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Group claims 20 witnesses against Laghi

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

The social wounds of Argentina's "dirty war" era, never given a proper chance to heal, were ripped open anew recently when the group Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo petitioned the Italian government to prosecute Cardinal Pio Laghi as an accomplice of the brutal regime that terrorized the nation during the 1970s and early '80s (NCR, May 30).

How much Laghi knew about state-sponsored torture and assassinations has been a point of speculation since the end of the bloodshed in 1983. Never before, however, has a group sought to have Laghi prosecuted. Perhaps most significant is the claim the Mothers of the Plaza included in their charges last month that they can produce 20 witnesses, including two bishops, two priests and a mother superior who are ready to travel to Rome to testify against Laghi.

During more than half the period in question, 1976 to 1983, Laghi was the papal nuncio to Argentina, a post he held before being named nuncio to the United States. He served in Washington from 1980 until 1990, when he moved to Rome as head of the Vatican's Congregation for Catholic Education.

Laghi, 75, has vehemently denied the accusations as being defamatory and void of factual content. The Vatican daily, L'Osservatore Romano, said in an unsigned editorial that the charges were unjust, dishonest and historically wrong. "We understand and share the grief of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo and of any other group of individuals. But we consider it an act against justice, against honesty and against historical truth to wage a moral attack over the nonexistent responsibility of the then-apostolic nuncio."

Reaction in Argentina and among experts elsewhere has been mixed. The charges were filed by a group of the Mothers headed by Hebe de Bonafini. The Mothers take their name from the Buenos Aires square where they first marched 20 years ago to demand news of their children who had been "disappeared" under the military regime.

A copy of the petition was delivered to the Vatican. It charges that as nuncio from 1974 to 1980 Laghi silenced international protests, falsely stated to relatives that he knew nothing of the fate of victims and expelled from the country priests and religious who protested the "disappearances" and tortures. As an Italian citizen, Laghi can be tried in Italy for crimes committed elsewhere, but because of the Lateran Treaty, negotiated by Mussolini and Pius XI in 1929, Italy could move against him only if the Vatican waived his diplomatic immunity.

Laghi, the Mothers charge, "was seen in the clandestine detention centers. He was consulted as to whether prisoners should be spared or killed, and they asked his advice regarding 'the Christian and compassionate way to liquidate them.' ... He participated actively with the bloody members of the military junta and he undertook personally a campaign designed to hide the horror, death and destruction. ... He was one of those who governed the country from the shadows."

According to the Mothers' petition, Ada D'Allesandro, a member of the Charles de Foucauld Fraternity, claims that when Laghi was approached on behalf of five "disappeared" Little Brothers of Jesus, he refused to intervene, saying that these were people with dangerous ideologies who had infiltrated the church. The Fraternity consists of two religious congregations (Little Brothers and Little Sisters of Jesus) founded in the Sahara in the 1930s by admirers of Charles de Foucauld (1858-1916), a French Foreign Legionary turned mystic. The members make their living by manual labor, working mostly in factories or fisheries or among lepers and primitive peoples. D'Alessandro claims that six other Little Brothers were detained, tortured and expelled from Argentina. They were of several nationalities -- Argentine, French, Italian, Irish.

The cardinal is only indirectly implicated in most of the allegations published by the Mothers. What they show is something already well known, namely, that Laghi maintained very close social contacts with many of the generals later sent to prison (and subsequently pardoned by President Carlos Menen). Laghi was particularly friendly with Admiral Emilio Eduardo Massera, Laghi's frequent tennis partner whose children he baptized.

Several testimonies, including that of Emilio Mignone, charge that Laghi was hostile to persons who came asking help in finding a disappeared family member. Mignone, a lawyer and university professor, founded the Center of Legal and Social Studies, which has acquired international praise for its work for human rights. His daughter Monica, a literacy worker in a slum, was abducted and never again seen.

In his book Iglesia y Dictadura (Church and Dictatorship), Mignone writes that "Laghi struck me as a very moody person, at times extrovert, at others depressed." But he knew what was happening, Mignone insists, even though he has denied it. The evidence is clear that "he knew from the very beginning the characteristics of the repressive system created by the military regime."

