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Argentina's disappeared: Father Christian, the priest who did the devil's work

Christian Von Wernich's story is one of the darkest chapters of the 'Dirty War'. He was the priest who heard the confessions of political prisoners, passed them on to the police, and then stood by as the detainees were tortured. David Usborne reports on the day justice was done

Outside the courthouse in La Plata, 50 miles south of Buenos Aires, late on Tuesday, the crowds were ready for what they were sure was coming. Finally, the word leaked that a verdict had been handed down – and it was the right one. They beat their drums, women undid white headscarves and raised them in the air, fireworks were lit and somewhere in the midst of the throng a human effigy was set alight.

It was an extraordinary explosion of emotion, replicated in cafes and homes across the land at the end of a televised trial that had lasted three months and gripped the entire population. But if there was joy, even relief in Argentina yesterday, its feelings remained far more complicated. This conviction was a moment of cleansing and resolution. But it also was a reminder of deep, incomprehensible pain.

The effigy of cardboard and cloth was in the likeness of the man convicted – in a dog collar of the Catholic Church. The Reverend Christian von Wernich, 69, a former police chaplain, was sentenced to life in prison for collaborating with the Buenos Aires police during the dark days of the country's "Dirty War", when, between 1976 and 1983, the military ran the country in a cruel and ruthless dictatorship.

Von Wernich, wearing a bullet-proof vest, who had compared himself to Jesus Christ in his testimony before a three-judge panel, was found guilty of involvement in seven murders, as well as 31 cases of torture and 42 kidnappings. He had participated, prosecutors said, in crimes that amounted to "genocide". Von Wernich told the court he had been doing "God's work".

Since the return of democracy in 1983, coming to terms with the horrors of the dictatorship has been a shared struggle in Argentina. So has the process of discovering exactly what happened. An explicit and shocking report issued in 1984 by the government-backed National Commission on Disappeared People, entitled Nunca Mas [Never Again], found that 9,000 people had died or "disappeared", all perceived by the junta as communists or leftist sympathisers and therefore "subversive" and enemies of the state.

The document, which has recently been republished, opened with these words: "Many of the events described in this report will be hard to believe. This is because the men and women of our nation have only heard of such horror in reports from distant places."

Rights groups put the toll at close to 30,000. Victims were smuggled out of their homes at night with hoods over their heads and taken to police cells for interrogation and often torture. Usually their loved ones never saw them again and – in one of the more infamous symbols of the horror – many were taken in aircraft, drugged and dumped into the waters of the River Plate or the Atlantic.

The women raising their scarves were mostly members of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo who have staged protest marches demanding justice outside the presidential palace in Buenos Aires on one afternoon every week. Their movement spawned a similar campaign by Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, whose focus was on the babies of those who vanished. The mothers of the infants were usually killed and the babies given for adoption to military officers. They have found 80 such children so far and their work continues.

While some prosecutions were pursued shortly after the restoration of democracy in the early 1980s the process later faltered as subsequent civilian governments, including those of Carlos Menem and Raul Alfonsin, pardoned officers and urged the country simply to move on.

Clearly, it is moving on now, but not towards collective amnesia. The leftist government of Nestor Kirchner, elected four years ago, decided quickly to heed the mothers and other rights groups. An earlier amnesty was lifted after being ruled unconstitutional. One man who found his protection removed was Von Wernich, who had fled and gone into hiding in a coastal town of Chile. A group of rights activists and journalists exposed his whereabouts, and he was returned to Argentina.

Von Wernich, 69, white-haired, glaring and unrepentant to the end, is the first priest to be found guilty for "Dirty War" crimes. It was not his trial alone, therefore. For many in Argentina and indeed across Latin America, it was the Catholic Church that was on trial in La Plata. The failure of the church in Argentina – or at least some of its priests – to protect the innocent contrasts starkly with the roles the church played under dictatorships in Brazil and Chile. There, the priesthood resisted and condemned. In Argentina, it collaborated.

The revulsion felt by most in Argentina towards Von Wernich is not hard to fathom. The portrait painted by prosecutors and backed up by a parade of sometimes tearful witnesses was of a man who used his position to betray those who trusted him.

He was found guilty, not only of being present at sessions of torture, but something more shocking. He would extract confessions from those detained, sometimes in the presence of police officers, and pass on the information – often including the names of fellow leftists – to interrogators. What should have been private conversations with God became intelligence that was used for more arrests, more torture and more killings.

Von Wernich's defence lawyers treated the trial as a sham, bringing no witnesses of their own and engaging in only minimal cross-examination of those brought by the prosecution. As the conviction was handed down, Von Wernich remained expressionless, jotting down notes and speaking briefly to his lawyers. When he was led to a van bound for prison, the crowd on the street erupted again in cheers.

Reaction from most quarters has been swift, including from the marching mothers. "Justice has been done," declared Tati Almeyda. "The Catholic Church was an accomplice."

The consequences of the verdict promise to be far-reaching. The unveiling of the former regime's sins remains highly divisive, pitting rights groups and the marching mothers against families of military officers from the time of the junta who claim they are being unfairly persecuted simply for following orders.

For the Church, the verdict has broken a taboo and will surely provoke a new period of self-examination. "The case against Von Wernich is unprecedented, and it could have ramifications around the continent," José Miguel Vivanco, director of the Americas division of Human Rights Watch, said. "I don't recall a single other case of a priest or a religious person who has been convicted in Latin America for criminal participation in human rights violations."

Among witnesses of the cloth at the trial was Father Ruben Capitano, who was at a seminary with Von Wernich in the 1970s. In his testimny, he urged the Church to come to grips with its past. "I say this with pain. Until the church recognises its errors, we will be an unfaithful church." Another witness, Adolpho Perez Esquival, who won the Nobel Prize for founding Paz y Justicia [Peace and Justice] recalled in court how he had, futilely, begged the Church at the time of repression to help.

An internal inquiry by the Church may follow. Shortly after the conviction, meanwhile, a short text was released by Cardinal Jorge Bergolio, Archbishop of Buenos Aires: "We believe the steps that justice takes in the clarifying of these deeds should serve as a call to leave behind impunity as well as hate and rancour."

Another statement from Catholic officials said this: "If any member of the Church... by recommendation or complicity, endorsed the violent repression, he did so under his own responsibility, straying from and sinning gravely against God, humanity and his own conscience."

In a prologue to the original Nunca Mas report, the Argentine writer Ernesto Sabato wrote: "It is only democracy which can save a people from horror on this scale. Only with democracy will we be certain that Never Again will events such as these, which have made Argentina so sadly infamous throughout the world, be repeated in our nation."

The soul-searching is not over yet but Argentina is answering Mr Sabato's call. Democracy has been re-rooted for more than 20 years and, indeed, the country faces its next presidential election just two weeks from now. Democracy requires an unflinching commitment to justice. This was the trial of only one man, but the message is clear. Justice is also now reasserting itself too.