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New military bishop wants ‘reconcilation’

Santiago Olivera is the head of the military Vicariate
Santiago Olivera is the head of the military Vicariate

Pope Francis’ appointee to military chaplaincy criticises dictatorship-era human rights trials

Archbishop Santiago Olivera — just weeks after he was appointed military chaplain-general by Pope Francis — waded into controversy over crimes against humanity committed by the last military dictatorship (1976-1983) when he questioned their severity while calling on those imprisoned to be put under house arrest once they reached 70 years.

“With the Pope we didn’t speak about this issue, but here we have human rights for everyone ... not for some or others. If we don’t have justice for everyone that makes us equal, we can commit injustices,” said Olivera in an interview given from Rome to the Telam State news agency.

Although Pope Francis’ alleged complicity in crimes against humanity has raised questions in the past, he has promised to cooperate, with the Synod, announcing last year they would give access to part of their archives from that period. But the statements made by his military chaplaincy appointee worried human rights activists, as coming from one of the sectors of the church that is known to have been the most active in its support of military’s torture and murder of their political prisoners during the last military dictatorship.

In spite of this history, Olivera decided to downplay the human rights violations. He said Argentine society should instead forgive and forget with the goal of reconciliation between the two different sides. “If an elderly person of the armed forces has the same right as someone else in his condition, why not give it to them? Even if they made a serious mistake, they have that right. It wasn’t all of them, some of them didn’t make a serious mistake,” the military bishop said. Since the crimes against humanity trials were re-initiated 2006, over 750 repressors have been sentenced to prison out of the 2780 that were charged with a crime. There are currently 16 crimes against humanity trials that are ongoing, but of the total 118 cases that are currently being investigated, only seven new trials are scheduled to begin.

Despite the progress that has been made, the archbishop criticised the judiciary for being partial. “For the justice system to fulfill its work, it has to be in all the different stages and for all the people. It can’t be a selective justice system, only for some, and worse for others. The justice system can’t be good or bad, it just has to be justice,” he said.

History of Military Vicariate

The military chaplaincy-general was formed in 1957 after the dictatorship of Pedro Aramburu came to an accord with the Vatican. A bishop is appointed to lead the organization by the Pope, only after having reached an agreement with the Argentine administration in power beforehand. There are an estimated 170 military chaplains in the country who perform spiritual services in the armed forces. During the last dictatorship, former military chaplain-general Adolfo Tortolo, for example, had defended then the use of torture, justifying the methods used by military officers to execute their political prisoners without a trial while ordering his chaplains to provide them spiritual and emotional support. Some priests were even alleged to have accompanied the military officers on the infamous “death flights” where they disposed of their victims by throwing them into the ocean.

In the last 10 years the position was left vacant, after former archbishop Antonio Juan Baseotto was pressured to resign by late president Néstor Kirchner in 2007 after the bishop made the following criticism against a government official over abortion policy: “Those who scandalise children deserve to be thrown into the ocean with a millstone tied to their neck.”

The latest military chaplain-general, Olivera, was appointed as Bishop in Córdoba province on June 24, 2008 by former Pope Benedict XVI. Last March, Pope Francis designated Olivera to lead the archdiocese for military services. “I received the news about my appointment with much surprise and gratitude because Francisco confided in me to carry out this very important service, after 10 years without a military bishop,” said Olivera.

Herald staff with Reuters

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