The cardinal's knowing or unknowing surprise

Jorge Bergoglio has established as a fact that he successfully intervened to save the lives of the two priests by working behind the scenes. He is not a hero, but no accomplice.

Robert Cox
17 March 2013

Thanks go to the author and the Buenos Aires Herald for allowing us to publish this article first published there on March 17. 

Bergoglio: not a hero, but no accomplice 

I am not a "Vaticanista," as journalists who specialize in covering the Holy See are called, so I was surprised when the white smoke drifting over the Sistine Chapel heralded the election of Argentine Cardinal and Archbishop of Buenos Aires Jorge Bergoglio as the new pope. 

My surprise stemmed from the fact that the cardinals were either unaware or decided to ignore a dark shadow from the past: the shadow falling on the splendour surrounding the naming of the new pope is formed by allegations that Bergoglio was complicit with the military dictatorship that ruled Argentina from March 24, 1976, to the end of 1984. 

Argentina still has a gaping wound from the explosion of political violence and terrorism in the 1970s that prompted a military coup to save the nation from what the military viewed as an attempt at a communist takeover. As part of a Nazi-style campaign to exterminate "subversives" in what has come to be known as the "Dirty War," thousands of people, including pregnant women and children, were "disappeared" (forcibly abducted is the term that is used today). They were taken from their homes to clandestine prisons, routinely tortured and, in most cases, never appeared again. Official figures indicate that at least 15,000 people were murdered, although the current Argentine government and some human rights organizations put the figure at 30,000. Bodies were disposed of by burning, burying in secret graves or by dropping prisoners, drugged but alive, into the sea from military planes that carried out regular "death flights."

The new pope's involvement in the "crimes against humanity" for which the top military leaders have been convicted, with most sentenced to life imprisonment, is peripheral, but I assumed that Bergoglio would automatically be excluded from consideration as the leader of a Church already deeply mired in controversy. I forgot, for a moment, that the cardinals were also able to overlook Ratzinger's membership of the Hitler Youth movement.

The papal ambitions of the late Pio Laghi, who was Vatican ambassador to Argentina during the dictatorship, were ruined because of allegations that he colluded with the military during the "Dirty War."

I knew Cardinal Laghi well and I think that he summed up the situation correctly when he said, according to his obituary in The Guardian, "Perhaps I wasn't a hero, but I was no accomplice." Laghi, in my view, was blind to the monstrous crimes of the Argentine military because of his fear of communism. When I met him later in Washington, where he served as representative to the Holy See from 1980-90, he did not want to discuss his relationship with the military dictatorship, but he told me: "They were monsters." 

The situation of the new pope is similar. Bergoglio was provincial (leader) of the Jesuit Order in Argentina when the military seized power on March 24, 1976. He was also no hero. His stance is best described by Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, who announced on his website: "I do not consider that Jorge Bergoglio has been an accomplice of the dictatorship, but I believe that he lacked courage to accompany us in our struggle for human rights in the most difficult moments." 

I was a witness to the dark episode that has dogged Bergoglio for 37 years and that has resulted in one journalist in particular, Horacio Verbitsky of Página/12, pursuing him much as Javert pursued Jean Valjean in Victor Hugo's Les Misérables. 

According to Verbitsky, Bergoglio has successfully covered up his complicity with the military dictatorship. Verbitsky goes on to suggest that Bergoglio's task now is to cover up the "rottenness" that Pope Benedict left behind him.

The vehemence of Verbitsky's attack on the new pope is ostensibly because Bergoglio allegedly failed to protect Orlando Yorio and Francisco (Franz) Jalics, two young Jesuit priests who, inspired by Liberation Theology, worked with dirt poor people living in villa Bajo Flores, a Buenos Aires slum. One day, the priests were forcibly abducted by heavily-armed men in May 1976. The priests were held for a time in the notorious ESMA concentration camp. They were eventually freed, dropped off by helicopter in an open field. Both have alleged that Bergoglio withdrew his support for their work, effectively making them marked men to be kidnapped and killed. Yorio died in 2000. 

The survivor, Franz Jalics, broke a long silence on Friday to say, in a statement issued by the German branch of the Jesuit Order, that he could not comment "on the role of Fr. Bergoglio in these events."

The statement concludes: 

"After we were freed I left Argentina. Only years later did we have the chance to discuss what had happened with Fr. Bergoglio, who in the meantime had been named archbishop of Buenos Aires. Afterwards we together celebrated a public Mass and solemnly embraced. I am reconciled to the events and view them from my side as concluded. 


"I wish Pope Francis God's rich blessing for his office." 

Read the full statement here;


The statement from Jalics, now in his mid-80s and living in seclusion in a monastery in Germany, coincided with a vigorous denial of the allegations by two spokesmen for the pope. Federico Lombardi said they "must be clearly and firmly denied... There has never been a concrete or credible accusation in his regard." Argentine justice interrogated him once "but he was never charged with anything," he added. "He documented his denials of the accusations against him. There are also many declarations that show how Bergoglio tried to protect many people in his time during the military dictatorship. His role is very clearly noted."

A second Vatican spokesman, Father Thomas Rosica, blamed "anti-clerical elements" and "leftwing elements" for reviving the accusations, a clear reference to Página/12 and Verbitsky. (Readers who want to know the unvarnished and unbiased truth about the relationship between the Church and the dictatorship should read Witness to the Truth: The Complicity of Church and Dictatorship in Argentina, 1976-1983 by Emilio Mignone.)

Bergoglio, who has given limited testimony in court, citing clerical privilege, has established as a fact that he successfully intervened to save the lives of the two priests by working behind the scenes, even appealing directly to former dictator Jorge Rafael Videla. 

Bergoglio never spoke out against the dictatorship but has certainly earned the enmity of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner by his fierce criticism of demagoguery, authoritarian tendencies, tolerance of corruption and power grabbing by her administration. 

This places him to the right of centre, politically, roughly where Pope John Paul stood when he took on Soviet communism. Pope Francis is deeply conservative on social issues and Church dogma, yet he walks in the sandals of the saint whose name he adopted (St. Francis of Assisi, who dedicated his life to the poor) while also honouring St. Xavier, a founder of the Jesuit Order. 

Does his failure to denounce the crimes against humanity committed by military monsters disqualify him as the leader of more than a billion Catholics? I think not. It will, I am sure, remain on his conscience. 

Perhaps his questioned role during the dictatorship came into his mind as he looked out from the balcony over St. Peter's Square at the sea of people below him. I believe that self-knowledge of his own human failure will make him a better, more human pope.


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