As Obama heads to Argentina, new book explores country's 'Dirty War'

Priests hope to clear Pope Francis' name
Priests hope to clear Pope Francis' name

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(CNN)President Barack Obama plans to visit Argentina, the homeland of Pope Francis, next week in his first presidential trip to the Latin American nation.

Obama's visit will coincide with the 40th anniversary of Argentina's military coup, which began a period of political strife and violent government oppression known as the "Dirty War." Alongside the Argentine people, Obama is expected to honor the war's many victims on March 24.
The Rev. Gustavo Morello is a sociologist and Jesuit priest who spent years digging into the Catholic Church's role in the Dirty War. When the junta seized power in 1976, it began a systematic campaign to wipe out suspected dissidents, and thousands of people were kidnapped and "disappeared."
    Morello's book, "The Catholic Church and Argentina's Dirty War," examines the context of the disappearances. In particular, he investigated the kidnapping of five seminarians and an American priest in 1976.
    Morello spoke with CNN about what made him want to explore this dark chapter in his native Argentina's history, and whether his research tells us anything about the country's most famous Catholic, Pope Francis.
    Q: What is your book about?
    It's about an American priest and five South American Catholic seminarians, all of them of the Congregation of Our Lady of La Salette, who were kidnapped in Argentina in 1976. That case is like a tree; from it I went to explore the forest.
    I explored the increasing political violence in my country at the time, the dictatorship, the "disappeared," and the struggles of those who were trying to save them.
    The story of the kidnapping is very amazing, almost movie-like. The seminarians left the house in the afternoon to attend classes, but agreed to come back immediately after because Sister Joan McCarthy, an American nun, was visiting them. They planned to have dinner together.
    While the Rev. James Weeks was taking a nap and Joan was knitting in front of the fireplace, a mob from Cordoba police department broke into the house. A long nightmare began that evening, a nightmare that to some extent is ending now, as the people responsible for the kidnapping are in finally in court for human rights violations.
    The priests were "disappeared" for a couple of days, but since Weeks was American and his family knew Ted Kennedy and the Rev. Bob Drinan, a Massachusetts congressman at the time, State Department got involved. Weeks was expelled from the country after a week and started a campaign to release the South American seminarians.
    While Weeks and McCarthy were demonstrating in front of the Argentinean Embassy in D.C., the seminarians were sent to a concentration camp and tortured, by other fellow Catholics. The discussion at the torture chamber was about what "true" Catholicism was. It was bizarre.
    Q: Sounds bizarre indeed. Of all the kidnappings that occurred during the Dirty War, what made you want to investigate this one?
    I was interested in the relations of religion and violence. I have done research about the Montoneros, a guerrilla army in Argentina's 1970s, and the links of that organization with the Catholic faith.
    I wanted to know about the Catholic Church and its behavior during the dictatorship. It is still a very discussed issue in my country. And I was intrigued by the fact that many good, honest people did nothing when the government was kidnapping and killing innocent people. Why didn't any alarm sound? Why weren't there, from the religious leaders, any red lights? Was it just complicity, agreement with the government?
    Q: How complicit was the Catholic Church in the Dirty War?
    Religious people don't live in a vacuum, but in interaction with politicians, students, workers, military. I wanted to place Catholics in that context. I realized that state terrorism, and the persecution against certain types of Catholics, started before the military dictatorship, under a democratic government.
    When I was attending a conference, I actually found one of the seminarians and we started to talk. My conversation with Alejandro Dausá snowballed to other people, and I realized that I wanted to focus on the people, the regular guys, and not in the church's official documents, though I used them a lot.
    I discovered that Catholic people reacted in different ways facing violence. Some viewed secularization as a threat to the world they loved, and therefore supported state terrorism. There were others who saw in the transformation an opportunity to craft the world in the way they wished, and they were mostly the victims of state terrorism.
    And there was a third group, who acknowledged the transformations brought about by modernity, but were afraid of social violence, and wanted to preserve a good relation with the authorities.
    The Rev.  Gustavo Morello is a Catholic priest and sociologist who has explored Argentina's "Dirty War"
    Q: Whatever happened to the seminarians?
    The Rev. Weeks and Sister Joan passed away last year. James was living in in a nursing home in Connecticut. Joan was in La Rioja, northwestern Argentina, helping a rural community there.
    I was able to find three of the seminarians. One of them is a priest in Argentina, another was ordained as a priest but left the ministry and helps communities in Bolivia, and another one left the congregation, got married and had children.
    The case was brought to court, and is under trial now, after almost 40 years. Last May when I visited my family in Argentina, I was called as a "contextual witness," so I went to court and gave my declaration. I talked about the research I've done, so it was a good way to make use of my studies. My work is not just for other colleagues, but it also may help other people to understand what happened and also to get justice.
    Q: A lot of people will want to know if your research tells us anything new about Pope Francis, who was the Jesuit leader (superior) in Argentina during the Dirty War.
    The book is not about the Pope, but two months before the La Salette seminarians were kidnapped in Cordoba, two Jesuits were kidnapped in Buenos Aires.
    In those years the pope, then known as the Rev. Jorge Bergoglio, was the superior of Argentine Jesuits. I didn't focus my research the Jesuits, but since I explore the historical and political situation of Argentina and the Catholics in those years, I think my book provides a good understanding of what was going on. I explore the context where the pope comes from, and I do think that context matters when we try to understand a person.
    I show the complexity of the historical situation and the different forces any religious superior had to navigate to be faithful to the people and at the same time protect their priests, a situation where people were hurt and now need to be healed, even 40 years later.