The New Pope and Argentina’s ‘Disappeared’ of the Dirty War

Argentina is proud of its new Pope but some have questions about how he conducted himself when the country was ruled by the military

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Donatella Giagnori / Eidon / Zuma Press

Pope Francis appears on the balcony of St Peter's Basilica after having being elected the 266th pope of the Roman Catholic Church on March 13, 2013

UPDATED

Like many other older churchmen, politicians and businessmen in Argentina, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio has been questioned by some for his role during this country’s bloody 1976–83 military dictatorship, when tens of thousands of young dissidents were made to “disappear” in the death camps set up by the generals who ruled the country.

The Catholic Church in Argentina realized that its behavior during that dark period was so unsaintly that in 2000 it made a public apology for its failure to take a stand against the generals. “We want to confess before God everything we have done badly,” Argentina’s Episcopal Conference said at that time. “We share everyone’s pain and once again ask the forgiveness of everyone we failed or didn’t support as we should have,” Argentina’s bishops said in a statement again last year after former dictator Jorge Videla, now serving a life sentence, claimed in an interview that he had received the blessing of the country’s top clergymen for the actions of his regime.

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Since he was anointed cardinal by Pope John Paul II in Rome in 2000, Jorge Bergoglio has had to contend with repeated allegations over his actions — and inaction — in the years of what is called the “Dirty War.” Those claims have resurfaced now that he has become Pope Francis, the first Pontiff from the New World.

Even before his election as Pope, Bergoglio has always been a popular and admired figure among Argentine Catholics. The general criticism against him has been that raised against most prominent personalities of the period of junta rule: that he perhaps did not do enough at the time to try to stop the generals, that he did not speak out publicly about the thousands of desaparecidos — the disappeared who vanished without a trace and whose mothers protested for answers in a plaza in Buenos Aires. Most Argentines are aware, however that if Bergoglio had been an active critic of the regime, he would almost certainly not have lived to become Pope. Other churchmen at the time were quickly murdered by the country’s merciless generals.

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Nevertheless, there is one specific charge against Bergoglio and it involves the kidnapping of two priests, Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics — both Jesuits, members of the Society of Jesus, a Catholic religious order that the future Pope led in Argentina from 1973–79. The duo were taken by Navy officers in May 1976 and held under inhumane conditions allegedly because of the missionary work they conducted in the country’s slums. The chief proponent of the accusation has been Argentine journalist Horacio Verbitsky, who has authored a series of books on the history of the Argentine Catholic Church. In El Silencio (“The Silence”), Verbitsky says that Bergoglio withdrew his order’s protection from the two priests, giving the military a green light for their abduction.

Bergoglio has called the allegation “slander” and says that, on the contrary, he moved behind the scenes to save the lives of the two priests. He claims to have met with Videla and Admiral Emilio Massera, the two most important members of the military junta that ruled the country, to obtain their release, Bergoglio told his biographer Sergio Rubin in 2005. “I never believed [the two priests] were involved in subversive activies,” Bergoglio said. “But because of their work with some priests in the slums they were exposed to the paranoia of the witch hunt.” Bergoglio said he moved fast to save their lives. “That same night when I heard of the kidnappings I started to move. I saw Videla twice and I saw Massera. In one of my attempts to meet Videla I found out who the military chaplain was who gave mass to Videla and convinced him to call in sick and managed to be named to replace him.” Bergoglio said that after the mass he managed to speak to Videla about the case, which would not have been an easy task at the time, given the climate of fear that reigned over these issues in Argentina then.

The priests were ultimately released five months later. Yorio has since died and Jalics has retired to seclusion in a German monastery. Bergoglio, described as a “humanist” by his many followers in Argentina and a man who has consistently defended the poor, claims he even helped one dissident who looked physically like him flee the country by giving him his own identity papers.

One lawyer, Myriam Bregman, attempted to open a legal case against Bergoglio for the kidnapping of the priests but it ultimately failed for lack of sufficient legal evidence. She says was frustrated by a lack of cooperation by the Cardinal. “Bergoglio refused to come testify in court,” she recalls, making use of Argentine legislation that permits ministers of the church to choose where to make their statements. “He finally accepted to see us in an office alongside Buenos Aires Cathedral sitting underneath a tapestry of the Virgin Mary, it was an intimidating experience, we were very uncomfortable intruding in a religious building.” Meanwhile, Verbitsky says he is saddened that the man he believes did not rise to the challenge of facing the dictatorship squarely in the eye has become Pope. “It is terrible to see how he is rewarded,” says the journalist.

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Suspicions and allegations like those of Bregman and Verbitsky are by no means universally held. They are roundly denied, for example, by Argentina’s 1980 Nobel Peace Prize winner Adolfo Perez Esquivel, himself a victim of the dictatorship, tortured and held without trial for 14 months in 1977. “There were bishops who were accomplices, but not Bergoglio,” Perez Esquivel says. “There is no link relating him to the dictatorship. Bergoglio is questioned because it is said he did not do enough to get two priests out of prison while he was the superior of the Jesuits. But I know personally that many bishops requested the military junta to release prisoners and priests but they were not heeded.”

