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In this 1966 photo released by the El Salvador School, Argentine seminarian Jorge Mario Bergoglio smiles for a portrait at the El Salvador school where he taught literature and psychology in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Bergoglio was elected pope on Wednesday, March 13, 2013, making him the first pope ever from the Americas. Bergoglio, who was born in 1936, chose the name Pope Francis. (AP)
In this 1966 photo released by the El Salvador School, Argentine seminarian Jorge Mario Bergoglio smiles for a portrait at the El Salvador school where he taught literature and psychology in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Bergoglio was elected pope on Wednesday, March 13, 2013, making him the first pope ever from the Americas. Bergoglio, who was born in 1936, chose the name Pope Francis. (AP)

Pope Francis and the junta: In search of what really happened in Argentina Add to ...

His words imply that they owe their survival (Father Yorio died of natural causes in 2000) to his efforts. But they also suggest that his relations with the junta leaders were close and cordial enough to secure such a release.

There were other accusations levelled against Father Bergoglio at the time – including one lodged by a parishioner who was kidnapped in 1977 while five months pregnant, gave birth in captivity and had her baby seized by the junta and given to a military family (this happened to countless women). She claims that Father Begoglio would not respond to her request to help her find her baby.

On Friday, the Vatican also jumped into the fold with a stern denial, which argued that the accusations came from “anti-clerical left-wing elements that are used to attack the Church.”

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.”

What is clear from the incident, though, is that neither Jorge Bergoglio nor the large Catholic Church were willing to condemn the military junta in any comprehensive way, or to speak out against its wider crimes.

“The Church was complicit through silence,” says Iain Guest, the Georgetown University scholar who wrote the study Behind the Disappearances: Argentina’s Dirty War Against Human Rights . “The Catholic Church could have had a huge impact – they valued their international reputation, so if the Vatican had come out and taken a strong public position I don’t think there’s any doubt they would have responded. But they chose to remain silent.”

This is in strong contrast to the record of the Archbishop of Buenos Aires in the years after the junta. During the past 10 years, as the reformist governments of Nestor Kirchner and then his spouse Cristina Kirchner passed civil-rights legislation, Cardinal Bergoglio became Argentina’s de facto political opposition leader.

He launched broadsides against the government’s push for the rights of homosexuals and women and actively campaigned against laws that allowed birth control, abortions and same-sex marriages and adoptions.

“He was the very obvious leader of the opposition to a democratically elected government that was pushing progressive reforms through,” says Gerardo Munck, an Argentinian professor of Latin American studies. “Many Argentines were thinking, ‘This is a democratically elected government, why are you standing in the way of what the people want?’”

While other contemporary popes have taken on political roles – John Paul II was instrumental in helping end the communist regime of Poland, for example – none has been engaged with the day-to-day politics of his nation in quite such a direct way.

And this may have been one of the reasons why Cardinal Bergoglio was chosen Pope: The first non-European to hold the office in 13 centuries, he embodies not only a developing-world identity, but a form of polarized politics that might work in the developing world.

After all, the Church sees itself in a crisis in the southern and eastern three-quarters of the globe.

During those years after the junta, the left-wing branch of the clergy lost most of its power across the continent. The last two popes have appointed only conservatives to top positions in Latin America, giving figures such as Cardinal Bergoglio great power. At the same time, the Church has declined sharply in popularity, with hundreds of millions of South Americans turning to Pentecostalism, with its lack of hierarchy and easier path to salvation and self-improvement. For the Catholic leadership, the response has been a turn to both political conservatism and to aggressive expansionism.

“The future they see is full of danger,” says Dr. Levine. “They’re afraid because it brings what they see as cultural disintegration, which leads to the fall of moral standards and the decline of the Church. And their answer, in South America, was to build some walls. Some churches are more involved, more open, and some are less so, but they’ve built walls.”

In an interview with Turin’s La Stampa a few days before he became Pope, Cardinal Bergoglio described his calling as one of confrontation and danger.

“It’s true that accidents can happen when you go out into the street, as can happen to any man or woman,” he said. “But if the Church remains closed onto itself, self-referential, it grows old. Between a Church that goes into the street and gets into an accident and a Church that is sick with self-referentiality, I have no doubts in preferring the first.”

He may be able to tear down those walls, then. But the process could mark a sharp turn back into an aggressive form of politics for a previously self-defensive Roman Catholic Church.

With files from Alasdair Baverstock in Caracas.

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