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Chilean cardinal: Church attempting to help free dictator

NCR Staff

The Catholic church has taken “discreet steps” in an attempt to free former dictator Augusto Pinochet, according to a Chilean cardinal who is a prominent member of the Roman curia. The papal nuncio to Chile has also called for Pinochet’s release.

Both statements appear to contrast sharply with the position of Cardinal Basil Hume, the primate of the English Catholic church, who has supported the push to try Pinochet.

The ex-general and “senator for life” is currently under house arrest in London, awaiting a decision as to whether extradition hearings against him may proceed. A Spanish judge hopes to try Pinochet for crimes against humanity.

Cardinal Jorge Medina Estévez, a Chilean who works at the Vatican as prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, told a newspaper in Santiago, Chile, in late December that the church was involved in behind-the-scenes diplomacy aimed at winning Pinochet’s release.

“There have been discussions at every level on this affair, and we’re hoping that they will have a positive outcome,” Medina told La Cuarta de Santiago.

“I’ve prayed and prayed for Senator Pinochet as I pray for all people who have suffered,” Medina said. The cardinal called Pinochet’s Oct. 16, 1998, arrest in England on a Spanish warrant a “humiliation” to Chilean sovereignty that the church “deplored.”

Medina told the paper he could not go into more detail, saying, “It is regrettable to say too much.” The cardinal added that the church has always insisted that those who do wrong in the eyes of God must ask for pardon.

One day before Medina’s comments, the nuncio to Chile, Archbishop Piero Biggio, told the press in that nation he concurred with the government’s argument that Pinochet’s arrest was a violation of diplomatic immunity.

Hume, on the other hand, told the British Broadcasting Corporation on Dec. 24 that a “very, very important moral principle is at stake” in the move to extradite Pinochet.

Speaking on a radio program, the English cardinal said he was not an expert in international law and he did not wish to comment on the legal specifics of the case, but he backed the idea of bringing Pinochet to trial.

“There are some acts such as torture or genocide that are so wrong no one who commits or authorizes them should have total immunity. They should be made accountable for their acts,” Hume said.

Hume also called for greater implementation of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

National Catholic Reporter, January 15, 1999