A leading critic of Laghi is former Jesuit Ruben Dri, a theologian and philosopher who was active in the Third World Priests Movement in the 1970s. Interviewed by NCR, he said a book he published in 1987 (Teologia y Dominacion) tells the story. Laghi, he said there, fully accepted the Doctrine of National Security, as proved by his statement that "the cause of the subversion is of ideological origin," and that Argentina had a traditional ideology that spontaneously developed "antibodies against the germs," thus creating the violence. These antibodies, Dri noted, were kidnappings, "disappearances," and torture. In such a situation, Laghi said, "rights must be respected as far as this is possible." Dri italicizes the final six words.

Laghi made this statement (as reported in La Nacion, June 27, 1976) in a speech to the generals in Tucuman, a city in northwestern Argentina. Later at the Tucuman airport he returned to the theme. "Christian values are threatened by an ideology that the people reject. The church and the armed forces share the responsibility. The former is an integral element in the process. It accompanies the latter, not only by its prayers but by its actions."

The Argentine Bishops' Conference has joined the Vatican in vigorously rejecting the new charges against Laghi. A somewhat more nuanced defense appeared in the Buenos Aires Herald in an article by Robert Cox, who was editor of that newspaper from 1968 to 1979. "There is no doubt in my mind that he [Laghi] was totally opposed to the horrendous methods that the military employed. ... He told me that he did not think that he, as a foreigner, had the right to tell the Argentine bishops what they should do."

Nevertheless, Cox continues, "it would be unconscionable to scoff at the charges made in the lawsuit brought by the Mothers. ... I will wait to see the names and the nature of the evidence of the bishop, the mother superior and the other clergy among alleged witnesses against Pio Laghi that, according to the Associated Press, have been assembled for the lawsuit, before passing judgment. ... The problem is that the history of these terrible times has yet to be written. Anyone can distort the past to fit their own delusions. Argentina needs a truth commission, but so far the nation's rulers, civilian as well as military, have chosen the path of evasion of the truth. ... The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo have almost a sacred role to play as the conscience of democratic Argentina and as a reminder of a time when the nation's rulers had no conscience."

A former priest victimized by the regime has less doubt about Laghi's role. "There's a good deal of truth" in the accusation that Cardinal Pio Laghi approved of the military regime's "dirty war," Patrick Rice, head of the Ecumenical Human Rights Movement in Buenos Aires, told NCR. Rice, then working as a Little Brother of Jesus in a Buenos Aires slum, was "disappeared" and savagely tortured in 1976. An Irish citizen, his life was saved by the intervention of the Irish ambassador to Argentina.

Cox and others have commented on the timing of the new charges. One suggestion is that it may be a move to discredit Laghi, who is a potential conservative candidate in a papal election about which there is already much discussion.

Others discount this explanation. For the last two years, since the March 1995 confessions of former Argentine navy Captain Adolfo Franciso Scilingo broke the silence by describing from the inside the barbarities of the "dirty war," Argentine public opinion has been calling insistently for a total clarification. Scilingo, then a 28-year-old lieutenant, was stationed at the Naval School of Mechanics in Buenos Aires in 1977. For the next two years, he said, 15 to 20 prisoners were trucked every Wednesday to the airport, put on a military plane, and then dropped -- drugged but alive -- from a height of about 13,000 feet, into the Atlantic Ocean. Between 1,500 and 2,000 people, he estimates, were disposed of in this way, just from his base alone. "We stripped them, and when the flight commander gave the order, we opened the door and threw them out, naked, one by one."

Among other secrets that have recently come to public knowledge is the fact that the National Commission for Disappearances had received an accusation against Laghi but under political pressures had omitted it from its 1984 report "Nunca Mas" (Never Again). In addition, public inquiries have been opened in Sweden, France, Italy and Spain, sponsored by relatives or friends of persons disappeared in Argentina, many of them members of religious orders. All of these inquiries are being conducted with participation of a different group of the Mothers (known as the Linea Fundadora), as well as the Friends of the Detained/Disappeared, and the Service of Justice and Peace, headed by Nobel Peace Prize winner Perez Esquivel. The Bonafini group may have chosen this time to show that it also is actively involved in the search for the truth.

National Catholic Reporter, June 20, 1997