The election of the Argentine Jesuit cardinal Jorge Bergoglio – now mostly referred to as Pope Francis – as the new pontiff came as a big surprise to the whole world. Pope Francis is considered a modest man who, as an archbishop in his own country, declined the luxurious perks of the position; he is also an avid fan of football, tango and Italian literature. He is mostly known to be a theological conservative with a strong social conscience. As a Jesuit had never before been chosen for the illustrious role, and as he was the first from Latin America to be chosen for the position, his election was undoubtedly a watershed moment in the history of the Roman Catholic Church.
But not everyone has given the new pontiff a hearty welcome. In Argentina, many consider Bergoglio to be a divisive figure, not simply because of his conservative stance on social issues (e.g., abortion, marriage equality, the definition of family, etc.), but also, more pointedly, due to persisting speculation about his role during the violent military dictatorship that ruled the country from 1976 to 1983.
Argentina was not unique in Latin America for coming under military rule during the 1970s. Leftist movements were gaining significant ground in several different countries in the region, and many within ruling elite circles saw their development as a challenge to their interests. At the same time, in most of those countries, the military structures and forces were ready and prepared to combat “subversive” elements.
However, the role of the Catholic Church within this historical current varied greatly, depending on the country in question. In Argentina, for example – and distinct from other countries – the role played by certain elements within the Catholic Church has baffled and troubled many.
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In fact, according to Fortunato Mallimaci, professor of sociology at the University of Buenos Aires, the relationship between the armed forces and the Church in Argentina was very different from those relationships found in Chile, Brazil, Peru and other countries.
Professor Jeffrey Klaiber, a Jesuit and author of The Church, Dictatorships, and Democracy in Latin America, said in a phone interview, “There was much clearer leadership in Brazil, where Dom Helder Camara, Aloisio Lorscheider, and Paulo Arns of Sao Paulo were very vocal and took a strong stance, denouncing the military.”
“It is true that the Church in Argentina could have been more vocal about the atrocities the military was committing. In a way, they were silent. I would say that the Catholic Church in Argentina was the black sheep – ‘La Oveja Negra’ – of Latin America in the passive way they dealt with the military dictatorship,” Klaiber said.
In fact, thousands were killed or disappeared as a result of the repression at the hands of the junta.
In an interview published last year in the Spanish publication Cambio16, Jorge Rafael Videla, former president and strongman of Argentina during the military dictatorship, was asked about the role of the Catholic Church during that time.
“My relationship with the Church was excellent,” Videla said. “It was very cordial, frank and open. Don’t forget that we even had military chaplains assisting us, thus not allowing our partnership and friendship to falter. . . . The Argentine Church in general, and thankfully, was not carried away by the leftist and Third World tendencies of other churches of the continent that were clearly politicized in favor of one side and that fell for this game. Even though certain members of the Argentine Church fell for this game, they were within a minority group that was hardly noticeable.”
Mallimaci said that Videla has always maintained that “everything we have done while in power” was done in consultation with and with the approval from the authorities of the Catholic Church.
“The Catholic Church has never refuted Videla’s declarations, even though priests and many within the clergy have asked for that. Therefore, it seems to me that the silence of the Catholic Church relating to Videla’s declarations is a bad sign, not only of complicity but also of a close collaboration during the dictatorship. Maybe the Church does not refute Videla because, if they refute him, he could give details that could be very damaging to the Catholic Church as an institution,” Mallimaci added.
To this day, the Church’s role during the dictatorship is still a source of much debate among Argentine society. It is also a painful reminder of past wounds from that period that still have not healed.
In fact, in October 2012, under the administration of José María Arancedo, president of the Episcopal Conference, the bishops in Argentina issued a collective apology to all those whom they let down and did not support as they should have.
However, many still are not satisfied, believing that the apology is insufficient and does not go far enough.
According to Washington Uranga, an Argentine journalist who follows the Catholic Church, the bishops’ document was found to be wanting, as the Church did not take institutional responsibility and as always placed the blame on a certain member who supposedly committed mistakes during the military dictatorship.
Uranga told me that “the statement somehow feeds the idea that the violence that characterized that time was exerted equally by both sides. The apology did not distinguish what this violence really brought for each group. The document propagates the theory of the ‘two demons,’ which defends, in reality, that the reaction of the military was a response to the actions of leftist groups.”
