Dictatorship in Argentina: The Nuncio and the Vatican

    Editor’s note: The book Witness to the Truth: The Complicity of Church and Dictatorship in Argentina by Emilio F. Mignone is a classic which was first published in 1986 and exposes the “sinister complicity” between the church and the military, who “did the dirty work of cleaning up the inside of the Church, with the acquiesce of the priests”. This excerpt from the book has been translated from Spanish.

    From Chapter Three: The Nuncio and the Vatican

    Pio Laghi

    One of the most controversial church figures during the period of the military dictatorship was Archbishop Pio Laghi, the papal nuncio to Argentina, who was to become apostolic delegate to the U.S.A.

    I should like to use the information I have at my disposal to help clarify questions about him, and to communicate my own viewpoint.

    Laghi’s name, which had not previously been mentioned in connection with disappearances, suddenly came into the spotlight when it appeared in a list of 1,351 persons connected with the repression published in the magazine El Periodista de Buenos Aires in November 1984. The appearance of his name in that list prompted a long series of denials and protests, both in Argentina and elsewhere.

    El Periodista explained that the list had been drawn up by the National Commission on Disappeared Persons (CONADEP) based on documentation, but that it had not been included in the earlier CONADEP report, Nunca Mas.

    President Alfonsin and some CONADEP officials denied that there was such a list. I am assured, however, that in fact it was drawn up by members of the commission, but that they decided not to publish it after a discussion with President Alfonsin, who received a confidential copy of the list. It was inevitable that the list would become known. The magazine obtained a copy from someone who worked for CONADEP.

    The list was compiled by placing in alphabetical order the names of persons mentioned in one or other of the hundreds of testimonies the commission received. On the list are fifteen Catholic priests, including Archbishop Antonio Jose Plaza of La Plata, Bishop BIas Conrero of Tucuman, and Bishop Jose Miguel Medina of Jujuy, Monsignor Emilio Grasselli, about whom I have already written at some length, Father Christian von Wemich, and several military chaplains, mentioned in chapter 1, above. Although the testimonies that refer to the other ecclesiastical figures appear on pages 259-63 of Nunca Mas, the name of the nuncio did not appear in that report. The same is true of Plaza and Conrero.

    It is worth noting that anger broke out only over the mention of Laghi. No one, including the Bishops’ Conference of Argentina, bothered to defend the others, as though their presence on such a list were taken for granted. Bishop Conrero was dead by that time. Plaza did not protest, not because his colleagues would not have supported him, but simply because he had never denied his close link with the forces of repression.

    At the time, I explained what had happened in an article in La Razon (November 8, 1984):

    This reference to Laghi was nothing new for the human rights organizations dedicated to documenting what happened during the military dictatorship. On December 10, 1981, the Argentine citizen Juan Martin, released in Madrid a detailed testimony about his illegal imprisonment by the army in Tucuman, and he sent it to the Human Rights Division of the United Nations. That statement was ratified by CONADEP and has been in the files of CELS for some time. Thus, his statement is not anonymous or anything of the sort, as Laghi seems to believe, when he demands that “this person who has accused me show his face.”

    On page 45 of his report Juan Martin says he met the nuncio in the heliport at the Nueva Baviera sugar plantation, which was the command center for operations in the area. He had been transferred from a nearby clandestine detention camp.

    Later on, Juan Martin was in Buenos Aires and I explained to him that in the documentation department of CELS there is information only about one visit of Laghi to Tucuman, which was extensively reported in La Nacion on June 27, 1976. However, Martin was arrested in October of that year, and he estimates that the meeting took place in November or December. There is no proof of another trip during those months and Laghi emphatically denies it. Thus, the dates do not agree.

    I questioned Juan Martin for a long time, inquiring about all kinds of details in connection with the incident. He repeated that he was brought in from the detention camp to the helicopter pad and put in a line the moment several bishops were landing and getting out. One of them came up to him. He believed it was Laghi because that was the name he was later given. In a low voice, he was able to pass on a brief request that the bishop look up his family and inform them. The description of the visitor’s height and dress, including the round kind of hat used in Rome, agrees with a description of Laghi. But he did not say who he was, nor could Martin check to see whether he had an Italian accent.

    I have no doubt about the truthfulness of what Juan Martin says, but because up to now it has not been possible to prove any other trip by Laghi to Tucuman, I feel impelled to conclude that it was another bishop.

    Even if it were Laghi, it would not mean that he had visited a clandestine detention center, as was said in some articles. He would have been introduced to some prisoners—who might or might not be legally imprisoned—at the helicopter pad of the sugar plantation.

