December 11, 2017

Historian Lucas Bilbao, author of The Prophet of Genocide

Sunday, April 3, 2016

‘At least 100 chaplains worked in torture centres’

By Santiago Del Carril
Herald Staff
Born:  April 10, 1985 in San Cayetano, Buenos Aires province
Favourite musicians: Mercedes Sosa, Silvio Rodríguez, Víctor Jara
Favourite Book: My Sweet Orange Tree, by José Mauro de Vasconcelos
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Sports:  Swimming


When historian Lucas Bilbao and his colleague, sociologist Ariel Lede, first came upon the diaries of a long dead bishop six years ago, they didn’t understand at the time the significance of their find. But military vicar Victorio Bonamín wasn’t just any religious figure – he was the last military dictatorship’s most fervent advocate, or as he was later to be infamously named by the late human rights leader Emilio Mignone, “the Prophet of Genocide.”

Under Bonamín’s command, hundreds of military chaplains gave psychological and moral support to a military campaign that exterminated and disappeared thousands of victims between 1975 and 1983. Although the diaries, spanning from 1975-1976, only scratch the surface of Bonamín’s involvement, Bilbao and Lede still managed to write a book from the material after a slow process of careful and meticulous research.

In an interview with the Herald near the Congress building, the barely 30-year-old writer explained why Bonamin’s diaries are essential to understanding how the Church operated during the last military dictatorship.

How did you manage to gain access to Victorio Bonamín’s diaries?

When we began investigating the Liberation Theology movement six years ago, we met with the late Jesuit José “Pichi” Meisegeier, an expert on the subject. He mentioned he had some interesting material that we should take a look at and he showed us the diaries. At that moment, we didn’t understand what we had.

When did you realize it?

Well, we started researching all the names of the people Bonamín would encounter, from the upper military ranks to the lower ones. And slowly we began to grasp the context that Bonamín was in. To learn what type of work his military chaplains did. It was then we realized that this source was unique, as it practically didn’t exist: the diaries of a genocide. The diaries insert you into the world of the military. This wasn’t just his job... it was his life. He would eat all the time with Army chiefs, have meetings and spend his free time with the military.

What is the importance of Bonamín’s role?

It’s crucial. He was appointed bishop in 1960 and at the same time he was designated Military vicar, which he headed until 1982. His ideology demonstrates how the movement identified the Catholic faith with the military through his speeches, writings and dialogues.

Have the diaries been used as evidence in crimes against humanity trials?

Yes, they’ve been used in at least 10 cases. The most significant was in the sentencing of late Bishop Enrique Angelelli. In 2014, the La Rioja court investigating Angelelli’s mysterious death cited Bonamín’s diaries several times to show the Church’s complicity. The judges concluded that Angelelli wouldn’t have been killed if the Church hadn’t been complicit with the dictatorship.

What else can you find in the diaries?

They reveal family members seeking help to find their forcibly-disappeared children, while the bishop is aware of how state terrorism is being implemented. The issue of the detainees and how they are tortured, and how the repressors would seek moral consolation from the chaplains and the Vicar about what they were doing.

What did the military vicar do?

He would give orders, and have meetings with the military chaplains to discuss what was happening. He was aware of the torture that went on in Operation Independence in Tucumán during. This is the first “scene of war” where all these incidents of violence, torture and repression appear. He is attentive to it, and orders more chaplains to be sent to Tucumán so that armed forces don’t break down. They were preparing for this moment for 15 years.

How were they preparing for this event for so long?

When the Military Vicariate was founded in 1957 it had an ideological aspect, as they were preparing for a war against communism. They believed Marxism was advancing aggressively, which in reality wasn’t a real threat in Argentina but in ideological terms they thought it was. They were taught that the enemy is hidden, subversive, and the only way to fight against it was by breaking the law. That is what the chaplains would tell the Armed Forces.

How do you see the Jesuits in this system?

Like the other orders, members of the Jesuits entered the Military Vicariate. An estimated 30 percent of the members of the military Vicars came from the Church orders; the majority were Salesian, a few Franciscans, and also Jesuits. The person who authorized Jesuits forming part of the chaplains was Jorge Bergoglio (now Pope Francis).

Did Bergoglio have any other role in the Military Vicariate?

We can only confirm that he would authorize Jesuit priests to become chaplains. Everything else is just theories, but you could hypothesize that since the Jesuit military chaplains still had relations with the Jesuits, they could still have shared information with them. Maybe Bergoglio knew something, but it’s just a supposition.

And what special role did the Military Vicar played within this period?

It was exceptional; they were very significant in a universe of such a faithful group as the Armed Forces. The institution was so big in Argentina, the ideology of the military vicar dominated in the interior of the Argentine Synod. While there was always tension inside; outside they showed a united front. And what they ended up saying only during the dictatorship is that there were “excesses” in the dictatorship’s actions at the time. The Church used the Military vicar as a vehicle to “christianize” society.

And what specific actions did the chaplains take, which could be seen as being complicit with the military dictatorship?

The chaplains were always an important part of the military world, but fundamental in 1975 to revitalize the alliance between the Church and Armed Forces. During the dictatorship they had distinct issues, different functions and tasks. Some would be in military camps, spiritual recesses, conferences, teach moral and ethics to the military in class. They had an important role in all the official acts, where they would bless medals, military promotions and even their weapons.

How many military chaplains were active during the dictatorship?

There were 400 of them. And at least 25 percent of them were in clandestine detention centres.

Do you think the Vatican's release of documents from the last military dictatorship could reveal new relevant information?

I don’t think there is much hope, the declassification would have been important a long time ago, but now its late. We didn’t get help from the Catholic Church, for example, but yes from a few Catholics. What would be interesting is if they declassify diplomatic exchanges. Who knows if they will release the information.

What part of Bonamín’s diaries most interest you?

What called my attention was how it was so normal for him to discuss political violence and repression at the dinner table. He could be eating pork chops, while a military officer was telling him about his problems with his conscience. Or he could discuss the repression occurring with military officials in detail. This was part of his daily life and he would talk about it like it was natural all the time.


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