In a decision running counter to the position taken by the Vatican, Argentine President Néstor Kirchner on Friday sacked the country’s military bishop, who had quipped that the health minister should be “thrown into the sea” because he is in favour of decriminalising abortion.
After the government’s diplomatic efforts to get the Vatican to remove Bishop Antonio Baseotto from his post, the president signed a decree in which he withdrew his support from the 2002 agreement that the Argentine government signed in 2002 when the bishop was appointed by the Vatican.
Kirchner also issued a second decree depriving the bishop of the government funds assigned to the military vicariate, which received 20,000 pesos a month (around 6,000 dollars), of which 5,000 pesos (1,700 dollars) went to the bishop.
Kirchner’s cabinet chief Alberto Fernández announced the government’s decision in a news briefing alongside Foreign Minister Rafael Bielsa and the Secretary of Religion Guillermo Olivieri.
Bielsa, who failed in his attempt to get the Vatican to remove Baseotto, reported that the government is now waiting for the Catholic Church to assign a new army bishop.
Fernández said the government’s decision “does not imply entering into any kind of debate, dispute or confrontation with the Church,” and likened the bishop’s dismissal to that of any official who makes controversial remarks.
But in this case, the Vatican had actually confirmed the bishop in his post on Monday.
The military vicariate was created in 1957 by a military government and was promoted to the rank of a bishopric in 1992 by then president Carlos Menem (1989-1999), who granted the bishop in charge of the institution the salary of an under-secretary of state.
Since then, the Vatican has proposed a candidate for the post, who is then approved by the government.
Baseotto has a long history of anti-Semitic and McCarthyist remarks, as well as statements justifying the gross human rights violations committed by the country’s last military dictatorship (1976-1983).
But a major controversy broke out in late February, when he lashed out against Health Minister Ginés González García.
At that time the minister, who is in favour of the distribution of free condoms and the decriminalisation of abortion, became the target of an outburst by the bishop, who in a reference to a biblical passage said he should be “thrown into the sea headfirst with a large millstone around his neck.”
His remark had an especially strong impact in Argentina, where the security forces actually dumped political prisoners alive into the sea from military aircraft during the dictatorship.
Past statements by Baseotto have also included anti-Semitic references.
In 1986, when he was a priest in the northern province of Santiago del Estero, he said on a local TV programme that “if pornography is good business, Hebrews will sell pornography. If drugs are good business, they will sell drugs. If they can get more money by blackmailing, they will blackmail, and if they have to destroy their competition, they will do so.”
Although the local Jewish community expressed its outrage at the time, Baseotto received support and was kept in his post.
More recently, the bishop stated in an argument against abortion (which is illegal in Argentina) that “we cross ourselves for the victims of the Nazis. And (killing) the unborn? Is that not an abominable crime?”
In a somewhat similar reference involving the dictatorship’s victims of forced disappearance (who number around 30,000), Baseotto said the “disappeared” have “more defenders” than the unborn.
He has also justified the human rights violations by the de facto regime as “excesses that are impossible to avoid in a war.”
Argentina’s Jewish community, the largest in Latin America, has been applying pressure for Baseotto to be removed from his post, a demand that was reiterated Thursday by Carlos Susevich, the father of one of the 29 victims of a 1992 bomb attack on the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires.
Human rights groups have also complained about Baseotto, and have pointed out that his secretary, Catholic priest Alberto Zanchetta, served as chaplain in 1977 in the Navy School of Mechanics, the dictatorship’s biggest clandestine detention and torture centre.
Mabel Gutierrez with the rights group Families of the Political Detained/Disappeared told IPS that “something had to be done about this official who was inciting crime.”
“For us it invokes an image with tragic connotations, because our loved ones were in fact thrown into the sea,” she added.
Three weeks after the Kirchner administration asked the Vatican to dismiss Baseotto, Apostolic Nuncio Adriano Bernardini told Defence Minister José Pampuro Monday that he found no grounds in canonic law to remove the bishop from his post.
But the Argentine bishops’ conference was upset because the Vatican official had backed Baseotto without conferring with the local Church hierarchy.
After meeting with the defence minister, the nuncio took part in two days of deliberations by the local bishops, without mentioning that he had already given his support to the controversial bishop.
Nevertheless, the bishops have not made any statement on Baseotto’s remarks. The Argentine Church is staunchly opposed to legalising abortion, which is the top cause of maternal mortality in this South American country of 37 million. IPS