    Reactions to the Accusation of Complicity

    In response to this incident, many others, besides the bishops’ conference, came to the defense of the nuncio in Buenos Aires. President Alfonsin and Interior Minister Antonio Troccoli expressed their displeasure over the publication of his name and were unsparing in their praise of the one accused. Two members of CONADEP, the president, Ernesto Sabato [well-known novelist] and Professor Gregorio Klimovsky, stated that Laghi had showed intense concern for the situation of the disappeared and had helped save many individuals. Similar statements came from Cardinal Raul Primatesta, Bishop Jaime de Nevares, and the former bishop Jeronimo Podesta, who is usually critical of Catholic Church authorities. Father Miguel Ramondetti, of the diocese of Goya, Corrientes, and one of the founders of the Movement of Third World Priests, said that the nuncio had helped him leave the country. I have proof that he similarly helped others, including the Jesuits Francisco Jalics and Orlando Iorio, who were arrested-and-disappeared sometime between May 23 and October 23, 1976. Monsignor Emilio Grasselli says the same about several others who were released.

    Tribunal of Argentina: The Catholic church was an ‘accomplice’ of crimes against humanity committed during the military dictatorship

    When it published my article, La Razon added an editorial note, stating, among other things:

    La Razon does not engage in polemics with its columnists or writers. Nevertheless, it does feel obligated to provide its readers with some items of information that of necessity should complement the article by Dr. Emilio Mignone…. The assistant editor of La Razon, Jacobo Timerman, has confirmed that Pio Laghi was very attentive to his family when he was abducted and held by the military dictatorship…. At this moment Laghi is certainly in the thick of controversy but it is just as true that he will occupy a brilliant page when the history of those terrible years is written.

    Laghi has emphatically denied that he visited the Nueva Baviera sugar plantation and the Holy See has vigorously supported him.

    Laghi’s Comportment

    The foregoing should suffice to clarify with the information at my disposal the alleged meeting between the nuncio, Pio Laghi, and the prisoner, Juan Martin, as well as the reaction that followed its publication.

    That, however, is a minor issue, which has no bearing on the underlying problem I want to deal with—Pio Laghi’s comportment during the military dictatorship, which is of course set within a wider context.

    To enable readers to form their own opinion, I am going to lay down certain significant facts side by side.

    Early on the morning of July 4, 1976, three priests and two seminarians in the community of the Pallottine Fathers in the parish of San Patricio in Buenos Aires were murdered. In connection with this crime, Robert Cox, former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald, said the following in the federal court in the capital during the trial of the former commanders:

    I would like to insert something I consider important, in connection with Pio Laghi, who was then the papal nuncio in Argentina. I lived very close to the nunciature at that time (1976). I frequently went to visit Pio Laghi, a wonderful man who from the beginning was one of the few who tried to call the military to task about the disappeared and who again and again tried to change what was going on. I was friendly with Pio Laghi’s secretary and we were in frequent contact. I asked him to set up a meeting with Pio Laghi to speak about the murder of the Pallotine Fathers.

    We met in a room in the nunciature, the two of us alone. Laghi had the same impression as I—that is, that it had been done by security forces and that it was not an isolated event; it was one of the pieces of this puzzle that were falling into place. Naturally, he knew a lot more than I did, and he was truly horrified. I recall very clearly the look on his face. I recall what he said in great detail. He said to me, “I had to give communion to General Suarez Mason during the Mass I celebrated at the church of San Patricio. You can imagine what I felt as a priest.” He made a gesture and added, “I felt like hitting him in the face with my fist.”[1]

    Before the crime in San Patricio and after the arrest and disappearance of my daughter Monica—that is, between May 14 and July 4, 1976—I met with Laghi three times. I must confess that I found it disturbing. During the first meeting he agreed with everything I said, and he expressed concern about what was happening. He added that he would report the incident to the government as he was doing with hundreds of similar accusations, but he let me know in advance that he was powerless. During the second meeting, he scarcely listened to me, changed the subject, and tried to find excuses for the authorities. At the third meeting he told me we were being governed by criminals, an opinion that I quoted to Admiral Massera two years later. He looked surprised and answered, “I find it odd that Laghi would say that: we get together to play tennis every two weeks.”

    During one of these conversations Laghi told me he was afraid, I replied that as a nuncio he was not in danger. It was we Argentinians who were in danger, I said. I pointed out that as a bishop he ought to be ready to give his life for his neighbor, following the example of Jesus (“the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep,” John 10: 11).

    The fact is that this wonderful man, in Cox’s words, who will occupy a brilliant page when the history is written, in Timerman’s inflated phrase, and who had no doubt about the magnitude of what the military was doing, at this very period, on June 27, 1976, was willing to visit the zone of operations in Tucuman, at the invitation of one of these leaders whom he called “criminals,” the commander of the Fifth Infantry Brigade and the governor of Tucuman, General Antonio Domingo Bussi. La Nacion reported:

    Before starting back to Buenos Aires, Archbishop Pio Laghi spoke with the commanders and officers in the army post at Tucuman, and gave them a papal blessing…. He said to the officers, “You know well how to define Homeland.” He then mentioned the activity of troops in the sphere of antisubversive operations, and said that they were being asked to offer “a good deal of sacrifice; be both submissive and courageous in following your orders, and keep your interior serenity.”

