The new Pope and the Argentine military junta

Many Latin American prelates, most famously Dom Helder Camaro of Brazil and the martyred Archbishop Oscar Romaro of El Salvador, spoke out in the 1970s and 1980s against military dictatorships, death squads and torture.  The new Pope Francis was not one of them.

Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio

Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio

[Jorge Mario] Bergoglio was the head of the Jesuits in Argentina during the military dictatorship of 1976-1983, during which the military murdered upwards of 30,000 people (as well as kidnapping hundreds of children whose parents the regime had tortured and murdered). Unlike Catholic officials in neighboring Chile and Brazil, where priests, bishops, and even cardinals spoke out against human rights abuses and defended victims of abuses, in Argentina, the Catholic Church was openly complicit in the military regime’s repression.

Bergoglio was not exempt from this involvement: military officers have testified that Bergoglio helped the Argentine military regime hide political prisoners when human rights activists visited the country.  And Bergoglio himself had to testify regarding the kidnapping of two priests who he stripped of their religious licenses shortly before they were kidnapped and tortured.

This isn’t just a case of Bergoglio being a member of an institution that supported a brutal regime; it’s a case of Bergoglio himself having ties, direct and indirect, to that very regime.  For those who hoped for a Pope who might represent a more welcoming and open path for the Catholic Church, the selection of Bergoglio has to be a let-down.

via Americas South and North.

In November 2005, Cardinal Bergoglio was elected head of the Argentine Conference of Bishops for a three-year term, which was renewed in 2008.  At the time he was chosen, the Argentine church was dealing with a notorious political scandal, that of the Rev. Christian von Wernich, a former chaplain of the Buenos Aires police who had been accused of aiding in the questioning, torture and death of political prisoners.

The church authorities had spirited Father von Wernich out of the country and placed him in a parish in Chile under a false name, but he was eventually brought back to Argentina and put on trial. In 2007, he was found guilty on seven counts of complicity in homicide, more than 40 counts of kidnapping and more than 30 of torture, and was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Father von Wernich was allowed to continue to celebrate Mass in prison, and in 2010 a church official said that “at the appropriate time, von Wernich’s situation will have to be resolved in accordance with canonical law.” But Cardinal Bergoglio never issued a formal apology on behalf of the church, or commented directly on the case, and during his tenure the bishops’ conference was similarly silent.


I never was bothered by the fact Pope Benedict XVI was a member of the Hitler Youth as a teenager.  He was a boy and too young to know better, he never personally participated in Nazi atrocities and he never supported or showed sympathy for Naziism as an adult.  Cardinal Bergoglio was an adult when he supported the fascist Argentine military junta, and, so far as I know, he never expressed regrets.  (If I am wrong on this point, I would be grateful for better information).

[Note added 3/16/13.  Argentina’s bishops in October 2012 issued a collective apology for failing to protect their flock during the dictatorship.]

The Papacy is important to everyone and not just Catholics.  The Roman Catholic Church is not only the world’s largest religious communion, it is the world’s largest membership organization—period.  There are more than a billion Catholics in the world.   A majority of the world’s Christians are Catholics.  What the Pope does, and what the Catholic Church does, are hugely important to the world, for good and bad.

Now it may be that as Pope, Pope Francis will be able to put his past history behind him.  Maybe he will support Catholic social teaching at its best, rather than Catholic authoritarianism at its worst.  I hope so.  It’s possible.  Such a change of heart wouldn’t be unprecedented.  But I wouldn’t bet on it.


Click on the following links for more.

On the Selection of Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Pope Francisco by Colin Snider for the Americas North and South web log.

The sins of the Argentinian church by Hugh O’Shaughnessy in The Guardian

Dirty War Diaries: The Pope and Argentina’s Dictatorship by Annette Langer for Spiegel Online. [Added 3/15/13]

Is Pope Francis I’s past enough to damn him? by Nelson Jones for the New Statesman [Added 3/15/13]

Pope Francis Is Known for Simplicity and Humility  on Talking Points Memo.  Here’s an excerpt.

Under Bergoglio’s leadership, Argentina’s bishops issued a collective apology in October 2012 for the church’s failures to protect its flock.  But the statement blamed the era’s violence in roughly equal measure on both the junta and its enemies.

