The Church, the Dirty War and Taking Bad News

Argentina’s Guerra Sucia, or Dirty War, didn’t get that name by accident. From 1976, when a military junta seized control of the government, until 1983, when the country’s National Reorganization Process held general elections, thousands of citizens — some claim as many as 30,000 — were made to disappear. Argentina’s Commission on the Disappearance of Persons discovered that many, following capture and torture by military forces, were thrown, alive, from low-flying airplanes into the Rio Plata and South Atlantic.

Only now is the public learning how the junta handled the Dirty War’s strangest spoils. Over 500 children of desaparecidos, or disappeared persons, were distributed to military and security officers who raised them as their own, having first promised to conceal the children‘s true identities.

Yesterday’s New York Times recounts the story of Victoria Montenegro, who was born in 1976 to Roque and Hilda Montenegro, both of whom were assassinated for suspected subversive activities when their daughter was only four months old. Hernan Tetzlaff, the officer who supervised the assassinations, adopted her, renaming her Maria Sol. For the next 25 years, Tetzlaff and his wife gave Montenegro “a strong ideological education,” insisting variously that the government’s crimes had been exaggerated, and were justified. She accepted her adoptive father’s line until 2000, when the courts, having obtained a sample of her DNA, revealed to her the names and fate of her birth parents.

Thanks to advances in DNA testing, over 100 other “appropriated” children have “recovered” their biological families.

The role of the Church in these illicit adoptions has yet to be determined, but Adolfo Perez Esquivel, winner of the Pope John XXIII Peace Memorial, claims the Argentine hierarchy was both aware and complicit. According to the Times, he has said that priests and bishops “defended the taking of children as a way to ensure they were not ‘contaminated’ by leftist enemies of the military.” So far, both Argentine and Vatican officials have declined to comment.

If Perez’s accusations turn out to represent a Big Lie, it’ll be a Big Lie alarmingly congruent with the facts as we know them. The “dirty” tactics through which the junta made itself infamous were imports — from France, courtesy of a clique of former army officers who’d pioneered their use in the Algerian War. Their guru was Jean Ousset, a Catholic scholar who predicted a final showdown between Marxism and Christianity, and argued that Natural Law justified the use of extreme measures in defense of the faith. When, following a failed putsch and a failed assassination attempt against President De Gaulle, these officers and their ideology found themselves in need of asylum, Argentina provided one. Argentine naval officers offered to arrange visas and day jobs for the refugees; in return, the refugees were to share their expertise in counter-insurgency.

Presiding at the opening of the Higher Military College, where the Frenchmen conducted their seminars, was Cardinal Antonio Caggiano, vicar for Argentina’s military ordinariate. According to Argentine journalist Horacio Verbitsky, one point in the curriculum was to explain a jarring quote taken from Dietrick von Niecken, who served as bishop of Verden in the early 15th century:

When the existence of the Church is threatened, it is no longer bound by the commandments of morality. When unity is the aim, all means are justified: deceit, treachery, violence, usury, prison and death. Because order serves the good of the community, and the individual has to be sacrificed.

Caggiano “gave his blessing and invoked God’s aid so that the military might ‘discover the true path to defend the peace of our nations.”

To many, this will read like a kick aimed right at the Church’s groin. The media carries nothing but bad news — abused children, clashes between popular priests and their far less popular bishops. What’s the use of dredging up bad olds? With the Irish government trying to pass laws un-sealing the confessional, wouldn’t it be more useful to write something that shows the Church in her best light — something about nuns and orphans, say? Jeepers, Lindenman, you heartless SOB, where‘s your team spirit?

Certainly there’s a case to be made for discretion. But I wonder if it doesn’t seem stronger to cradle Catholics. They’re the ones who can remember a time when the Church was respected — or at least when there were better career paths for American opinion writers than bad-mouthing her. I wonder whether these old hands can appreciate the perspective of people like me, who joined the Church after the Pius Wars and in the middle of the child abuse scandal. Having seen the Church’s reputation bottom out, we understand instinctively that there’s nowhere for it to go but up. Stories like this one — well, they might not help the ascent, but they can’t do much to slow it down.

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