    In response to a speech by Bussi, Laghi said that “the mission of the troops was self-defense.” Before returning to Buenos Aires, commenting on that expression, he told reporters, “In certain situations, self-defense demands that one take particular stances, which means that in this case the law should be respected as far as possible” [italics added].[2]

    On the same occasion Laghi explained that the church formed part of the “process of national reorganization” and was cooperating with the armed forces “not only with words, but with actions.” This shows his solidarity with the ideology of the military dictatorship despite his knowledge of its crimes.

    The Underlying Problem

    From what has been said, there is evidence that from the very beginning Laghi knew the nature of the repressive system set up by the military regime, and he was in anguish over what was happening. In the nunciature he met with and listened to the victims’ families and kept a list that was regularly transmitted to the military government.

    Many found Laghi understanding and helpful, particularly in cases where persons were legally arrested, such as the Timerman family and the family of Maria Consuelo Castano Blanco, who wrote a very moving letter from jail when she heard about the accusations against him. (Maria Corsuelo, with whose case I was involved, was arrested, illegally, and concealed by the army during a visit of the Inter-American Human Rights Commission. Thanks to the vigorous efforts made by this organization, she was legally arrested and sentenced to eighteen years in jail by a military court. The military government pardoned her before the change of government. However, her husband, who was arrested with her, never reappeared. That is, he was murdered.)

    Bishop Adolfo Tortolo, followed by members of the first junta of the military dictatorship; (right to left) admiral Emilio Eduardo Massera, military dictator Jorge Videla and general Ramon Agosti.

    Looking closely, one observes that Laghi’s efforts to help persons leave the country were successful in cases where they had been legally arrested or were released. Apparently he could do nothing to prevent or mitigate disappearances or secret executions, much more common.

    Sometimes Laghi was ill-humored in meeting the families that went to see him. He strikes me as moody, alternating between extroversion and depression, and that explains his fear. When he was leaving Buenos Aires in December 1980, he said that the most difficult problem he had had to deal with during his time there was that of human rights. He was glad to be leaving. He said, “The nunciature was a place which many people resorted to in order to ask for help. We tried to listen and help.”[3]

    In statements made in the United States, he repeated that he had feared for his own life, noting that he had received a death sentence from an Argentine National Socialist unit and that he took the threat very seriously.[4] I wonder if this made him more reserved, and I refer to the thoughts I expressed above.

    Nevertheless, the underlying problem is something else. Given the seriousness of the situation, why did Laghi not take a stance of public denunciation? Or did he actually believe that by playing tennis with Massera he could change his plans? What was the nature of the private pressures that he is supposed to have brought to bear? As nuncio, did he not have means at his disposal that he failed to employ to restrain the murderous fury of a regime that proclaimed its Catholicism to the four winds? I do not think it would have been necessary to punch Suarez Mason, but would it not have been proper and would it not have been more effective to deny him communion, for Laghi was convinced of his guilt, when the man cynically and sacrilegiously went up to receive communion at the Mass celebrated for the Pallotines? How can one justify his elaborate praise for the armed forces, when he was convinced that what they were doing was criminal? Is there not something two-faced in such a procedure?

    Through what I have read and heard, I am familiar with the attempts to answer these questions. Nuncios, it is said, are representatives of the Apostolic See to sovereign states and must be careful not to interfere in their internal affairs. An imprudent attitude could lead to a breaking of relations and could worsen the situation. Moreover, in the case of Argentina, after January 8, 1979, the pope was acting as a mediator in the conflict with Chile and hence Laghi’s position was even more delicate. Finally nuncios are supposed to respect the judgment of the local Catholic hierarchy, and it is not their role to take their place.

    I am leaving aside reference to mediation of the conflict over the Beagle Channel, for that began when most of the events being examined here had already taken place [ownership of islands in the Beagle Channel has repeatedly caused dissension between Argentina and Chile].

    With regard to other arguments, I must beg the reader’s indulgence and make a historical and theological detour into the issue of nunciatures. Such an inquiry will be useful for getting at the root of the problem.


    Legates or nuncios of the bishop of Rome first appeared in the fourth century, but their major expansion took place during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, when papal power was on the rise. Institutionally, nunciatures took on a clearly diplomatic character in the sixteenth century. Their present form is a product of the nineteenth-century pontificate of Pius IX, who initiated a period of intense centralization of the church.

