By Patricio Rice
On January 10th Cardinal Nuncio Pio Laghi, the first papal nuncio to the United States, died in Rome. He served in Argentina from 1974 to 1980. I have been asked my opinion of him. What measurement do you use in such a case? If it were the Gospel, which of course it should be, as he proclaimed himself to be a follower and believer in Jesus of Nazareth, then I can see no aspect of his life and work where he measures up.
Now if, instead of a Gospel measuring stick, you talk of decency and dedication to the general proposition of making people’s lives better through the diplomatic service then, while the issue may at first seem controversial with respect of Pio Laghi, after analysis, there can be little doubt that he served well the cause of the Argentine dictatorship but not that of humanity.
During his tenure in Argentina (1974-80) he was the voice of the Pope during one of the most traumatic periods of recent Argentine history. He was one of the most powerful figures in the country as he related to administrations that openly proclaimed their adherence to Roman Catholic principles and doctrine. He overviewed the escalation of violence in the Isabel Peron government (1974 -76) and lived through the most brutal years of the Junta dictatorship (1976 -83). The Catholic Hierarchy had a key role in supporting that Junta and there is no evidence I know of any moderating influence that Pio Laghi exercised. He even visited military operations in Tucuman province, and interviewed “desaparecidos” in one secret detentions camp there (one Juan Martin survived and gave his testimony of meeting Pio Laghi).
During his watch, two bishops were killed (Angelleli and Ponce de Leon) in car incidents. In Angelleli case, it was proved to be assassination and the other case is still under investigation. An entire religious community (Palotines) were brutally murdered in Buenos Aires. Yet there was no Vatican response of significance.
Meanwhile Gral. Videla installed a private chapel in Government house, bishops got substantial salaries and seminarians were also given special state scholarships. No control was exercised on reactionary bishops such as Archbishop Adolfo Tortolo (except he never received the red hat) and others such as Cardinal Primatesta and Cardinal Aramburu who were moderate at one stage became totally reactionary as they took on key leadership roles in the Argentine Bishops Conference. It was during those years that there was a serious impasse in relationships with the American Bishops Conference on the issue of human rights, and I know of no serious effort by Pio Laghi to resolve that question even after becoming Papal Delegate to the US (1980).
Among the many Church related cases that were on Pio Laghi´s agenda (French missionary sisters Alice Domon, and Leonie Duquet, disappeared in December 1977, and others) was that of Little Brother Mauricio Silva of the Charles de Foucauld Fraternity who was disappeared on June 14th 1977. Most of the petitions were made through Pio Laghi and it would be impossible to detail all. The superior general of the Fraternity Francisco Hulsen even met with Pope John Paul II on the eve of his mediation trip to Argentina in 1980 where he moved to avoid war between Chile and Argentina and made the petition for Mauricio. Nothing happened, and it was afterwards that the Nuncio echoed strongly the rumor that Mauricio had supposedly died in a Buenos Aires hospital. There is no doubt in Brother Hulsen´s mind who had personally met with Nuncio Pio Laghi in Buenos Aires (1978) that the Nuncio was an accomplice to the crimes of the dictatorship. “An accomplice with white gloves” he said to me recently on hearing of his death, and then explained that the Junta needed a Nuncio like Pio Laghi to be able to carry out their crimes that is one who mediated, negotiated and then wanted all to be forgotten. “Without people like that dictatorships would not exist” said Francisco who is now pastor in a community en El Alto (Bolivia).
There are however those who find this kind of position too harsh. Adolfo Perez Esquivel (Nobel Peace Laureate) is one who says that the Nuncio supported him to get him out of the country. That was also the case of many Church people that had to leave Argentina at the time. In fact his secretary Mons. Kevin Mullen was very considerate and helpful. However there is a sad epilogue here. Mons. Mullen was later transferred to Cuba where he died suddenly and mysteriously soon afterwards. In fact his sister was demanding a criminal investigation and did not rule out some sinister and unknown motives. The fact is that one of the key witnesses to Pio Laghi´s time in Argentina is no longer alive. Recently we went to the Nunciate in Buenos Aires to consult files on Mauricio´s case which will be in the courts later on this year, and we were told that all such files were now in the Vatican Archives and would not be released for many years (100) when all the protagonists are dead and gone (including ourselves). So historians will have a job to uncover the truth about those years.
By affirming that Pio Laghi was a “necessary accomplice” to the crimes of the dictatorship, I say that if it were not for his acquiescence and his tolerance of their reactionary Catholicism, with the Pentegon doctrine of national security included, his silencing of the clear condemnations by Vatican II of torture, human rights violations, his “moderating” influence on the diplomatic corps in Argentina so as not to antagonize the Junta, his support for bishops who “toe the line”, then the Junta would not have been able to have carried out their genocidal campaign against all real or imaginary opponents including many from the Churches. History, I believe, will have no doubts as to the damage that Pio Laghi caused to the Argentine people and Church by his “moderation” and “behind the scenes” diplomacy. Those were historical times when decent men and women stood up and said “no”. Sadly I believe that Pio Laghi was not among them. It is not a question of heroism but of ordinary decency. Did the Junta think the Vatican was behind them? Unequivocally “yes”. Pio Laghi had hundreds of opportunities to say “no” but he preferred to dine, wine and play tennis with the perpetrators. The Junta Dictatorship with its systematic practice of forced disappearances of thousands of people, was no doubt sophisticated and deceptive, but Pio Laghi had every opportunity to really know what was going on, but he chose not to see.
Another comment. Some years ago the Madres de Plaza de Mayo filed a case against Pio Laghi in an Italian court for his complicity in crimes against humanity in Argentina. It was the time that he was shortlisted to be candidate to the Papacy. The Little Brothers Fraternity central office in Brussells got a call from the Vatican to ascertain its position on the case. Was Pio Laghi behind that call? I am not sure what happened afterwards but it was one of the events that sparked off a historical review process of the years of the Fraternity in Argentina which resulted in the report we published last year “La Fraternidad en medio de la Tempestad”.
Patricio Rice, a former Priest, is a Lay Fraternity member of Charles Faucauld’s followers, Buenos Aires, Argentina. Rice is former torture victim and Executive Director of FEDEFAM, Latin American Federation of Families of the Disappeared.