By Luis Granados | 18 July 2010
There was outrage in Chile last week when the Catholic Church petitioned the government for pardons for those convicted of human rights abuses during the 1973-1990 regime of General Augusto Pinochet. According to official statistics, 3,065 opponents of Pinochet’s regime were killed and 1,200 more “disappeared.” The deaths are just the hard cases at the tip of the iceberg; unofficial estimates show another 30,000 tortured, 80,000 imprisoned, and 200,000 exiled, voluntarily or otherwise, in a country 1/20 the size of the United States.
Why the solicitude for perpetrators of these crimes? Mercy is admirable, but why mercy for these guys rather than for, say, marijuana dealers? This isn’t the first time the Vatican has taken an interest in Chilean thugs. In 1998, when General Pinochet was on trial for torture in England, Pope John Paul II himself begged for his release, which was ultimately granted. Why?
The story goes back a long way. Salvador Allende’s grandfather had founded one of the first secular schools in Chile, where the Church controlled the educational system with an iron hand; he also served as Grand Master of the Masons, the humanist organization the Church has always feared and despised. Allende followed in his family’s footsteps, as a liberal member of Parliament and a perennial also-ran for the Presidency. In 1970, though, the political stars aligned and Allende’s party won a small plurality of the votes, making him the first avowed Socialist freely elected to head a country in the western hemisphere.
At first, relations between Allende and the Church were civil. The Chilean Church had moderate elements inspired by Vatican II that shared Allende’s sympathy for the poor; for his part, politician Allende could ill afford to alienate such a powerful institution, especially when he viewed his principal adversaries as being economic rather than social institutions. After two turbulent years, though, other members of Allende’s coalition grew tired of what they saw as constant Catholic backstabbing, and frustrated by the fact that even though the taxpayers paid nearly all of the cost of Chile’s educational system, the content of what that system taught was controlled by the Catholic Church. So in January, 1973, the minister for education proposed a national program to overhaul the curriculum to teach “values of socialist humanism” to achieve a “harmonious development of young people’s personalities,” rather than the dogmatic brainwashing normally associated with Catholic education. A pilot program for 9th graders was scheduled to commence in June.
The voters of Chile may have liked this idea, because at the off-year elections in March the President’s party actually gained in strength, which is as unusual a phenomenon in Chile as it is in the United States. The Catholic Church, though, most definitely did not like the idea – how outrageous that a government would want to meddle with the education it was paying the bills for! Allende was denounced as a Godless communist from pulpits all across Chile; the heat grew so intense that he deferred implementing the pilot before it could even begin.
The damage was already done, though. Allende’s economic schemes had disrupted much of the Chilean economy, and millions of dollars pumped in by the CIA to foment dissent also had an impact. The stamp of approval from the Church gave the military officers who chafed under Allende the moral courage to act. In June, 1973, instead of testing a pilot program to teach humanist values in the schools, Chile was treated to tanks rolling down the main boulevard of Santiago in a botched coup attempt. (The tanks apparently stopped at traffic lights, and one of them also had to stop to fill up with gas.)
Allende’s response to the failed coup was politically inept, and economic conditions continued to worsen. The Church attempted to broker a deal in which Allende would retain the title of office, but give up most of his plans for substantive reform, and be in no position to threaten its grip on education again. Allende’s coalition partners, who thought they had been freely elected by the people of Chile to do a job, balked at that. On September 11, 1973, most of Chile’s military participated in a coup led by General Pinochet, wreaking far more damage than was necessary during a rare opportunity to use their very cool American weapons. While under Air Force bombardment in the presidential palace, Allende committed suicide. Fifteen years later, in the same building, Pope John Paul II personally administered Holy Communion to General Pinochet, the savior of Catholic education in Chile. In a confidential study conducted by a doctoral student shortly after the coup, 90% of Chile’s bishops (all of whom were interviewed) and 76% of the surveyed priests supported the takeover.