    This strengthening of the role of nunciatures became fixed in a note of Leo XIII’s secretary of state, on April 13, 1885, after the nuncio in Madrid had censured a Spanish bishop.”[5] This course of action, “which obviously expressed the pope’s will and was intended to serve papal diplomats as a precedent they were expected to keep in mind, made it clear that nuncios were not only representatives to governments, but the natural instruments of the Holy See vis-avis the faithful, the bishops, and their delegates, to the extent that the pope, whom Vatican Council I has solemnly declared to be the universal pastor throughout the church, deems it opportune to confer on them his authority.”[6]

    As is well known, despite the tenacious opposition of the Roman curia, Vatican II made progress in collegiality and in reaction to centralism. The document on the church, Gaudium et Spes, as well as a specific decree on the subject, Christus Dominus, clearly state that both the mission and the collegiality of the bishops are of divine origin—that is, they are included in the revelation contained in scripture—and they derive from the sacramental character of episcopal consecration as such, and not from jurisdiction conferred by the Holy See. Nunciatures, on the other hand, are merely administrative creations of the papacy.

    As a logical corollary of this doctrine, Bishop Joachim Ammann of Munsterschwarzach, Germany, made a proposal on the council floor that nunciatures be abolished. His initiative was not successful, but I believe that the Catholic Church should consider it in the near future as one way to deemphasize its temporal and diplomatic aspects, and thus accentuate its evangelical and pastoral mission. The day should come when the pope, as the universal pastor, visits the particular churches scattered throughout the world as a simple pilgrim, with none of the pomp of his present journeys and the pernicious effects of his political involvement due to his inappropriate status as a head of state.

    However, in this aspect, as in so many others, there has been a retreat from Vatican II. The synods of bishops have become a mere formality. The Code of Canon Law promulgated by John Paul II on January 25, 1983, lays out the function of nuncios with a centralizing bent that I believe is opposed to the episcopal collegiality accepted at Vatican II.

    Article 364 grants to papal legates a role in supervising local churches, and a decisive influence in the appointment of bishops.

    I am convinced that the Catholic Church would benefit from the elimination of these expensive functions of diplomatic representation, generally exercised by short-sighted clerics who have no pastoral experience and who live in permanent conflict with the particular churches that constitute the people of God. As bureaucrats who are used to the refinement of diplomatic salons, they meddle in a way that is irreconcilable with the idea of a prophetic church that has taken a preferential option for the poor, founded on the word of God and guided by the Holy Spirit.

    My personal experience only confirms these assessments. I have known several nuncios in Buenos Aires: Jose Fietta, Humberto Mozzoni, Lino Zanini, Pio Laghi, and the present nuncio, Ubaldo Calabresi—and who knows which one has been worst?

    I met with Calabresi twice. The first time, shortly after he arrived, I tried to explain to him the situation created by state terrorism. It was useless. He is ignorant of the most basic aspects of Argentine history and life, and he has not become a part of the church in our country. He acts like an informant, and is influenced by inappropriate advisors, those who cultivate their contacts with the palace of the nunciature on avenida Alvear (another absurdity). He is notorious for his intellectual limits and his gaffes. He maintained that “Showing the film Je vous salue Marie [controversial Godard film depicting the Virgin Mary in contemporary forms that some found highly offensive] is prohibited by the national constitution for it states that the Catholic, apostolic, and Roman religion is the official religion.”[7] His statement is not exact; the Argentine constitution does not adopt Catholicism as the religion of the state. It does not seem to have occurred to him to read the basic law of the country in which he is a papal representative.

    [1] El Diario del Juicio (Buenos Aires), numero 2, June 4, 1885, p. 26.
    [2] La Nation (Buenos Aires), June 27, 1976.
    [3] Jorge Rouillon, “Argentina’s ‘Dirty War’ on Trial,” National Catholic Register (Los Angeles), Aug. 11, 1985.
    [4] Ibid.
    [5] Acta Apostolicae Sedis, (1884-1885) 561.
    [6] Roger Aubert, La Iglesia Catholica desde la crisis the 1848 hasta la primera guerra mundial (Madrid: Ediciones Cristiandad, 1977), Nueva Historia de la Iglesia, vol. 5, p.86.
    [7] Clarin, Buenos Aires), Jan,6, 1986.

    Emilio Fermin Mignone (1922 – 1998), lawyer, educator and important leader of the human rights movement that emerged during the last military dictatorship in Argentina. He became a campaigner for human rights in Argentina after his daughter was among the thousands who disappeared in the military regime’s “Dirty War”. As founder and director of the Center for Legal and Social Studies, Mignone was regarded as Argentina’s best-known campaigner for human rights, particularly from 1976 to 1983, when the country was under military rule. He devoted himself to documenting and denouncing in the country and abroad the crimes of state terrorism and contributed to the prosecution of those responsible for human rights violations during the dictatorship.

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