In any event, Bergoglio has lived with the allegations for years and, as Pope Francis, will have to do so for many more to come.

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66 comments
PabloAgusTwit
PabloAgusTwit

T Argentine journalist Horacio Verbitsky During the 1970s was a member of Montoneros, a communist guerrilla organization that was engaged in terrorist activities in Argentina. According to him, he participated in shootings, during which "luckily" nobody died. He also stated that he had no important functions in the Montoneros organization. Along with Mario Firmenich and five other Montoneros, he was indicted for allegedly being involved in the planning and execution of the bombing of the Superintendence of Security of the Federal Police, on July 2, 1976 — a few months after the military coup — which caused 21 deaths among intelligence officers." 

DarioDarko
DarioDarko

Nobel Peace Prize winner Adolfo Perez Esquivel, himself a victim of the dictatorship, tortured and held without trial for 14 months in 1977 says. “There is no link relating him to the dictatorship"


danicimo
danicimo

%s Pope&TimeMag “%s: Pope Francis and Argentina’s ‘disappeared’ of the 'dirty war' | %syzm (v%srld)”

SMJanicze2
SMJanicze2

@TIME @TIMEWorld And just think because of biased reporting like this and your hate of Christianity soon your magazine will be DISAPPEARED!

Gonzalo_DaCon
Gonzalo_DaCon

@TIME @TIMEWorld .. marxists! (?) fighting for a less expensive bus ticket for college students made them a treat to the nation...

gabrielyoga
gabrielyoga

'Masa Kegelapan' Gereja Katolik di era modern | @TIME Pope Francis and Argentina’s ‘disappeared’ of the 'dirty war' | ti.me\/12TNgzgYO5

aalfahhad
aalfahhad

@LoveLiberty البابا الجديد عميل للاستخبارات الأمريكية ومن اشد المتطرفين ضد الإسلام واختير كأفضل شخص سيضع حلول ضد تنامى الإسلام برأيهم

bengregg
bengregg

@TIME @TIMEWorld What did Pope Francis do during Argentina's 'Dirty War? --As far as we can tell, sounds like he didn't do much of anything!

57thState
57thState

@andy_mays If indeed he helped behind the scenes as he claims, he may have made the better choice. Did you publicly stand up to it?

57thState
57thState

@andy_mays Fairer. As I noted earlier, part of your article was false and had to be retracted. The rest = unsubstantiated allegations.

Hadrewsky
Hadrewsky

@SMJanicze2 @TIME @TIMEWorld 


A better world it would be if Christians Disappeared .. better yet for them to be impaled on lawn stakes in a "Forest of the Scientifically Illiterate" 

DarioDarko
DarioDarko

@ignaciotrillo @socialistamlgNobel Peace Prize winner Adolfo Perez Esquivel, himself a victim of the dictatorship, tortured and held without trial for 14 months in 1977 says. “There is no link relating him to the dictatorship"

andy_mays
andy_mays

@57thState Was I alive then? No. If he wants to be head of the Catholic Church of Argentina, it's incumbent on him to stand up to murder.

Hadrewsky
Hadrewsky

@TIME @TIMEWorld 


I say these things because creationist scum doesnt deserve the 3 nails it would take to nail them to a pole...


Second the pope has been vindicated on three different occasions... OLD NEWS He Didn't Collaborate!

But only a Christian has his brain so damaged he cant think correctly.

Hadrewsky
Hadrewsky

@SMJanicze2 @BreitTwit1 @TIME @TIMEWorld 


Yea.... Time Magazine disappear because of what some brain damaged Christians think from Argentina of all the pointless places on Earth worth ignoring..... yea right.

57thState
57thState

@andy_mays As I understand it he did fight against it. But wisely and covertly, rather than stupidly. You can certainly make up motives.

57thState
57thState

@andy_mays from a very biased source. One biased toward friends of Castro. Not just an insult. You can see his history.

57thState
57thState

@andy_mays I've read it several times.The author was dishonest already, so we know we can't take his word as gospel. The rest = allegations

PabloAgusTwit
PabloAgusTwit

@Gonzalo_DaCon @DarioWiter1For Christ sake, quoting a man like Verbitsky is like quoting someone from the IRA or the ETA in Spain. This person is a liar, he is an off the record spokesman for the horrendous Mrs. K. Last night one of the suppose victims, of the "betrayal" of our Cardinal and now the Pope, father de Civita explained in two different television shows the truth regarding these slanders. The entire story about Cardinal Bergoglio as a collaborator of the military was made up by the Kirchner's and who denounced the Cardinal was Horacio Verbitsky a former guerrilla leader, responsible for the murders of at least two hundred people from 1975 onwards, he was a high ranking criminal of a Marxist terrorist organization called ERP. I hope that next time, the WP and yourself will check much better your sources. Shame on you, or you work for Mrs. Kirchner and her crazy gang?

Gonzalo_DaCon
Gonzalo_DaCon

@DarioWiter1 some of these people still don't know their true identity, their grandparents are still looking for them, we can't just move on