The Catholic Church defended human rights during Chile's dictatorship. An archive tells the story

Archive folders line the shelves at the Documentation and Archive Foundation of the Vicariate of Solidarity, in Santiago, Chile, Tuesday, July 25, 2023. The shelves preserve thousands of instances of human rights violations during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. (AP Photo/Esteban Felix)

SANTIAGO, Chile (AP) — Lined up like soldiers guarding a nation’s treasures, dozens of shelves preserve an archive that gives account of a painful episode in Chile’s history: 47,000 instances of human rights violations during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.

The documents were gathered between 1976 and 1992 by workers of the Vicariate of Solidarity, a human rights organization founded by Chilean Cardinal Raúl Silva Henríquez. Led by social workers, lawyers, archivists and physicians, it provided support to those harmed by the regime.

“The archive gives an account of how the repression occurred,” said María Paz Vergara, executive secretary at the foundation created to preserve the documents after the Vicariate was closed.

The protection that Silva Henríquez provided for Pinochet’s victims had no precedent in Latin America. In neighboring Argentina, where the military also took power in the 1970s, the Catholic Church distanced itself from the general public and remained close to the government and upper-class sectors.

“In Chile the response to help the victims was immediate,” said Chilean historian María Soledad del Villar. “And not only from the Catholic Church, but from other churches as well.”

Soon after a military coup deposed President Salvador Allende on September 11, 1973, Silva Henríquez led efforts to create the Committee of Cooperation for Peace. As part of the inter-religious group, Christians, Jews and other faith leaders provided spiritual, judicial and financial support for victims until it was dissolved due to government pressure in 1975.

Immediately after, Silva Henríquez established the Vicariate of Solidarity in the Archdiocese of Santiago.

“This was a great move because, as an institution of the Catholic Church, Pinochet did not have the power to close it down,” Del Villar said.

During 16 years of service, the social workers and lawyers of the Vicariate comforted mothers whose children did not come home from a protest. They gathered files to back the claims of daughters whose parents disappeared after leaving work. They searched for economic resources to travel to prisons far from Santiago and asked for news about loved ones who were unfairly detained.

All of this while being cautious for their own safety. Many were harassed by telephone calls or followed in the middle of the day. A few were killed.

“This job gave meaning to my life,” said María Luisa Sepúlveda, who was a Vicariate social worker. The organization closed in 1992, two years after Chile regained its democracy. Since then, Sepúlveda has extensively advocated for human rights and worked to solve cases of political imprisonment and torture under the former regime.

People first heard about the Vicariate through their local parishes. When victims approached a priest saying that a relative was taken away, he advised: Head to the archdiocese and they will help you.

Once there, the first contact was a social worker like Sepúlveda. She took notes and assessed the situation. If someone’s life was threatened by the military, she would try to find a safe place or a visa to get the person out of the country. If the victim was in custody, she would pass information on to a lawyer who would prepare court proceedings.

On certain days, her job involved heading to the morgue. She saw corpses whose faces and fingertips were ripped off to avoid identification; pregnant women whose abdomens were severed.

The worst, Sepúlveda said, was the uncertainty among the families. “People were totally disoriented by the unprecedented situations,” she said.

By being backed up by the cardinal, the Vicariate of Solidarity was able to support victims all over the territory. “The religious metaphor that fueled its work is the story of the Good Samaritan,” said historian Del Villar.

According to the biblical story, a man finds an injured person, and instead of passing by, he stops and heals his wounds. Under this principle, the Vicariate assisted all those in need – regardless of their faith – and organized activities, such as “ollas communes” (soup kitchens), labor exchanges and fasts to denounce disappearances.

Nowadays Chile has one of the largest number of religious disaffiliations on the continent and the Catholic Church never recovered from allegations of clergy sex abuse that erupted in 2010. During the dictatorship, though, it was a well-respected institution. Pinochet attended Mass every Sunday and said the Our Lady of Mount Carmel saved him from a murder attempt in 1986.

“The church was trying to help Chileans reconcile because the horrors we saw were tremendous,” said Guillermo Hormazábal, a journalist who served as communications director for the Vicariate and later managed a church-owned radio station.

Although the investigative police kidnapped him in 1980, he was released within 24 hours thanks to media pressure exerted by the radio station where he worked.

“The church was the only counterweight to the dictatorship,” he said. “It was a church that was not in the sacristy, but with the people.”

Until democracy returned to Chile in 1990, the church’s social work was a headache for the government. In 1989, a military prosecutor knocked on the door of the Vicariate and demanded that Bishop Segio Valech hand over their files. The bishop refused.

“When the Vicariate closed, the fate of the disappeared was unknown,” said Vergara, the executive secretary of the archive. “Seeing the importance of historical memory and educating on human rights, the cardinal thought that all documentation would be essential for actions of justice and reparation.”

He was right. Thanks to the archives and the work of the National Truth and Reconciliation Commission, many cases were reopened. Survivors and relatives of victims still request documents allowing them to ask for reparations, such as pensions and priority medical care.

“There are also victims who come to remember what happened,” Vergara said. Others seek to share their story with their children.

She recalls a man whose father was arrested in 1973. The son had never met his father, but years later he got to see photos of him thanks to the archives. Looking at his father’s likeness for the first time, the son and his wife — now adults with a boy of their own — were struck by how much their son resembled his grandfather.

The archive has a legal fund compiling more than 85,000 documents, including judicial files and affidavits on deaths, kidnappings or torture, as well as photographs, press clippings and films on human rights.

“The government was saying, ‘This person has not been arrested.’ And even went so far as to say that some had no legal existence,” Vergara said. “The committee kept documents that made it impossible to deny the facts.”

According to Sepúlveda, almost 70% of the victims were registered during the first three months of the dictatorship. “That’s key to understanding why our society was hit so hard,” she said.

Pinochet died in 2006 without being convicted of any crimes. The foundation continues to seek justice by keeping the archive safe and promoting the legacy of the Vicariate.

“In addition, many have never wanted to recognize the seriousness of the coup or the violations of human rights,” Sepúlveda said. “They say, ‘Let’s forget.'”

For thousands like her, it’s impossible. “I would have liked these 50 years to have been different, that society would have understood the need to have a real commitment to human rights and democracy, that the coup would have been rejected by the majority of society.”