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

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.


In Rome, he has made his start as the mild-mannered, bus-riding, collegial pontiff who pays his own hotel bills and is known for washing the feet of stigmatized AIDS patients.

In Argentina, however, Pope Francis is known as a staunch ideological conservative with a long history of unusually public engagement with political life.

Both stories have been circulating since the new pontiff was elected on Wednesday. But to understand how they fit together, history is the best guide.

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The leader of the Roman Catholic Church has always been a political figure. But Francis, the first non-European pope in 13 centuries, may be poised to bring a distinctly different, South American flavour of right-wing politics to the Vatican: It would include the familiar rigid defence of tradition, but also a newly expansionist and confrontational side – an insistent voice of overt conservatism.

This could win Catholic supporters away from the competing forces of Pentecostalism in culturally conservative Africa and Asia. But some observers fear it could also cause Rome to be aligned, as it has been in the past, with unsavoury regimes.

To see why, you have to step back 37 years and examine the dark political moment whose repercussions and ambiguities have come to define Pope Francis's career.

In the spring of 1976, Father Jorge Bergoglio, then 40 and the head of Argentina's Jesuits, found himself in the midst of a military coup that deposed the centre-left government of Isabel Peron.

What followed was an infamous reign of terror, as the military junta seized, tortured, killed and "disappeared" thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of people suspected of being on the left.

Priests either sided with the military regime or became targets of its terror.

On one side was a sizable faction of priests who had joined the movement, then new, known broadly as liberation theology, which sees the gospel as a tool for societal transformation and progress. Some were explicit backers of the Peronist government; others, members of the Movement of Priests in the Third World, were more radical. Many of its members died, disappeared or were exiled, including at least one bishop, several priests and hundreds of lay people.

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Though Father Bergoglio was known to care for the poor, he had always opposed these more radical movements. But, like a large number of colleagues, he was silent on the military junta.

"The bulk of the Argentine Catholic hierarchy was in the conservative wing – they were aligned with a conservative religious view and also a conservative political view that strongly backed the regime and the army and the coup," says Daniel Levine, the author of Politics, Religion and Society in Latin America. "But unlike other bishops who were actively allied with the dictatorship and complicit in the crimes, [Father Bergoglio] was silent. [He] was not directly complicit in that way."

Other Argentinian priests were far more active in the junta. Christian von Wernich, chaplain of the Buenos Aires police force, would use information gleaned from the confessional to turn people over to the police; he would then oversee their torture sessions. He was later extradited, tried and sentenced to life in prison.

Father Bergoglio, whether by choice or otherwise, soon found himself embroiled in the terror.

Two young Jesuit priests, Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics, were kidnapped by government forces on May 23, 1976, imprisoned for five months at a clandestine detention centre, tortured, and later found lying drugged and semi-naked in a field.

Days before their disappearance, according to 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 anti-regime 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.

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In a 1995 memoir, Father Jalics, who now lives in Germany, accused Father Bergoglio of betraying them.

"Many people who held far-right political beliefs frowned on our presence in the slums," the priest wrote. "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."

Cardinal Bergoglio has contested these accusations. In lengthy interviews transcribed in the 2010 book The Jesuit, and in testimony he gave during Argentine hearings into the Dirty War and the disappearances, he has argued that, in fact, he 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. 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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About the Author
International-Affairs Columnist

Doug Saunders writes the Globe and Mail's international-affairs column. He has been a writer with the Globe since 1995, and has extensive experience as a foreign correspondent, having run the Globe's foreign bureaus in Los Angeles and London.He was born in Hamilton, Ontario, and educated in Toronto. More


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