National Catholic Register


Church Tries to Heal the Wounds Reopened by the Pinochet Case

BY Alejandro Bermudez

December 27, 1998-January 2, 1999 Issue | Posted 12/27/98 at 1:00 AM


As a British jury made a bid to force Augusto Pinochet's extradition to Spain, the man of the moment in Chile, half a world away, was Archbishop Francisco Javier Errazuriz.

There, in Santiago, the press gathered, awaiting an interview with the prelate. But they waited in vain.

Archbishop Errazuriz, who aides say is not afraid to speak out about the national turmoil sparked by the arrest of Pinochet in England, has nevertheless been refusing to grant interviews to the media.

He prefers a more cautious approach to media relations: giving out public statements or issuing brief documents.

President of the Chilean Bishops’ Conference, he is committed to retaining the credibility of the Catholic Church, the only institution in Chile which has remained above the fray in the fighting between supporters and opponents of former dictator Pinochet.

“The situation is now so volatile,” said a source close to Archbishop Errazuriz, “that everything you do or do not do, is read in terms of taking a position for or against (Pinochet).”

Archbishop Errazuriz and other Catholic bishops have repeatedly issued a message that stresses the need for Chileans to overcome their conflicted emotions and concentrate on the national process of reconciliation that started eight years ago, when democracy was restored.

On Dec. 9, at the funeral of his predecessor, Carlos Cardinal Oviedo Cabada, Archbishop Errazuriz issued a new call for national reconciliation.

Cardinal Oviedo, who died at 71 of the neurological disorder that forced him to resign as archbishop of Santiago last year, played a key role in the process of national reconciliation by involving the Catholic Church in the investigation of human rights abuses and in the pastoral assistance of relatives of “the disappeared.”

“The best homage we can offer our beloved cardinal is to keep up the good work he started,” said Archbishop Errazuriz during the funeral, which was broadcast nationally. “If we really value what he did, then we have to commit to creating means for achieving national reconciliation.”

On Dec. 11, Pinochet's diplomatic immunity was revoked by a British jury in the House of Lords—though the hearing itself was later invalidated due to a conflict of interest on the part of Lord Hoffmann, one of the judges and a longtime affiliate of Amnesty International.

After this tribunal, at which the retired general appeared in person for the first time, Archbishop Errazuriz launched a new, stronger appeal: “On the occasion of Christmas, let us all contribute to creating a moment of social truce, which should not only be about the absence of aggression, but should reflect a true effort toward peace and reconciliation in the country.”

Archbishop Errazuriz acknowledged that “the situation generated by the arrest of General Pinochet in London has affected the whole country, and has had a traumatic effect on the democratic process.” But he insisted that “Advent is the best time to calm down, think more, and look to the message of humility, peace, and generosity given to us by God.”

Meanwhile, the situation in Chile seems to grow more explosive by the day.

According to Catholic intellectual Fernando Moreno, “the problem is not only that tensions have divided the people fighting in the streets of Santiago and even in London, but that they threaten to divide the fragile consensus built among all the social and political powers [of Chile] in the last few years.”

In fact, while the army is seriously considering asking the government to break diplomatic ties with England and Spain, militants in the Socialist Party are demanding that their leaders dissolve the coalition with the Christian Democrats—a coalition which actually gives stability to Chile's democratic process.

No wonder the Permanent Council of the Chilean Bishops’ Conference issued an urgent statement reminding Chileans that “our transition to democracy has been a complex and fragile process.” It also called “all sectors to moderation and serenity,” and urged them to “look to reconcile positions and to respect the pain of all those who are suffering due to this situation.”

A few weeks before, the General Assembly of the Chilean Bishops’ Conference that elected Archbishop Errazuriz as its new president, issued a document entitled Hope and Reconciliation, in which they advocated the release of Pinochet “for humanitarian reasons,” but reminded all that social peace “requires us to search for the truth, for justice, forgiveness, and reconciliation.”

Several bishops have joined Archbishop Errazuriz in his call for a Christmas truce. But according to Bishop Javier Prado, secretary general of the Chilean episcopate, “we have cast our eyes on the future, in a consistent program to regain the pace lost in the process of reconciliation, no matter what happens at the end [with Pinochet].”

The General Assembly of the Chilean Bishops’ Conference that elected Archbishop Errazuriz as its new president, issued a document entitled Hope and Reconciliation, in which they advocated the release of Pinochet ‘for humanitarian reasons,’ but reminded all that social peace ‘requires us to search for the truth, for justice, forgiveness, and reconciliation.’

Bishop Prado agrees that this effort goes beyond the reach of the bishops, but noted that, without the voice of the episcopacy, finding a workable solution would probably be impossible.

For now, the bishops have rejected the possibility of heading a new version of the Committee of Truth and Reconciliation, created by President Patricio Aylwin in 1991, and known as the Rettig Commission.

The commission, which took its name from Judge Raul Rettig, whom Aylwin named to head it, probed human rights violations and issued a final statement in mid-1992. The commission released figures and other findings concerning human rights violations, which led to judicial action against several members of the military.

As an immediate consequence of the Rettig Commission, two secret mass graveyards were discovered, and one general, two colonels, and several other officers were convicted and sentenced to jail terms.

Nevertheless, the commission was never able to put Pinochet on trial; at that time he was still commander in chief of the joint military forces and thus immune to prosecution.

The Rettig Commission did provide the material for 18 cases now pending against Pinochet. Before his travails in England, the retired general did not face prosecution, since his status as senator-for-life grants him immunity—yet Chilean authorities have suggested lifting Pinochet's immunity as a bargaining chip with the British in obtaining his release.

The Chilean bishops believe that another Rettig Commission would be useless, merely casting doubt on the results of the former one. Instead, they seem more sympathetic to the proposal of some moderate politicians, such as Enrique Krauss, leader of the Christian Democratic party, and Andres Zaldivar, president of the Senate, who propose the creation of a “Peace Committee,” aimed at fostering the process of reconciliation by means of the law.

This committee, most likely made up of a board appointed by the Chilean Bishops’ Conference and including representatives of the Protestant community, would be focused on bringing new information about “the disappeared” to light on a case-by-case basis.

“The most critical step toward reconciliation should be the effort to find the remains of the disappeared,” said Bishop Prado, “and to punish at least the most brutal cases of human rights violations.”

In the same spirit, Archbishop Errazuriz recently said that “to give suffering relatives the opportunity to provide Christian burial to the remains of their loved ones must be a priority.”

Both he and Archbishop Antonio Moreno Casamitjana of Concepcion have already offered Catholic parishes as places in which retired or active military personnel could offer information on a confidential basis as to the location of the bodies of “the disappeared.”

“We Chileans may feel that we are being used as guinea pigs for a new world judiciary order,” said Archbishop Errazuriz recently in reference to Pinochet's arrest. “Nevertheless, we cannot let this situation jeopardize the process of social peace we have been painstakingly crafting these past years.”

Alejandro Bermudez writes from Lima, Peru.