of Vatican in Argentina's Dirty War
Vatican Embassy in Argentina kept a secret list of thousands
of people who disappeared during Argentina's Dirty War
of the late 1970s which it failed to make public at the
time and which may have since been destroyed, according
to recent revelations regarding the Catholic Church's
poor human rights record in this country. Italian Cardinal
Pio Laghi, who was Papal Pro-Nuncio in Buenos Aires during
the time of the military dictatorship - and who later
served as John Paul II's Pro-Nuncio in the United States
- has openly admitted to the Argentine press that he had
knowledge of some 6,000 cases of people who "disappeared."
leaving Argentina, Pio Laghi became the Pope's representative
in Washington D.C. for the ten years leading up to 1990.
Until 1984 he was the Vatican's Apostolic Delegate in
Washington. After former President Ronald Reagan established
diplomatic relations with Rome that same year Pio Laghi
stayed on in the U.S. as the first Apostolic Pro-Nuncio.
He is now a Cardinal in Rome.
Laghi's admission - in an interview published by Gente
magazine in Argentina - came only after press reports
in early 1995 that his own office and the Catholic Church
in Argentina kept secret lists of part of the 30,000 people
who are believed to have died at the hands of the dictatorship
of General Jorge Rafael Videla.
of the Church's grizzly lists were provided by one of
its own members, Father Federico "Fred" Richards, a Catholic
priest of Irish descent at the Church of the Holy Cross
in Buenos Aires, in an interview on 13 April 1995.
know of two lists kept by the Church. One was at the office
of Pro-Nuncio Pio Laghi and the second at the office of
the Military Vicariate. What happened to these lists?
Did they burn them? Did they throw them away? Why does
the Church hierarchy not bring forth the lists these dignitaries
had?" asked Father Richards, who despite being a third-generation
Argentine and 73 years of age still speaks fluent English
with a thick Irish brogue.
Pio Laghi claimed that his silence enabled him to save
some few lives, this help was limited only to the cases
of individuals from influential families who had access
to him. But some of those same influential few condemn
Pio Laghi for withholding information which could have
prevented the "disappearance" of thousands of other victims.
Richards said that Pio Laghi and Argentina's bishops received
their information directly from the military repressors
the 1970s Father Richards was editor of The Southern Cross,
the newspaper of the Irish community in Argentina, a brave
weekly written in English which published reports of the
"disappearances" as they happened while the local Spanish-language
press maintained a deadly silence. The 120-year-old newspaper
is still published today for the community of Irish descendants
Richards clearly recalled the two occasions when he consulted
the "lists" of the Pope's Ambassador and of the Argentine
Catholic Church: "A niece of mine, Gloria Keogh, was kidnapped
on the night of June 15, 1978, from her apartment in the
neighborhood of Belgrano in Buenos Aires, and she 'disappeared.'
She was 21 years old and a writer who a few days before
had published her first book of short stories. I went
with her father, who was my first cousin, to seek the
help of the Vatican Embassy."
Richards said he discovered a macabre system in place
at the Vatican Embassy through which Argentina's military
rulers constantly updated information regarding the dead
and missing: "The Nuncio's secretary was an Irish priest,
Kevin Mullen. He told us that the Vatican Embassy used
to periodically, every ten or fifteen days, send a list
up to the Ministry of the Interior of people it knew had
disappeared, requesting news or information." Mullen told
Father Richards that according to the wording of the reply
Pio Laghi's office knew who was dead and who alive.
relatives of missing people have stated that Pio Laghi
kept precise information on the fate of the "disappeared"
but Father Richards was the first clergyman to go on record
confirming the existence of these lists.
failure of the Catholic Church to take decisive action
to end the thousands of disappearances in the 1970s remains
a thorny issue in a nation tormented by its failure to
come to terms with a nightmarish past.
Richards said he discovered a second secret list of 2,100
missing people kept by Argentine Bishop Adolfo Tortolo,
Argentina's Vicar of the Armed Forces: "From the Pro-Nuncio's
office we went to the office of the Military Vicariate.
At the time the Vicar-General was Bishop Tortolo, who
always had an excuse for everything the military did.
He was behind them with that strange maneuvering or politics
that the majority of the bishops had. We passed into the
office of his secretary, Monsignor Grasselli, who pointed
to the stack of letters he was receiving from all over
the country from people asking for help and information
about their missing relatives."
Grasselli kept a list for the Army Vicariate, Father Richard
recalled. "It was a file of some 2,100 missing people.
Beside the names on some of these files there was a cross,
meaning that that person had been confirmed dead. Grasselli
told me the case of a young boy who was serving the military
draft and who planned to marry when he finished. But he
disappeared while still a soldier in the Army. His sweetheart
came desperately seeking information from the Military
Vicar. Grasselli took all the data he could and after
about ten days he called her with good news. The boy had
been located and was being held in the city of La Plata.
But five days afterwards he received another call from
La Plata, and Grasselli had to call the girl and tell
her that her future husband was confirmed dead." The priest
noted that neither the Vatican Embassy nor the Military
Vicariate could inform him of the fate of his niece, who
still remains missing.
Richards belongs to the Passionist Order, founded in 1720.
Its members are pledged to keep alive the memory of Christ's
suffering on the cross. The first Passionists arrived
in Argentina from Ireland 115 years ago, and there currently
are about 30 priests from the Order locally. A large sign
inside the Church of the Holy Cross in Buenos Aires pledges
"solidarity with the crucified of today."
U.S. prelate, Monsignor Theodore Folley, was the General
of the Order during the years of the Argentine military
dictatorship. Monsignor Folley, on a visit to Buenos Aires
at that time, received a letter from Argentina's Cardinal-Primate
Antonio Caggiano who was enraged by an editorial Father
Richards had written titled The Silence of the Bishops
in The Southern Cross. It condemned the hierarchy of the
Argentine Catholic Church for not speaking out against
the excesses of the military government. Folley ignored
the pressure from the Cardinal and praised Father Richards
for his brave work.
recently, he received personal congratulations for his
courage from Irish President Mary Robinson, who met Father
Richards during an official visit she made to Buenos Aires
in March this year.
to action on the human rights front, the two Irish parishes
of Saint Patrick's and of the Holy Cross in Buenos Aires
were faced with constant threats from the military. Since
both churches represent Irish orders and are run by Irish
and Irish-Argentine priests, Argentina's hard-line bishops
were unable to silence them.
1976, three Pallatine priests and two seminarians were
shot to death by military security forces at Saint Patrick's.
The following year, two founding members of the Mothers
of Plaza de Mayo (the group representing the thousands
of mothers of the "disappeared") and a French nun who
worked alongside them were kidnapped at the Church of
the Holy Cross, along with four other people, a kidnapping
which was witnessed by Father Richards. Both these crimes
remain unpunished by Argentina's courts to this day.