Mon, Dec 13, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Family of priest killed in Pinochet era seeks answers

CHILE The family of a left-wing priest killed shortly after Pinochet took power demanded the navy disclose where they buried his body


As Chile's armed forces finally admit that they systematically tortured and murdered under dictator General Augusto Pinochet, the family of a British priest is demanding that the Chilean navy should accept responsibility for his killing and say where it buried him.

The search for the grave of Father Michael Woodward has taken his sister, Patricia Bennetts, to the Chilean port city of Valparaiso, where he was tortured to death on the elegant four-masted training ship Esmeralda, also known as the "White Lady."

But as a government report accuses Pinochet's thugs of torturing 28,000 people and as the country's navy formally expresses "regret" over its role, secrecy and fear are still blocking attempts to give a burial to the left-wing priest.

The family has called on the British government to pressure Chile and, in particular, navy chief Admiral Miguel Vergara into telling the truth about Woodward's final hours.

"The hope is that Michael's body can be found in order to give him the dignified Christian burial which he deserves in the presence of his family, his friends and the poor of Valparaiso with whom he lived and worked," Bennetts said on Saturday.

The Chilean navy, anxious to avoid a public exhumation of Woodward's body, still claims it was left in a common grave with 3,000 others in Valparaiso's Playa Ancha cemetery.

The former cemetery worker, however, has privately told Bennetts that he saw her brother being buried individually in a different corner of the graveyard. He remains too scared to say who took the body there and buried it. "People are still frightened of the navy," Woodward's brother-in-law, Fred Bennetts, said.

Patricia Bennetts, meanwhile, has given a DNA sample to a forensic institute in Valparaiso to help them identify her brother's body, should it be exhumed. Chilean authorities, however, have turned down offers by Britain to provide forensic experts to help find and identify the corpse.

A Chilean judge last week closed a court investigation into Woodward's death. Bennetts may now also bring a case against Pinochet and navy officers for crimes against humanity at a British court.

Chilean judges, meanwhile, must rule whether 89-year-old Pinochet is mentally fit to face trial. Woodward, a former public-school boy from a British-Chilean family, was a supporter of the ousted left-wing president Salvador Allende. He had gone to live among Valparaiso's poor, joined a Marxist political party and was banned from saying mass by his local bishop.

Fred Bennetts believes that the Chilean church and, especially, the current bishop of Valparaiso, Gonzalo Garcia Duarte, aided the navy's cover-up by hiding information about the killing given to him by a senior priest in 1999.

When a British Benedictine, Edward Crouzet, published a biography of Woodward in Chile recently, the bishop refused to allow him to present it at the Catholic University of Valparaiso, where the murdered priest had taught. Woodward was arrested 10 days after Pinochet's Sept. 11, 1973 coup, and taken to the Esmeralda.

There, his sister believes, torturers beat the priest to death, wrapping wet towels around their fists to avoid any tell-tale bruises on his body.

A navy doctor ordered his evacuation from the Esmeralda after certifying that he would die of his injuries. Woodward's death certificate, however, claims he died of natural causes on a Valparaiso street. The man who signed that certificate, Dr Carlos Canessa, has since admitted it was falsified.

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