By LARRY ROHTER
LA PLATA, Argentina - The parishioners in the coastal village in Chile knew their priest simply as the Rev. Christián González. Only his accent gave away that he was an Argentine.
So it came as a shock to them when he traveled back to Argentina last year and had to face charges here for crimes dating to the military dictatorship of the 1970's. Under his real name, Christián von Wernich, he is accused of 19 counts of murder and 33 of abduction and torture.
Father von Wernich, 65, has emerged as a potent symbol of the institutional atrocities of the period, when the junta chased down leftist opponents, sometimes winning the support of the Roman Catholic Church's hierarchy for its goals. He has attracted particular attention because he combines both elements: he was a priest who also worked for the government, as a chaplain for the feared Buenos Aires provincial police.
That trauma of three decades ago is being re-examined now that President Néstor Kirchner has ended a long amnesty that protected people responsible for the abuses. Father von Wernich was indicted in September and is fighting the charges, on both constitutional and religious grounds.
But that has not stopped the case from provoking protest in both Argentina and Chile, which suffered under its own dictatorship, over the past role of the church and whether religious leaders conspired to hide a priest accused of taking part in the abuses of the "Dirty War."
"There were other clergy who supported or blessed the dictatorship and the repressive measures it employed," said Marta Vedio, a lawyer with the Permanent Assembly for Human Rights, the group that has been leading the investigation that led to the priest's indictment here in La Plata. "But for a priest to have participated directly and so intensely in repression and torture, that strikes hard in a society that still regards itself as essentially Roman Catholic."
The Vatican has not directly addressed questions about the church's conduct during the dictatorship. During his visits to Argentina, Pope John Paul II has made only vague statements that could be interpreted as something of an indirect apology for that behavior.
Regarding Father von Wernich, local church officials in Argentina and Chile have been largely silent. The Rev. Jorge Oesterheld, a spokesman for the Argentine Conference of Bishops, said that while the case was painful because it involves "shameful and lamentable acts," the Argentine church "has no jurisdiction over this matter." It is a diocesan matter, he said.
The bishop of the priest's home diocese in Argentina, Msgr. Martín Elizalde, in a public statement issued shortly after Father González was exposed last May, dismissed suggestions of improper behavior in how the diocese handled the priest. The church has no responsibility, he said, "since when he went to Chile, there were no charges pending against him."
Such denials have disillusioned Catholic faithful in both countries, particularly since Father von Wernich's links to the dictatorship had been well established by the time he dropped out of sight in 1996, only to reappear seven years later with a different name in Chile under circumstances that the church authorities refuse to explain.
"The policy of the church has consistently been silence, silence, silence," Hernán Brienza, author of "Cursed Art Thou: The Church and Illegal Repression," said in an interview. "There was obviously an agreement to protect von Wernich from public opinion in Argentina by sending him to Chile, a place where no one knew who he was. But we do not know how or when he became González." Mr. Brienza helped expose the priest's new identity last year, as part of an investigative team formed by two magazines.
For a decade after Argentina's democracy was restored in 1983, Father von Wernich was the target of protest marches that forced the church hierarchy to move him from one parish to another. Former political prisoners testified in chilling detail to official commissions of the priest's treacherous modus operandi in the aid of the military junta.
After they had been subjected to days of intense torture, the prisoners recounted, Father von Wernich would appear offering spiritual consolation. But at the same time he would seek information and urge detainees to "get right with God" by acknowledging their political activities and by identifying comrades still at large.
"Once I heard Christian von Wernich reply to a prisoner who pleaded with him not to die that 'the life of men depends on God and your collaboration,' " a former prisoner, Luis Velasco, testified at a court hearing. "I also heard him defend and justify torture, recognizing that at times he had been present. When he referred to an operation, he would say, 'When we did that operation. . . .' "
The most serious of the accusations against Father von Wernich stem from the execution in 1977 of seven young people, all political prisoners who belonged to left-wing groups. The killings, it is now charged, were part of a police plan to extort money from the prisoners' parents, by suggesting that a bribe would free their children.
Figuring that a priest would naturally inspire trust, agents sent Father von Wernich to collect $1,500 from the parents of each of the prisoners. As proof that they were still alive, he delivered letters written by the detainees. Once the money was collected, the prisoners were taken from a clandestine detention center and killed. One was pregnant.
According to the testimony of Julio Alberto Emmed, a former police officer who admitted his involvement in the incident and said he was coming forward as an act of penance, Father von Wernich himself witnessed at least three of the killings.
Mr. Emmed said the prisoners had been put in a car and told that they were being taken to the airport before being released. Instead, they were beaten unconscious, he said.
"The priest was in the vehicle with me," he recalled in sworn testimony, saying that because one of the prisoners was whipped with a pistol, "various wounds resulted, with an abundant flow of blood over the priest, the driver and the two of us at the prisoner's side."
Near the airport, the car swerved to an empty field, Mr. Emmed testified. Father von Wernich watched as the police officers and a police doctor completed their gruesome task.
"The three subversives were still alive, and their bodies were removed from the car and thrown onto the grass," Mr. Emmed said. "The doctor injected each one twice, straight into the heart with a reddish liquid that was poisonous." When one of the victims showed signs of life, she was shot in the head, he said.
Afterward, those involved, including Father von Wernich, went to a celebratory barbecue "where we also changed our clothes because they were stained with blood," Mr. Emmed said. Seeing that Mr. Emmed was distraught at what they had just done, Father von Wernich sought to console him.
"What you have done was necessary for the good of the fatherland," Mr. Emmed said the priest had told him. "You have no reason to feel badly. You carried out a patriotic act, and God knows that what we are doing is for the benefit of the country."
In Chile, where he served in the seaside resort village of El Quisco, the impact of his case has been nearly as traumatic as in Argentina. During the long dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, Cardinal Raúl Silva Enríquez of Santiago played an important role in defending human rights, so the accusations of the church's complicity in harboring Father von Wernich has come as a shock.
"I'm a Christian, and I cannot judge, because we are all sinners," one of his former parishioners, Isabel Beltrán de Avalos, said before a Sunday morning Mass early in Lent at the St. John the Evangelist church in El Quisco situated on the Street of the Tranquil Wolves. Learning of the charges against him "has caused a revulsion within me so great that I stayed away from Mass for nearly a year and have only returned now at Lent," she said.
Father von Wernich was "so charming and so charismatic that it was hard to believe all the things that they were saying about him," Mrs. Avalos added. "I had neighbors and colleagues from work who were taken away and never seen again when the military seized power, and I don't want that to happen ever again. We can't tolerate a thing like that."
From his jail cell, Father von Wernich is fighting the charges against him and has asked judges to free him from what he claims is an "illegal detention."
At a hearing, the priest acknowledged that he had been a regular visitor at the clandestine detention centers of the police, but he refused to provide details of his conversations with prisoners. To do so, he said, would be a breach of his holy orders, because it would "violate the secrecy of the confessional."
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