The courage of Kevin Mullen
From Where I Stand
CHARLESTON, South Carolina — This is a story of cool courage during a terrible time. It is the untold story of Monsignor Kevin Mullen, who was the secretary at the Papal Nunciature in Buenos Aires from 1976 to 1979, the years which marked the height of the savage dictatorship that tore Argentina apart.
I met Monsignor Mullen when I was desperate. He was one of the blessed few who opposed all violence. He denounced the generals to their faces for the junta’s crimes against humanity and called on them to account for hundreds and eventually thousands of people who were missing. He told my wife Maud that it was then that he realized why he had been called to be a priest.
Most of the missing people were abducted from their homes by unidentifiable armed men. They are the now the globally notorious desaparecidos. The kidnappers were unidentifiable because their uniforms carried no badges or insignia but their military boots gave them away. It was a matter of conjecture in diplomatic circles as to whether they resembled the Einsatzgruppen, the Nazi squads which hunted and killed Jews, or Stalin’s thugs who took people away in bread vans.
Faced with official denials wherever they went in search of their kidnapped relatives, family members eventually found a few places where their plight was taken seriously. One was the US Embassy where a young political officer, F. Allen (“Tex”) Harris, welcomed them to his office, listened to them and drew up a list of missing people which rapidly added up to over 10,000 names. President Jimmy Carter’s decision to make the defence of human rights and the protection of human lives a major policy transformed diplomacy.
Some other embassies of democratic nations also had a role in the expansion of foreign policy to include human rights but the most important diplomatic effort, apart from the efforts of “Tex” Harris, was that embarked upon by 36-year-old Kevin Mullen. Harris was backed up by the redoubtable Pat Derian, appointed by Jimmy Carter as the State Department’s first human rights official. Mullen, an Irish priest who was a career Vatican diplomat, worked in the shadow of Papal Nuncio Pio Laghi, who played an ambiguous role. Laghi played tennis with a mass murderer, Navy commander-in-chief Emilio Massera, and constantly socialized with other, almost equally evil men in uniform. But Laghi was genuinely horrified by the methods the dictatorship was using to fight what they termed terrorist subversion with links to Soviet Communism, which today would probably be seen as insurgencies by a number of political groups that took up arms.
Relatives searching for members of their families soon exhausted all official options. The police knew nothing. The judges knew nothing. The daily newspapers, with the exception of the Buenos Aires Herald, turned them away. But there were a blessed few who cared. Rabbi Marshall Meyer recognized what was happening and called it the “Argentine holocaust.” It was a holocaust without a capital “H” because the European Holocaust claimed millions of victims and is incomparable in scale. We did not know it then but horror had found an equal in the cruelty, depravity and criminality of inhuman beings who gloried in their power over life and death. Sadly, as is so often the case and is, perhaps, also true today, most people chose not to know what was going on.
Kevin and I became very close as we exchanged information. I reported as much as I could in the Herald without endangering more lives. He was drawing up lists of the missing and asking the military where they were. When would they be put on trial if believed to be guilty, or freed if innocent?
We were next-door neighbours and I often went to see him at the Nunciature, a gloomy mansion on the corner of Avenida Alvear and Montevideo. There Kevin heard so many sad stories. He continued to compile lists of names and badgered the generals with them. And he repeated again and again to me, in frustration: “I just keep coming up against a stone wall.”
The generals came to hate him. They taunted him, calling him “the little red priest.” Finally they threatened him publicly. A suitcase bomb, fake or real, I never was certain, was placed outside the Nunciature, where he lived. Kevin was recalled to the Vatican and then, in what I assumed was a reward for his service, he was posted as secretary to the papal nuncio in Paris.
It was in January 1980 in his room at the beautiful Nunciature on 10, Avenue du President Wilson, that he told my wife the fate of the two French nuns who were abducted from the Holy Cross Church along with the founding members of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo. He indicated with a gesture that their chests were cut open before they were thrown from a Navy plane into the Atlantic so that their bodies would sink to the bottom of the ocean. But as fate would have it, the bodies washed up on the beach further south. But their remains were not identified until many years later by the forensic science team which has done so much to save the identities that the military sought to eradicate.
My wife asked Kevin how he knew.
“Confession, Maud,” he said. “And let me tell you that all the information I have has been reported to the Vatican.”
Before he was recalled, another horrific incident prompted Kevin to telephone me and ask to see me urgently. I hurried next door and found him distraught. He had just received a visit from a man who had come to see him from Zárate, 50 miles northeast of Buenos Aires. On March 24, 1976, the day of the coup, marines took over the centre of the city, stopping people and demanding their identity papers. Without knowing why, the man was detained and brutally tortured. His torturers wanted to know the names of everyone in the “orga.” That was the slang term the military used to describe a guerrilla (or terrorist) group.
The man had no involvement with any political group, armed or otherwise. To stop the torture, he gave the names of a number of the most respectable people he could think of. When he was released, he learned that some of the totally innocent people he had named had been abducted and had not reappeared. The man felt responsible and needed to confess his sin of innocence.
My friendship with Kevin is described in a book written by my son David Cox (Dirty Secrets, Dirty War: Evening Post Publishing Company; Guerra sucia, secretos sucios: Sudamericana.) The book was read by Kevin’s brother Jerome, who lives in Warrenpoint, Northern Ireland.
It is here where, were it not for the fact that Diego Maradona has degraded the expression by using it to describe his controversial goal in the 1986 World Cup final against England, I would be tempted to cite “the hand of God” in bringing me together with the brother of the friend I have sought to learn more about since I heard he had died in 1983 in Havana, Cuba, where he had been posted.
Jerome Mullen wrote to me to tell me that he had written a letter to Pope Francis to ask him to look into the mystery of his brother’s sudden death and consider his service in a series of such dangerous places. He was posted to Syria and Bangladesh before Argentina and Cuba. Almost simultaneously, whether by chance or invisible hand, my son’s book, with a note to point out the references to Kevin Mullen, was delivered to the pope’s secretary. Friends of ours attended a special mass on January 17 and received the papal blessing.
In his letter to Pope Francis, Jerome wrote that “our family were disappointed that my brother Kevin’s life had never been acknowledged in any way by the Church in Ireland or Rome for his heroic work in many of the difficult countries in which he served the Holy See, not least in [the Pope’s] own homeland of Argentina.”
Jerome Mullen is waiting to see if Pope Francis, whom he sees as a very different pope, will clear up “the mystery” of his brother’s sudden death.
I hope that at long last Monsignor Kevin Mullen’s saintly work in Argentina will be recognized and that daylight will be let in to the Vatican archives so that if there are hidden secrets about the Argentine dictatorship, they will finally be revealed.