Catholic Church opens files on dark period of Argentina dictatorship

But only victims and their relatives may access an archive made up of thousands of letters

The Pope ordered the archives to be opened after pressure from human rights groups.
The Pope ordered the archives to be opened after pressure from human rights groups.GIUSEPPE LAMI (EFE)
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La Iglesia abre sus archivos sobre la dictadura argentina

The Catholic Church of Argentina and the Vatican will soon open their archives on the South American country’s brutal military dictatorship.

The documents, which cover the period from 1976 to 1983, will be made available once they are fully digitalized and organized, the Argentine Episcopal Conference and the Holy See said in a joint statement, without providing a final date for when that would happen.

The archive includes around 3,000 letters from people seeking assistance from the Catholic Church in their bid to find missing relatives or loved ones – the so-called “disappeared” who were secretly abducted by authorities during the country's Dirty War, which saw thousands of executions, baby kidnappings and other atrocities.

The Church did not always do everything it could have and we ask forgiveness for that Archbishop Mario Poli

After years of pressure from human rights groups, Pope Francis ordered the partial release of documents that also include the replies of the Church to families, outlining any action taken.

Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in fighting the dictatorship, called the opening of the archives an “important step” but criticized the fact they are not being made available to a wider public.

For now, the documents will only be open to victims of the dictatorship and their families, with historians and the press being left out.

A dark stain

The role of the Catholic Church during Argentina’s right-wing dictatorship remains a dark stain on its past, as various military chaplains and members of the organization’s hierarchy publicly supported the country’s military leaders.

Four decades after the end of a regime during which as many as 30,000 people are thought to have been killed or made to disappear, documents held by organizations such as the Argentinean Episcopal Conference and the Vatican Secretariat of State are starting to see the light of day.

But other more sensitive material, including files involving the clergymen attached to the military, remain under lock and key.

“As far as we know they haven’t destroyed anything,” the Archbishop of Buenos Aires Mario Poli said at a press conference, explaining that each diocese has its own archive.

Pope Francis ordered the archive to be opened due to pressure from human rights groups

Poli attempted to defend the role of the Church during the dictatorship. “We did what we had to do. We are not afraid of the archives,” he said.

The archbishop also defended the 40-year-wait by noting that Vatican files are usually kept closed for 70 years before being made public.

The Catholic Church in Argentina has already asked for forgiveness for its role during the dictatorship, Poli went on to say.

In 2000, the Church apologized for its “sins” during the rule of the military junta, admitting responsibility for the participation of some of its members in political persecution and torture.

But Poli said that the soon-to-be-released documents will show that the Church “worked closely with those seeking justice [during the dictatorship].”

“Constitutional guarantees had been suspended. But a lot was still done,” he said.

The files are only available to victims of the dictatorship and their families, with historians left out in the cold

“We can’t speak about complicity. It’s true that in some cases the Church did not do everything it could have, and we ask forgiveness for that. But these documents are going to provide more light than shadows. The Church in Argentina didn’t leave: it stayed here and there were a lot of wounds within the Church itself,” the archbishop said in reference to leftist priests who suffered political persecution during the period.

At least one major question mark hangs over the opening up of the archive: will it shed any light on the role of Pope Francis during the dictatorship?

Jorge Mario Bergoglio has been accused in the past of having allowed two Jesuit priests to be handed over to military authorities. The leftist priests Francisco Jalics and Orlando Yorio, who were under his protection, were kidnapped and tortured. This accusation was a major issue when Bergoglio was elected Pope, but Jalics went on to issue a statement denying the claim that he and Yorio were turned in by Bergoglio.

“There was a trial in Buenos Aires in relation to this issue, and it was resolved,” said José María Arancedo, the head of the bishops.

English version by George Mills.

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