John Paul II was a great man and in many ways a wonderful pope. His constant denunciation of war as unthinkable in modern times was really admirable. If only those fervent Christians Bush and Blair had listened. Despite his pigheaded intransigence about sex I was deeply inspired, and still am, by his vision of sex as a sacred gift of God to mankind. But what I can’t get over is the attitude of the Vatican, or at least what appears to have been its attitude while he was pope, to the human rights abuses that happened during those years in Chile and Argentina.
Terrible things were done by Catholics to other Catholics. People were given electric shocks for hours on end. In el telephono both of a victim’s ears were slapped simultaneously with the palms of the hand. In la parilla, the grill, the victim was strapped to a metal bed frame while shocks were administered to sensitive parts of the body. Prisoners were given pages ripped from philosophy books to use as toilet paper to indicate the regime’s contempt for ideas. In the parrot’s perch the victim was forced into a crouching position, with head downwards, and a pole was passed between the bent knees and the elbows. Electric shocks were administered while water was squirted under high pressure into the nose and mouth. In el submarino the victim’s head was held under water almost to the point of drowning. Peoples’ heads were forced into buckets of excrement and urine. Women were raped, sometimes, according to one report I read, by trained dogs but I can’t believe that. According to Elizabeth Simmonds, husbands and wives were forced to watch while their spouse was tortured. While shocks were administered, tapes were played of children screaming under torture. Prisoners were forced to torture each other and rub salt into each other’s wounds. Drugged nuns were dropped live from helicopters into the River Plate with their chests ripped open to stop the dead bodies from surfacing. The anguished pleas of relatives to find what had happened to their disappeared loved ones were met with bland incomprehension by the military who had murdered them. All this by Catholics to other Catholics.
To say the very least John Paul failed to upbraid the perpetrators of these terrible atrocities. And there seems plenty of evidence – let us hope it is wrong – that the Vatican was, in fact, highly supportive of the fascist regimes. According to Wikileaks, soon after the 1973 coup Cardinal Benelli cabled the American Secretary of State welcoming Pinochet and dismissing the stories of terrible atrocities that were coming out of Chile as ‘Communist lies’. I once read that John Paul gave Pinochet communion with his own hand. I wonder if he did. Certain it is that the Vatican moved heaven and earth to prevent Pinochet being arraigned before an international court for human rites abuses.
It is true that there were serious situations in Chile and Argentina that needed addressing. But nothing could justify the terrible things that happened. Done by Catholics to other Catholics. I can’t get over that. What an opportunity missed. Why wasn’t John Paul telling the revolutionaries not to resort to violence on the one hand, and telling the regimes on the other to stop torturing people? Why wasn’t he reminding the rich that it is harder for a rich man to enter heaven than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle? I wish the departed soul of John Paul well. If there is a heaven I hope he is in it. But don’t hold him up as an icon of Christian behaviour.