“Bergoglio has been very critical of human rights violations during the dictatorship, but he has always also criticized the leftist guerrillas; he doesn’t forget that side,” [Sergio] Rubin, [Bergoglio’s authorized biographer], said.

The bishops also said “we exhort those who have information about the location of stolen babies, or who know where bodies were secretly buried, that they realize they are morally obligated to inform the pertinent authorities.”

That statement came far too late for some activists, who accused Bergoglio of being more concerned about the church’s image than about aiding the many human rights investigations of the [Argentine President Christina] Kirchner’s era.

Bergoglio twice invoked his right under Argentine law to refuse to appear in open court, and when he eventually did testify in 2010, his answers were evasive, human rights attorney Myriam Bregman said.

At least two cases directly involved Bergoglio.  One examined the torture of two of his Jesuit priests — Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics — who were kidnapped in 1976 from the slums where they advocated liberation theology. Yorio accused Bergoglio of effectively handing them over to the death squads by declining to tell the regime that he endorsed their work.  Jalics refused to discuss it after moving into seclusion in a German monastery.

Both men were freed after Bergoglio took extraordinary, behind-the-scenes action to save them — including persuading dictator Jorge Videla’s family priest to call in sick so that he could say Mass in the junta leader’s home, where he privately appealed for mercy.  His intervention likely saved their lives, but Bergoglio never shared the details until Rubin interviewed him for the 2010 biography.

Bergoglio — who ran Argentina’s Jesuit order during the dictatorship — told Rubin that he regularly hid people on church property during the dictatorship, and once gave his identity papers to a man with similar features, enabling him to escape across the border.  But all this was done in secret, at a time when church leaders publicly endorsed the junta and called on Catholics to restore their “love for country” despite the terror in the streets. 

[Added 3/16/13.  Hat tip to AZspot.]

The New Pope’s Disturbing Past: transcript of an interview of Argentine journalist Horacio Verbitsky on Democracy Now.  Here’s an excerpt.

He was accused by two Jesuit priests of having surrendered them to the military.  They were a group of Jesuits that were under Bergoglio’s direction.  He was the provincial superior of the order in Argentina, being very, very young.  He was the younger provincial Jesuit in history; at 36 years, he was provincial.  During a period of great political activity in the Jesuits’ company, he stimulated the social work of the Jesuits.  

But when the military coup overthrow the Isabel Perón government, he was in touch with the military that ousted this government and asked the Jesuits to stop their social work.  And when they refused to do it, he stopped protecting them, and he let the military know that they were not more inside the protection of the Jesuits’ company, and they were kidnapped.  And they accuse him for this deed.  He denies this.  He said to me that he tried to get them free, that he talked with the former dictator, Videla, and with former dictator Massera to have them freed.

And during a long period, I heard two versions: the version of the two kidnapped priests that were released after six months of torture and captivity, and the version of Bergoglio.  This was an issue divisive in the human rights movement to which I belong, because the president founding of CELS, Center for Legal and Social Studies, Emilio Mignone, said that Bergoglio was a accomplice of the military, and a lawyer of the CELS, Alicia Oliveira, that was a friend of Bergoglio, tell the other part of the story, that Bergoglio helped them.  This was the two—the two versions.

But during the research for one of my books, I found documents in the archive of the foreign relations minister in Argentina, which, from my understanding, gave an end to the debate and show the double standard that Bergoglio used.

The first document is a note in which Bergoglio asked the ministry to—the renewal of the passport of one of these two Jesuits that, after his releasing, was living in Germany, asking that the passport was renewed without necessity of this priest coming back to Argentina.

The second document is a note from the officer that received the petition recommending to his superior, the minister, the refusal of the renewal of the passport.

And the third document is a note from the same officer telling that these priests have links with subversion—that was the name that the military gave to all the people involved in opposition to the government, political or armed opposition to the military—and that he was jailed in the mechanics school of the navy, and saying that this information was provided to the officer by Father Jorge Mario Bergoglio, provincial superior of the Jesuit company.

This means, to my understanding, a double standard.  He asked the passport given to the priest in a formal note with his signature, but under the table he said the opposite and repeated the accusations that produced the kidnapping of these priests. 

[Added 3/16/13.  Hat tip to AZspot.]

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