Two huge volumes running almost 1,000 pages each, and a third in the process of being edited. These tomes represent the results of an in-depth investigation by the Argentine Synod into its actions during the brutal 1976-1983 military dictatorship (1976-1983), in which the Church offers a mea culpa dedicated to the memory of the victims.
"We want to know the historical truth and ask for forgiveness from God, the Argentine community and the victims of the violence," write the members of the Argentine Episcopal Conference (Conferencia Episcopal, CEA, or Argentine Synod) in the introduction to the first volume.
"We are aware that in many decisions, actions and omissions, the CEA was not up to the task," reads the report.
The three-part publication, which also covers the decade of violence leading up to the March 24, 1976 coup that brought the military junta to power, is being published in the same year that Argentina marks 40 years since the return to democracy.
The investigation outlines everything, from the initial support of Church leaders for the junta, to attempts to help the victims and the "martyrdom" of the murdered bishops, priests and nuns.
"It was a demand that the CEA had, to respond to the very serious allegations made against it, especially in trials" addressing crimes against humanity, said sociologist Fortunato Mallimaci, an expert on the relationship between Church and wider society.
"It has always been denounced that priests participated in torture or covered it up. It is very interesting that they've undertaken this work, which human rights groups have been calling for. And it represents a great contribution by showing all the victims," said Mallimaci.
Titled "La verdad los hará libres" ("The truth will set them free"), the research has been carried out by the Catholic University of Argentina (UCA) over a five-year period at the request of the Synod, which made its archives available for investigation.
Authors Carlos Galli, Juan Durán, Luis Liberti and Federico Tavelli also utilised the archives of the Society of Jesus, the Apostolic Nunciature and the Holy See itself.
‘The pain of the past in the present’
With this book "we have made a start that can bear fruit," said Tavelli in an interview.
"There is information that chaplains and nuns were involved in the disappearance of people and the appropriation of babies. But it is not institutional information that is in the archives. We think that if the Church says that we should not be afraid of the past, this may encourage those who know to approach us, even anonymously. The pain is not only of the past, but persists in the present,” he added.
In Argentina, more than 300 trials have been held so far investigating the crimes of the dictatorship and more than 1,100 people have been convicted.
For Galli, this undertaking was a pending task. "I had suffered in the 1970s for relatives, friends and colleagues who had disappeared, not now doing the book. What I felt now was responsibility. If I had often thought it should be done, how could I avoid it now?"
"We have an academic purpose, which is to historicise memory. We didn't give the volumes to anyone to read beforehand. We are researchers, we didn't make a catechism out of it," he said.
During the 1976-1983 military dictatorship, thousands of people were taken to clandestine prisons to be tortured, killed or disappeared. Hundreds of babies born while their mothers were in captivity were separated from them at birth and illegally handed over to other families.
The book analyses how the Church acted in the face of these crimes and also lists its members who were victims.
"There were 24 priests murdered, more than a dozen nuns, two bishops [Enrique Angelelli and Carlos Ponce de León], and hundreds and hundreds of Catholics. It was a Catholicism that had victims and perpetrators," Mallimaci said.
Bergoglio and the Jesuits
The investigation does not avoid controversial episodes and devotes a chapter to the kidnapping of Jesuit priests Francisco Jalics and Orlando Yorio in May 1976, and the role played by their then-provincial superior Jorge Bergoglio, the man now known as Pope Francis. The leader of the Catholic Church has been questioned by some human rights leaders for failing to offer them sufficient protection.
The two Jesuits were detained and tortured for five months by military forces who snatched them from a poor neighbourhood in Buenos Aires where they were doing pastoral work. The Church’s book collects the letters written by Bergoglio at the time and gives an account of the steps he took with Apostolic Nuncio to Argentina Pio Laghi to secure their release.
The authors also refer to hitherto unknown episodes, such as a meeting on August 8, 1978, between Laghi and dictator Jorge Videla at the Olivos presidential residence, in which the military man acknowledged the existence of the disappeared and estimated the number of the missing to be between 2,000 or 3,000.
"The nuncio left Argentina in 1981 and wrote a report in which he said that the disappearances were part of a clandestine and predetermined plan," Tavelli said.
Human rights organisations claim that the dictatorship disappeared some 30,000 people in total.
by Nina Negrón, AFP