Cardinal Raul Francisco Primatesta

Confidant of John Paul II blamed for complicity with the Argentine junta
Click to follow

Raúl Francisco Primatesta, priest: born Capillo del Señor, Argentina 14 April 1919; ordained priest 1942; Titular Bishop of Tanais 1957-61; Bishop of San Rafael 1961-65; Archbishop of Córdoba 1965-98 (Emeritus); named a Cardinal 1973; died Córdoba, Argentina 1 May 2006.

The Argentine Cardinal Raúl Francisco Primatesta was a longtime confidant of Pope John Paul II. But he was reviled by many of his countrymen and even faced prosecution for alleged "moral complicity" with the 1976-83 military junta and its "Dirty War" against opponents. Human rights groups accused the cardinal of passing the military the names of liberal professors and students, many of whom were later detained and joined the ranks of los desaparecidos, the disappeared.

Primatesta, Archbishop Emeritus of the Argentine province of Córdoba, was appointed Cardinal by Pope Paul VI in 1973, initiating a lifelong friendship with Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, the future John Paul II. After Paul VI died in 1978, Primatesta, as part of the Conclave of Cardinals, sat in the Sistine Chapel to help elect John Paul I, and, after the latter's sudden death 33 days later, John Paul II. Because he had surpassed the maximum age of 80, he was no longer part of the Conclave which elected Benedict XVI after John Paul II's death last year.

Despite the cloud that hung over him, and Argentina's Catholic Church, for its generally uncritical, indeed often sympathetic relationship with the junta, Primatesta restored much of his credibility, and that of the Church, later in his career and life, acting as a mediator in domestic and international issues, even after his retirement as Archbishop in 1998.

He played a key role in the 1982 negotiations, with the Vatican and the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Basil Hume, which allowed John Paul II's initially controversial, but ultimately successful visit to Britain in May-June that year.

Argentina's invasion of the Falkland Islands on 2 April, and Britain's dispatch of a task force to regain them, had put the long-planned visit in jeopardy after criticism that the Pope's visit could be seen as favouring one side against the other, notably, from the Argentines' point of view, favouring the largely Protestant "colonial" power against their own 90 per cent Catholic country.

But the three-way discussions among the Vatican and the British and Argentine churchmen, who also included Cardinal Gordon Gray on behalf of Scotland and the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Juan Carlos Aramburu, led to an agreement under which the Pope visited Argentina just over a week after leaving Britain. As it turned out, the military junta surrendered to Britain two days after the pontiff left Argentine soil and most Argentines believe his visit was the catalyst for the end of military rule the following year.

A few years earlier, when Argentina and Chile were literally on the brink of war in 1978 over three disputed islands in the Beagle Channel, the Vatican was seen as the last resort for mediation. Primatesta was deeply involved on the Argentine negotiating team that helped the two governments reach a non- aggression pact in January 1979.

In 2000, although already retired, Primatesta personally intervened to mediate a bitter dispute between the government and trade unions over proposed salary and social security cuts. After bringing together government, union and business representatives, he helped them reach an accord.

But it was his, and the Argentine Catholic Church's role during the "Dirty War" years that became his overriding legacy to many, if not most of his countrymen. He was President of the Argentine Episcopate, the country's highest religious body, from 1976 to 1982, coinciding almost exactly with the terrible years of military rule.

As recently as 2004, the Argentine human rights activist Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, a Catholic who won the 1980 Nobel Peace prize, accused Primatesta of complicity in the 1976 detention of five "progressive" priests, one of them American. The five, facing execution, were eventually freed after diplomatic intervention by Washington.

The case was brought before a court in the city of Córdoba and was still ongoing at the time of Primatesta's death. A human rights lawyer who helped Esquivel bring the case to court, María Elba Martínez, said:

He knew that priests were in charge of the cemeteries where the military secretly buried its victims. Much of the truth has gone to the tomb with him.

Human rights organisations also accused him of deliberate passivity after his friend Bishop Enrique Angelelli of La Rioja province died in a suspicious car crash in 1976. Years later, a court ruled that the progressive bishop's car had been tampered with to kill him.

The group Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, mothers of people who "disappeared", had always accused Primatesta and other church leaders of complicity with the military. Another group, Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, say conservative churchmen, including Primatesta, well knew that many kidnapped children of los desaparecidos were farmed out to childless military couples.

Raúl Francisco Primatesta was born in the village of Capilla del Señor, in Buenos Aires province, in 1919. At the age of 18, he was sent to study at the Gregorian University in Rome, obtaining degrees in Theology and Sacred Scripture. He was ordained as a priest in 1942 at the Church of Il Gesù in Rome, returning to Argentina soon afterwards. In 1961, Pope John XXIII appointed him bishop of the diocese of San Rafael, where he remained until Paul VI named him Archbishop of Córdoba in 1965.

After his death from heart disease, the provincial governor of Córdoba declared three days of mourning.

Phil Davison