Gen. Augusto Pinochet's military dictatorship was responsible for the deaths of as many as 3,200 people in Chile in the 1970s, but the Vatican dismissed reports of bloodshed at the time as "communist propaganda," according to diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks on Monday.
Pinochet came to power in 1973 as the head of a military coup against democratically elected socialist President Salvador Allende. The right-wing junta that subsequently ruled the country from 1973 to 1990 was responsible for the murders of as many as 3,200 people, as well as the arrest of tens of thousands more, many of whom were tortured.
In a 1973 diplomatic cable addressed to Henry Kissinger, then serving as the United States' Secretary of State, high-ranking Vatican official Giovanni Benelli was quoted as relaying "his and the pope's grave concern over successful international leftisf campaign to misconstrue completely realities of Chilean situation." Benelli dismissed reports of massacre as "unfounded" and "possibly [the] greatest success of Communist propaganda," while explaining away whatever violence had occurred as "unfortunately natural following coup d'etat."
The cable was written five weeks after the coup, during the reign of Pope Paul VI, with reports already surfacing that political opponents of the regime were being arrested and killed.
"The cables also showed the Vatican later realized the full extent of the abuses being carried out," according to AFP, "but refused to criticize Pinochet's regime openly and continued with normal diplomatic relations."
The Catholic Church's activities in South America has been the subject of some scrutiny in the past. Opus Dei, made most famous by Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code," but a real and influential order in the Church, has been dogged for years by allegations that it supported Pinochet's 1973 coup, and that its members were later active in the Pinochet regime.
Pinochet, who was ousted as president of Chile when the country returned to democracy in 1990, was arrested in London in 1998, though he never stood trial, and eventually returned to Chile. He died in 2006.
The Vatican was previously the subject of a WikiLeaks document dump in 2010, when diplomatic cables revealed it had refused to cooperate with an Irish investigation into the abuse of children by priests.