parana denounced him as a Marxist -- a move comparable to a death sentence at the time. The denunciation prompted Dussel's removal as president of the historical commission of CELAM, the Latin American bishops' council.

Church complicity

"The bishops gave total support to the process of repression," Dussel said in a May 3 phone interview from Mexico City. "There were bishops who turned in members of their own church. The institution denounced its own priests, using its secular arm to liquidate religious that made it uncomfortable. There was nothing like it in Latin America," Dussel said. He was referring to the deaths of 17 priests, nuns and seminarians, the disappearances of scores of Catholic activists and the murder of one bishop, Enrique Angelelli of La Rioja, killed in an accident staged by the military.

Argentine sociologist Fortunato Malimachi said the pastoral letter is important because it marks the first time the bishops have "characterized that epoch as a time of horror." He said the bishops "admit they could have done more for the people, for life."

These, however, are the only redeeming aspects of the document, Malimachi said, speaking from Buenos Aires. The bishops, he said, "do not assume any responsibility as leaders of the church for priests and bishops who with their words and presence legitimized torture and the physical elimination of scores of people. They never admit they committed any errors. …

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