Now that he has become the leader of the world’s largest Christian church – a position of both spiritual and political influence – many people are beginning to ask what role Pope Francis played when Argentina collapsed into terror and dictatorship in the 1970s.
The relationships between the Roman Catholic Church and right-wing regimes, including dictatorships in Europe and the Americas, has been a subject of controversy for decades. While more recent Popes have delivered sermons favouring democracy and human rights, Pope Francis is bound to raise questions about his role in one of the most horrific political conflicts in the modern history of the Americas.
For Argentines of any standing – and especially those within the Church – it was almost impossible to be neutral during the “Dirty War” and ensuing right-wing military dictatorship that consumed Argentina from 1976 to 1983. If you did not explicitly side with the military junta as it committed tens of thousands of disappearances, murders and acts of imprisonment and torture, you were likely to fall victim to its terror.
And Pope Francis, then known as Father Jorge Bergoglio, had considerable standing. He was the 40-year-old head of Argentina’s Jesuit order when the military overthrew Isabel Peron’s government and imposed a strict reign of terror in March, 1976.
He certainly was not one of those priests who spoke out against the regime in public. The question, instead, is whether he helped seal the fate of those who did.
Much of the attention centres around two Jesuit priests, Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics, who were kidnapped by government forces on May 23, 1976, imprisoned for five months at clandestine detention centre, tortured, and later found lying drugged and semi-naked in a field.
Days before their disappearance, according memoirs and statements made later by the priests, they had been dismissed from the Jesuit order by Father Bergoglio for having ministered to residents of the slums, which were considered hotbeds of Marxist agitation. Kicking the priests out of the order is seen by many Argentines as a move that, in the polarized climate of the Junta, may have served as a clear signal to the military dictatorship that they were to be targeted.
The Spanish newspaper El Pais quotes from a 1995 memoir by Father Jalics, who now lives in Germany, in which he accuses Father Bergoglio of betraying them.
“Many people who held far-right political beliefs frowned on our presence in the slums,” the priest writes. “They thought we were living there in support of the guerrillas, and set out to denounce us as terrorists. We knew which way the wind was blowing, and who was responsible for these slanders. So I went to [Father Bergoglio] and explained that they were playing with our lives. He promised that the military would be told that we were not terrorists. But from subsequent statements by an officer and 30 documents that we were able to access later, we saw without doubt that [Father Bergoglio] had not kept his promise but, on the contrary, had filed a false complaint with the military.”
Reuters reports that the other kidnapped priest, Orlando Yorio, testified in a book, The Silence, by journalist Horacio Verbitsky, that Father Bergoglio had deliberately caused the kidnapping of the priests by withdrawing the Jesuit order’s protection of the two, and thus signalling to the regime that they were enemies.
“History condemns him,” Reuters quotes Fortunto Mallimacci, the former dean of social sciences at the University of Buenos Aires, saying about Cardinal Bergoglio. “It shows him to be opposed to all innovation in the Church and above all, during the dictatorship, it shows he was very cozy with the military.”
But Cardinal Bergoglio has contested these accusations. In his 2010 book The Jesuit, and in testimony he has given during Argentine hearings into the Dirty War and the disappearances, he has argued that he in fact worked to free the kidnapped priests, including holding secret meetings with General Jorge Videla, Argentina’s de facto military dictator of the time, to argue for their release. His words imply that they owe their survival (Father Yorio died of natural causes in 2000) to his efforts.
The priests’ accusations resulted in a lawsuit launched against Cardinal Bergoglio in 2005, during the papal conclave that ultimately chose Pope Benedict. At the time, Cardinal Bergoglio denounced the lawsuit, which was later dismissed by the court, as “old slander.”
In the years after democracy was restored, Father Bergoglio became known himself for ministering to the poor. While he showed no explicit inclination toward right-wing politics, he sparred angrily with the left-wing governments of Néstor and Cristina Kirchner over social issues such as same-sex marriage and birth control.
For many Catholics and some Argentines, his record as a figurehead of moderate Jesuitical reason and humility has redeemed him enough. But for others who are sensitive to the Catholic Church’s political role in the world, his record seems like an echo of darker moments in Catholic history.