e-mail us
Documents reveal nuncio’s cautious human rights stance


In 1977, at the height of the Argentine junta’s 1976-83 “dirty war” when 10,000 Argentinians “disappeared,” Archbishop Pio Laghi, who was at the time the papal nuncio to Argentina, told U.S. government officials, “There was guilt in the leaders of the country; they knew they have committed evil in human rights and do not need to be told of their guilt by visitors. This would be ‘rubbing salt into the wounds.’ ”

The nuncio “expressed his conviction that [President Jorge] Videla and other leaders are good men at heart.”

These views surfaced Aug. 21 in an NCR search of 4,000 documents newly released by the U.S. State Department Aug. 20. Laghi, U.S. papal nuncio from 1980 to 1990, subsequently was accused by Argentinian groups such as the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, of complicity with the repressive regime. Later head of the Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education, Laghi strongly denied the accusations.

Most of the 12 documents that mention Laghi contain only a passing reference -- either because someone exchanged letters with him, or appealed to him to assist in individual cases of the “disappeared.”

However, a March 29, 1977, “memorandum of conversation,” provides an extended account of Laghi’s views on the nation’s political and social situation at that time.

The political background is that in the 1960s and early ’70s neither civilian nor military governments in Argentina were able to correct depressed economic conditions or meet social and labor demands. Repression grew steadily worse; terrorism escalated.

In 1973 Argentina had its first elections in a decade. President Juan Domingo Perón could not succeed himself. His stand-in, Hector Campora, was elected president, resigned three months later and Perón returned in October. Perón’s third wife (not Evita, who died in 1952) was vice president.

Terrorists on the right and left stepped up their campaigns.

When Perón died in July 1974, his widow, Maria Estela Perón, succeeded him but she was removed by a military coup in 1976 as the junta took control.

The junta had been in power for a year when Laghi sat down in his Buenas Aires nunciature for a conversation with officials of the U.S Embassy in Buenos Aires, Patricia Derian, Fernando Rondon and Robert S. Steven.

According to the memorandum, the nuncio cautioned the U.S. government to be “very careful about how it went about pressing its human rights case with the Argentine government.” The “great danger,” he said, “was that the position of the moderate elements around Videla would be weakened and that other hard line generals would take power in their own coup.”

Laghi described Videla as “a good Catholic … deeply aware of and concerned over the personal religious implications of his responsibilities.” The nuncio said, “Many of the military were men with grave problems of conscience, which they brought to military chaplains.” He said he was aware of their “deep disturbances” and “felt some would become sick. At the same time they believed that they were doing what was necessary.”

The military at the time of the coup, said Laghi, “had a real fear of the power of the terrorists,” and believed it possible the guerrillas could control two or three of the country’s provinces. “That fear,” Laghi was reported as saying, “at least partially explained the harshness and tactics adopted in combating subversion.” He said, “Groups of rightists, not under the control of the higher officers of the government, were responsible for serious abuses.”

He and the Argentine bishops, he said, had taken the cautious approach to their pressure on the government “in regard to the human rights situation.”

“Some few” of the bishops were on the extreme right or left, Laghi told the embassy officials. “Most, however, remained moderate and place themselves above the political struggle.”

Laghi’s assessment of Argentina’s overall predicament, said the memorandum, was that the nation’s political structure had been functioning “poorly” before the 1976 coup; that Perón’s influence, in or out of office, had “dominated and distorted” the political scene for 30 years, and it was “clear that the political institutions of the country were in a state of collapse.”

Since the coup, he said, he and the moderate bishops had repeatedly and in very strong terms made private representations to the government, protesting human rights violations and demanding accounting for thousands of individual cases.

“In only a few of the cases had they received information from the government,” said Laghi, according to the memorandum, “and it had been pointed out to the government that the church would have no alternative soon but to begin to speak out publicly.”

Laghi, according to the U.S. government memorandum, also “showed surprise” and issued “a quick denial” when asked if “the church and Catholics in Argentina were persecuted.” He said that “individuals among the 5,500 priests and 11,000 nuns had been arrested or abused but rejected the suggestion that the church was under attack.”

At that time there were 12 priests in detention, seven of whom were non-Argentines. Several had been held for more than two-and-a-half years. Trials had begun for some but were delayed by the coup, “and the church had been pressing for resolution of their cases,” Laghi said.

The nuncio said, “About seven of the total of 12 priests had admitted their involvement in or association with subversion. For example, two had been captured, arms in hand, leading an assault on a police station; another had hidden arms for the guerrillas. The church hoped that in the case of the foreigners at least it would be possible to secure their expulsion from Argentina after their trial.

Two months after Laghi’s meeting with the U.S. Embassy officials, thousands of mothers of Argentina’s “disappeared” marched in protest to the Buenos Aires Plaza de Mayo. Two decades later, in Rome, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo called on Italian authorities to prosecute Laghi, an Italian citizen, by then a cardinal, as an accomplice of the regime.

In 1997, Gary MacEoin, writing in NCR, said the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo charged that Laghi silenced international protests, falsely stated to relatives he knew nothing of the fate of victims, and expelled from the country priests and religious who protested the “disappearances” and tortures.

Laghi, the mothers charged, “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, they charged, 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.”

The mothers’ petition, MacEoin wrote, claimed that when Laghi was approached on behalf of “five disappeared Little Brothers of Jesus, he refused to intervene, saying these were people with dangerous ideologies who had infiltrated the church.”

MacEoin said the cardinal was only indirectly implicated in most of the allegations published by the mothers but what they showed “is something already well known, namely, that Laghi maintained very close social contacts with many of the generals later sent to prison. He was particularly friendly with Admiral Emilio Eduardo Massera, a frequent tennis partner whose children he baptized.”

Arthur Jones is NCR editor at large. His e-mail address is ajones96@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, August 30, 2002