Argentina: The Irish priest, ex-minister and $9m in a convent

Former minister José López seen throwing sacks of cash . . . millions over convent wall

Fr Tom O’Donnell from Templeglantine, west Limerick, has been appointed to lead the Catholic Church’s investigation into the scandal that has rocked Argentinian politics. Photographs: The IrishTimes/ Getty Images

Fr Tom O’Donnell from Templeglantine, west Limerick, has been appointed to lead the Catholic Church’s investigation into the scandal that has rocked Argentinian politics. Photographs: The IrishTimes/ Getty Images

 

An Irish priest has been given a key role in an investigation into an astonishing corruption scandal that has convulsed Argentina for the past month.

The case, which involves a former government minister attempting to stash about US$9 million (€8.2 million) mostly in cash at a small convent near Buenos Aires, has rocked the country’s political system.

Fr Tom O’Donnell (64), from Templeglantine, west Limerick, has been appointed to lead the Catholic Church’s investigation into the affair. The Pallotine missionary is the parish priest of St Patrick’s parish in Mercedes, about 70km from Buenos Aires.

Fr O’Donnell told The Irish Times that his investigation team had a narrow focus on how the nuns at the convent came to be embroiled in the affair, but they would be co-operating fully with the civilian authorities.

“We will have to go through the evidence in a way that is honest and respectful of the laws of the church and the state. We will co-operate with the justice system to try and reach the truth,” said Fr O’Donnell. Everybody had to be prepared to accept the decisions arrived at by the state justice system.

It all started in the early hours of June 14th, when an individual in the town of General Rodrígues in Buenos Aires province, about 35km from the capital, spotted a middle-aged man behaving suspiciously.

A neighbour of the Our Lady of the Rosary of Fatima convent was alarmed to see a stranger tossing black plastic sacks into the grounds, then clambering over the fence after them.

Elderly nuns

Fearing for the safety of the three elderly nuns inside, the neighbour called the emergency services. When police arrived at 4am, they found that the man was José López, who had been minister for public works for 12 years until late last year.

He was with the nuns, who are in their 80s and 90s, surrounded by the bags he had thrown over the fence. These, and a red carry-on bag, turned out to be filled with wads of plastic-wrapped US dollar bills and other valuables. In all, he had in the region of $9 million.

The small religious order was founded by Archbishop Ruben Di Monte, who lived at the convent during his retirement until he died in April.

Di Monte had a lot of contact with former president Raul Menem and his Peronist successors, who only lost office last December. The late bishop was friends with López and his wife and they contributed funds to build part of the convent.

When questioned by police in the early hours of June 14th, López at first claimed to be a church official and then allegedly offered the police officers a bag containing almost $2 million.

He was arrested on suspicion of illegal possession of a firearm after the officers found a semi-automatic rifle in his car. The case has since gripped the nation, with round-the-clock television coverage.

The arrest has cast further doubts on the reputation of former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner whose term of office expired last December. There had been persistent rumours that she and her late husband Néstor Kirchner, who died in 2010, had amassed vast quantities of cash from public works contracts during their 12 years in office between 2003 and 2015.

López is reported to have been extremely close to both Kirchners since the start of his political career 25 years ago.