Chile is not the only place where the Catholic Church has been solicitous of mass murderers. After World War II, the Church was heavily involved with setting up the “ratlines” to protect Nazi war criminals from prosecution. Franz Stangl, for example, was appointed by Heinrich Himmler in 1940 to superintend the T-4 euthanasia program in which mentally retarded Germans were put out of their misery. From there he became commandant of the Sobibor work camp, where 100,000 Jews who were worn out from overwork and malnutrition were quietly executed. His efficiency was noticed, and he was given command of the much larger operation at Treblinka, where 800,000 Jews and 2,000 Gypsies perished. Stangl described his victims as “cargo.”
After the war, Stangl was captured and detained in an Austrian prison camp. When he escaped, he knew where to head: Rome, where Bishop Alois Hudal arranged to provide him with money, a Red Cross identity card, and a visa to make his way to Syria. He ultimately wound up in Brazil, where a disgruntled ex-son-in-law betrayed him in 1968.
Bishop Hudal was a busy guy. In addition to Stangl and dozens of lesser lights, he extended Catholic mercy to SS captain Eduard Roschmann, known as the “Butcher of Riga”; doctor Josef Mengele, known as the “Angel of Death” for his sadistic medical experiments on prisoners at Auschwitz; and even to Adolf Eichmann, who had overall responsibility for implementing Hitler’s “Final Solution.”
The Church’s attention, though, was even more focused on Croatian war criminals than on Germans. The Church had a consuming interest in Croatia, which Pope Pius XII called “the outpost of Christianity” – for beyond Croatia lay the Serbs, whose Eastern Orthodox faith the Pope did not regard as “Christian.” Intensive Vatican lobbying efforts at the 1919 Versailles peace conference for an independent, Catholic-dominated Croatia failed. A Catholic terrorist organization called the Ustashi then formed, which assassinated a string of Yugoslav politicians, including the king. After the Axis conquered Yugoslavia, Vatican diplomacy finally succeeded in creating an independent Croatia, under Ustashi control. Ante Pavelić, the Ustashi commander who became Croatia’s president, exulted: “Never cease to call the believers in God to prayers! And you, who stand at the altar of God, raise your arms to the ‘Father of the starry heavens,’ for He is the source of every perfect gift, and pray to Him to inspire the leader of our Independent State of Croatia that he may have the wisdom which will allow him to accomplish his Duty in honor of God, and for the salvation of the people, in justice and in truth.” “The hope of a better future seems to be smiling on you,” the Pope told Pavelić, “a future in which the relations between Church and State in your country will be regulated in harmonious action to the advantage of both.”
Zagreb Radio then announced that: “In the Independent State of Croatia there are no Serbs and no so-called Serbian Orthodox Church . . . There can be no Serbs or Orthodoxy in Croatia, the Croats will see to it that this is made true as soon as possible.” Pavelić proceeded to conduct a brutal “convert to Catholicism or die” program against the Orthodox Serbs living in his territories; though the evidence is sketchy, as many as half a million Serbs may have perished. Croatian authorities were in constant communication with the Vatican throughout the war, and Pavelić himself was graciously received by the Pope in 1943, when the level of slaughter was well-known. Pictures are worth a thousand words; those at http://www.reformation.org/archive.html give a disturbing sense of the enormity of the Croatian Catholic crimes.
After the war, Pavelić disappeared, only to turn up at Castel Gandolfo, the summer residence of the Pope himself. He later escaped to Madrid, where he died peacefully at a Franciscan monastery in 1959. The other thing that disappeared was the Croatian treasury, bloated with gold stolen from Jews, Serbs, and Orthodox churches. Its final resting place appears to have been the Vatican Bank.
Luis Granados is the director of Humanist Press, the publishing house of the American Humanist Association, and the author of Damned Good Company: Twenty Rebels Who Bucked the God Experts. He writes the Rules Are for Schmucks column for TheHumanist.com.
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