Will 'Dirty War' skeletons haunt Pope Francis?

Many Catholics hope that the surprise election of Pope Francis will bring fresh air to a Church weary with scandals. But the new pontiff lands in Rome with hints of troubling baggage: claims he failed to stand up to Argentina’s military dictatorship.


The Roman Catholic Church has broken with a millennium of Eurocentric tradition by choosing a Latin American pope, an act many of the faithful hope will spur a renaissance in a Church humiliated by sex abuse and other sins it has consistently tried to cover up.

Many see in Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, a person willing to confront the Church’s problems head on, praising his much-reported preference for simplicity and interest in addressing global poverty. “The fact that we now have a pope that puts social justice at the centre of concerns is inspiring, it’s redemptive,” said James Salt, the executive director of the reform-minded group Catholics United, based in Washington, D.C.

But others, especially in Bergoglio’s native Argentina, see in Francis the Church’s stubborn pursuit to remain silent over some of history’s worst crimes, even to re-write history to cast a more positive light on the Church.

The fact is Francis does not arrive at the Vatican with a clean slate. Even before he could lead eager throngs of Catholics through his first papal “Hail Mary” from the loggia overlooking Saint Peter’s Square on March 13, allegations of his complicity with Argentina’s bloody dictatorship in the 1970s and 80s were already resurfacing on the Internet.

The 1976-1982 junta’s so-called “Dirty War” targeting leftists resulted in as many as 30,000 dead and disappeared, including dozens of priests, nuns and lay people working for the Church at the time.

Bergoglio is no stranger to the accusations, which vary in the degree of their horror and in how closely they involved the Argentinian Church. During the 2005 conclave, when Bergoglio was first eyed as a worthy successor to the throne of Saint Peter, he was named in press reports detailing the kidnapping and torture of two Jesuit priests in 1976. At the time of their arrest, Bergoglio was the Jesuits’ leader in the South American country.

“Bergoglio represents that part of the Church that darkened the history of our country,” Estela de Carlotto, the leader of the highly-respected rights group Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo, told El Clarin in an interview published Friday.

“The hierarchy of the Catholic Church directly or indirectly participated, colluded or concealed” human rights abuses, she told the leading Argentinian daily, adding that the prelate had never helped her group in its effort to reveal the identities of children stolen from activists during the dictatorship.

In a landmark human rights trial in 2010, Bergoglio, then Archbishop of Buenos Aires, was questioned at his home by magistrates investigating cases of torture and murder committed at the infamous ESMA Navy Mechanics School in the capital city. Bergoglio has always denied complicity with the bloody regime.

Digging in the past

According to Adolfo Perez Esquivel, a Nobel-Prize winner who survived torture at the hands of the dictatorship, a significant part of the Argentinian Church hierarchy was “unquestionably” complicit with the regime. “There were only a few priests who, with courage and determination, took up our struggle for human rights and against the military dictatorship,” he said in a statement after Pope Francis’ election.

Such statements have made Argentinians wonder exactly what share of the responsibility the new pontiff bears for human rights crimes –including the infamous “death flights”, in which prisoners were bound and thrown out of airplanes over the ocean.

Horacio Verbitsky, an Argentinian journalist and author of several books about the Catholic Church’s role during the dictatorship, is among Bergoglio’s fiercest critics. He has accused the new pontiff of turning his back on left-leaning priests during the regime –and thus directly contributing to their arrests and murders– as well as trying to cover up the collusion of the Church hierarchy and the junta.

Excerpt from church document detailing results of meeting between Argentinian bishops and junta leaders in November 1976, says church will "accompany the ongoing process of re-organizing the county."

In a 2010 article in the left-leaning daily Pagina/12, Verbitsky disclosed Church documents from 1976 outlining points of mutual understanding between Catholic and junta leaders, following a high-ranking meeting between the two parties.

The document states that the Church would “accompany the ongoing process of re-organising the county”. Verbitsky also highlighted an agreement by junta leaders to inform the Church hierarchy of any planned arrests of priests. The journalist used this point as evidence that Bergoglio knew in advance that the Jesuit priests would be targeted, yet did nothing to warn or protect them.

Bergoglio has said that on the contrary, he interceded personally on behalf of his fellow Jesuits, convincing junta leader Jorge Videla to free them, then arranged for them to take exile in Italy.

The Nobel laureate Perez Esquivel, who for decades has been at the forefront of Argentina’s struggle to face its dark past, said he did not think Bergoglio had been a direct accomplice of the dictatorship but, like so many other clergymen, “lacked the courage to stand with us for human rights during our most difficult moments.”

Opportunity for reconciliation

On Friday, three days after the end of the papal conclave, the Vatican issued a statement in defence of Pope Francis, saying that the former Buenos Aires cardinal did not play a direct part in the kidnapping of the two Jesuit priests, branding the allegations “left-wing anti-clerical elements to attack the Church.”

That statement may put the sensitive matter to rest for many Catholics. But others could see it as further proof that the Vatican has no intention of reforming its culture of denial. The Argentinian Church itself has gone further in the past in accepting fault for its shortcomings during the Dirty War and in asking for forgiveness.

In 2000 the Argentinian Church issued a statement saying it regretted “certain actions or omissions that hurt our brothers, without sufficient defence of human rights.”

In 2007, Father Christian von Wernich, a former chaplain with the Argentinian police, was charged with being an accomplice to murders, cases of torture and kidnapping, and received a life sentence. Following the ruling, his superior, Father Martin de Elizalde, asked for forgiveness “with sincere repentance”.

In 2010, then-cardinal Bergoglio presided over a Mass to mark the 30th anniversary of Bishop Enrique Angelelli, an Argentinian beaten to death by regime forces for his left-wing positions. “He spilled his blood to preach the Gospel,” said Bergoglio during the Mass.

Many now wonder if Pope Francis will address the sins of Argentina’s Church during the dictatorship. As the new face of the Catholic Church and its 2,000-year-old history, he has many additional problems and historical mistakes upon which to reflect.

James Salt of Catholics United says his church is in desperate need of healing and that he would be encouraged by “small but important gestures of humility” from Francis. Many in Argentina–a nation of 36 million Catholics–dream of a new papal era that starts with the most humble of gestures: saying sorry.

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