Christian Von Wernich went on trial this past week for his involvement in the Dirty War in Argentina. He was arrested 4 years ago in Chile, where he was relocated by the Catholic Church upon request, on charges of murder (7 deaths), torture (31 cases), & illegal imprisonment (42 cases) during the military dictatorship. He worked in a detention center between 1976-1983 when these incidents were to have occurred. He also worked as a Catholic Priest.
Von Wernich involvement in the group of 7, 7 students detained and then disappeared, is considered particularly heinous. He is said to have “ministered” to both the students and their families claiming that if they confessed they would be released. His active pressure convinced the 7 to confess to crimes and association with one another that were untrue. The result of that confession was not release but death in unmarked graves. Von Wernich also solicited money from the families for the church, under the guise of serving their children. Each family is said to have paid $1500 to get the students out of the country at Von Wernich’s request.
Several journalists have been essential in uncovering the atrocities of the Dirty War, including the complicity of many in the Catholic Church there. In fact, Brienza, a journalist looking into Von Wernier’s role, was responsible for finding him. His book, Maldito tu eres, is specifically about Von Wernier’s involvement in the Dirty War and contains several witness accounts.
El Silenco, a 2005 book in journalist/author Verbitsky’s ongoing reportage of the Dirty War, argues that the Catholic Church was actively involved in the death camps and the government despite reports of abuse reaching the Vatican. Using interview data, the book documents the sanction of the Church to drug the disappeared and drop them from planes. Archbishop Totolero, and other high ranking leaders in the Catholic church, were known to take visits from the military government and Totolero was quoted as praising the generals and saying that they were right to take “hard and violent measures.” The church has refused to issue an apology.
The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo argue that many priests, who were chaplains of the camps, engaged in torture while some did everything they could to report and stop the abuse. Several nuns were disappeared during the military dictatorship for supporting resistance. Both nuns and priests opened their homes and their churches as sanctuaries and used their international connections to smuggle people out of Argentina and graft the Argentinian crisis onto the Latin American solidarity work being done in the U.S. and Britain. Of the priests known to be actively involved in trying to put an end to the dirty war were 19 disappeared, 11 tortured, or 22 arrested. The 1977 deaths of nuns Alice Damon and Leonie Duque were so graphic and impactful, as they had been major forces in the resistance and awareness efforts, that they inspired multiple films.
120 witnesses are scheduled to appear during the trial. Testimony so far has reported primarily on his presence at detention camps and his encouraging people to confess to their crimes so as not to be tortured again. Family members of the group of 7 have also all testified to the lies they were told and the money they paid to save the lives of their family members at Von Wernich’s request.
At trial, Von Wiernich refused to make a statement nor accept questions thoroughly thwarting any attempt at truth and closure for the survivors. He is hiding behind confession all though he has resigned as a priest (confession being sacred regardless).
Key witnesses and activists continue to be disappeared in order to thwart further trials.
Please show your solidarity with human rights organizations internal and external to Argentina that are working toward getting as much of the truth as can be known for survivors of the Dirty War. You can try and put pressure on the Catholic Church by writing letters to the leadership in both Argentina and the Vatican.