Christian von Wernich

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Christian Federico von Wernich (born 27 May 1938 in Concordia, Entre Ríos Province [1]) is an Argentine Roman Catholic priest and a former chaplain of the Buenos Aires Province Police while it was under the command of General Ramón Camps, during the dictatorial period known as the National Reorganization Process (El proceso) (1976–1983). Wernich worked in Miguel Etchecolatz's Direction of Investigations of the provincial police with the rank of Inspector. He became internationally known in 2006 after being indicted for murder and kidnapping in aid of the military junta; he was convicted at trial in October 2007 and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Early life and education[edit]

Christian Federico von Wernich was born in 1938 into an ethnic German Catholic family. He attended parochial school and seminary. He was ordained as a Catholic priest in 1960.

Career[edit]

He became a chaplain of the Buenos Aires Province Police in the 1970s. The force were commanded by General Ramón Camps. This was during the military dictatorship known as National Reorganization Process (El proceso) (1976–1983), when the military and security forces were taking extreme actions to suppress political dissent in the country. The period became known as the Dirty War, and the government was later held responsible for tens of thousands of forced disappearances, kidnappings, torture, and deaths of political prisoners, in addition to widespread attacks of rural insurgents, mostly Mayan peoples, which was later assessed as genocide. Going beyond acting as a spiritual adviser to police and suspects, von Wernich worked with the rank of Inspector in Miguel Etchecolatz's Direction of Investigations of the provincial police.

Two years after the return of democracy in 1983, the government began to prosecute crimes under the dictatorship, in what was known as the Trial of the Juntas in 1985. Von Wernich was among those accused of participation in the Dirty War, and collaborating in the torture of political prisoners. He declared that he was innocent.[2] Action against those involved in the military dictatorship was discontinued after Congress passed the 1986 Ley de Punto Final, intended to "draw a line" under all that had happened until then.

The country struggled to restore democratic institutions and rule of law. In 1991, President Carlos Suarez Menem pardoned Ramón Camps and other high-ranking leaders who had been convicted in the 1985 trial, setting off waves of protest. In 2003 Congress repealed the 1986 Ley de Punto Final. (In a court challenge, the Argentine Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that the law was unconstitutional.)

In 2003 the government re-opened prosecution of cases of crimes against humanity committed during the Dirty War. La Plata Federal Judge Arnaldo Corazza gathered testimony from witnesses who placed von Wernich at three illegal detention centers (Puesto Vasco, Coti Martínez and Pozo de Quilmes). He ordered the priest's arrest on 25 September 2003, after von Wernich was discovered hiding in the Chilean seaside town of El Quisco under the assumed identity of "Christian González". He was working as a priest, having returned after earlier escaping to Chile.[3]

On 7 March 2006, the Federal Court of La Plata confirmed the indictment and detention of von Wernich on charges of co-authorship of homicide, illegal restraints and acts of torture (including that used against the kidnapped Jacobo Timerman, the editor of La Opinión). Surviving victims declared that von Wernich questioned them under torture, subjected them to mock executions, and, under the guise of counseling, urged them to confess.[4][5] Some of his accusers alleged von Wernich violated the sacraments by breaking the seal of the confessional, a charge he has denied.[3]

Von Wernich's trial began on 5 July 2007 in La Plata, the capital of the province of Buenos Aires. He was accused of seven homicides and 41 instances of kidnapping and torture. The tribunal was composed of judges Carlos Rozanski, Norberto Lorenzo and Horacio Insaurralde, the same panel who had convicted and sentenced Miguel Etchecolatz in 2006. Before the trial, von Wernich denied all charges, saying that while he did visit detention centers, he did not witness any human rights abuses there; however, on the first day of the trial, he exercised his right to silence.[6] [7] His accusers thought this was a sign that he did not want to practice self-incrimination by having to account for his crimes.

On 9 October 2007 the court found him guilty of complicity in seven homicides, 42 kidnappings, and 32 instances of torture. The tribunal sentenced him to life imprisonment.[8][9][3]

Von Wernich's trial was thought to have revealed "the church's dark past during the dirty war, when it sometimes gave its support to the military's persecution of leftist opponents. That past stands in stark contrast to the role the church played during the dictatorships in Chile and Brazil, where priests and bishops publicly condemned the governments and worked to save those being persecuted from torture and death."[3] During the trial, the Church was officially silent, although Reverend Rubén Capitanio was called as a witness and required to testify. He condemned the Roman Catholic Church's "complicity" in atrocities during the Dirty War.[3] He said, "There are some that think that this trial is an attack on the church, and I want to say that this is a service to the church. This is helping us search for the truth."[3]

On Wernich's conviction his superior, Bishop Martín Elizalde, apologised for von Wernich being "so far from the requirements of the mission commended to him."[10] When in 2010 it was reported that von Wernich was still permitted to officiate as priest at Mass in prison, the bishop said that "at the appropriate time von Wernich's situation will have to be resolved in accordance with canonical law."[10]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ La Nación, 5 July 2007. El asesor espiritual del general Ramón Camps]. (Spanish)
  2. ^ Nuncamas.org. Testimony of Cristian Federico von Wernich, Trial of the Juntas (8 May 1985). (Spanish)
  3. ^ a b c d e f Alexei Barrionuevo, "Argentine priest testifies about church's role in 'dirty war'", New York Times, 17 September 2007
  4. ^ "Argentine priest arraigned for human rights abuses", The Catholic Voice (Oakland), 9 January 2006
  5. ^ "Von Wernich seguirá en prisión y será sometido a juicio oral", La Capital (Rosario), 8 March 2006. (Spanish)
  6. ^ "Empieza el juicio al ex capellán Wernich", La Nación, 5 July 2007
  7. ^ "Un cura que bendijo la represión", Página/12, 5 July 2007
  8. ^ BBC News, 10 September 2007. "'Dirty War' priest gets life term".
  9. ^ El Clarín, 9 October 2007. "Reclusión perpetua para Von Wernich". (Spanish)
  10. ^ a b [Sebastián Lacunza: "Torture Priest Still Celebrating Mass – Behind Bars", Inter Press Service, 7 February 2010

External links[edit]