Archbishop Ngô Đình Thục left havoc in his wake, both in Vietnamese politics and the Spanish-speaking Church

It’s 1981 and the penitents of Toulon Cathedral rattle through their sins. In return, a disembodied voice from the other side of the confessional’s impenetrable grille gives a penance, and the newly absolved parishioners vanish, heading back to the office before the end of lunch. None of the people in the queue for confession would have given a thought to find out who was behind the grille, and even if they had, it would have made them none the wiser.

To the average Catholic, the name Archbishop Ngô Đình Thục means nothing. Thục – pronounced like everyone’s favourite friar from Robin Hood – sat in a confessional in Toulon for 20 years, having been exiled in 1963 from his home country of South Vietnam. But unlike millions of Vietnamese refugees, he wasn’t fleeing from a war he was innocently caught up in, but from one he helped turn into one of the most devastating conflicts in modern times.

Thục was born in 1897 and after seminary was sent to study in Rome. Returning to Vietnam as a monsignor and seeing the waning power of its French colonisers in the 1950s, he began a campaign to put his brother Ngô Đình Diệm in power under the country’s emperor Bảo Đại.

The Ngô brothers came to the attention of the US government, which was keen to find anti-communists to prevent the spread of Chinese and Soviet influence in Asia. But Diệm really owed his rise to power to the machinations of the Vatican and Thục.

Being Catholic in a country where 70 to 90 per cent of the population were Buddhists, the brothers found it easy to get the backing of political heavyweight Cardinal Francis Spellman. He arranged audiences with Pope Pius XII and lobbied for Diệm in Washington, whose backing convinced the emperor that appointing Diệm his prime minister would secure American funding.

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