Furthermore, Mallimaci said that “until today, the episcopate has met with neither the mothers nor the grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo (Argentina’s human rights organization), but it has met with the staff members from the military dictatorships and groups linked to powerful sectors of the media, the economy, and the judiciary. However, Dom Paulo Evaristo Arns, the bishop of São Paulo, met the mothers and grandmothers of the victims of the dictatorship and gave an account of this meeting to Pope John Paul II when he was in Brazil.”
Within this historical context, the leadership of the Argentine episcopate has received much attention and has been questioned over the last few decades. A key member of the episcopate at one point was, of course, Jorge Bergoglio who became Pope Francis.
Bergoglio became a priest at 33 and was leading the local Jesuit community within four years, holding the post of provincial of the Argentine Jesuits from 1973 to 1979. After six years as provincial, he immersed himself in the academic arena. He then was appointed auxiliary bishop of Buenos Aires in 1992 and archbishop in 1998.
The most damaging accusation against Bergoglio, also described in Sergio Rubin’s book The Jesuit, is that, as the young leader of the Argentine Jesuit order, he withdrew the order’s support from two Jesuits, Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics, when they refused to give up their pastoral work in the poor community of Bajo Flores in Buenos Aires.
Consequently, according to this version of events, because Yorio and Jalics no longer had the backing of the Jesuit order, the military felt that they were “fair game” for abduction.
According to Rubin, Bergoglio never wanted to respond to such accusations. As Bergoglio told Rubin, “If I did not speak during that moment, it was in order not to play anybody’s game and not because I had something to hide.”
At that time, it wasn’t uncommon for priests and other social workers to come under suspicion by the military if they were working with the poor. There was a pervasive risk from doing such work, and consequently, a climate of fear developed among many social workers. Several were rounded up and accused of being “subversives” and of having links to guerrilla elements within the country – and as a result, many were kidnapped, tortured and even killed.
Yorio and Jalics, who belonged to the order of the Society of Jesus, were deeply committed to the causes of the poor. They were among the many who came under military suspicion when they began their work in Bajo Flores. On May 23, 1976, the two priests were kidnapped by elements of the armed forces while involved with their ministry and social work in the community. However, as Bergoglio told Rubin, far from abandoning Yorio and Jalics, Bergoglio did everything he could to save them, even pleading on their behalf on more than one occasion with Jorge Videla and Eduardo Massera, head of the Argentine Navy.
In that account, Bergoglio said that the two Jesuit priests wanted to form their own community and had even already presented a sketch of the community rules to the Jesuit order. The highest-ranking Jesuit at the time, Superior General Pedro Arrupe, told them to choose between the Jesuit order and their own project. Because the two priests opted to continue with their project, they asked to leave the order.
Eventually, after several months, Yorio and Jalics were released after enduring a traumatic ordeal in which they were interrogated and tortured within the confines of the notorious Navy Mechanics School (ESMA). Bergoglio told Rubin that the two Jesuit priests were set free because they did not do anything wrong and finally because he did everything he could to get the two of them released.
Recently, new statements made by Jalics, the only one of the pair still alive, have once again drawn attention to the events surrounding his kidnapping. In a statement made on March 15, 2013, and posted on the German Jesuits’ website, Jalics said that years later, following Yorio’s and his release from captivity, he had the chance to discuss the events with Father Bergoglio. Following that, Jalics said, Father Bergoglio and he celebrated Mass publicly together and hugged solemnly. “I am reconciled with the events and, for my part, consider the matter to be closed,” Jalics said.
However, in this same statement, Jalics also said that he could not comment on Bergoglio’s role in the events that led to his captivity. Consequently, this part of the statement left an opening for continued speculation about Bergoglio’s role.
A few days later, on March 20, in a new statement on the same website, Jalics said that the facts were the following: “Orlando and I were not denounced by Father Bergoglio. . . . It is thus wrong to claim that our capture was initiated by Father Bergoglio.” In this last statement, Jalics also said that he felt obligated to clarify his position in relation to his first message posted on the site, as he believed that he had been misinterpreted in his first pronouncement.
With his last statement, Jalics clearly silenced any speculation that Bergoglio was to blame in any way for his kidnapping. Jalics also assigned responsibility for the kidnapping to a female catechist who happened to work with him and Orlando, but who eventually joined the guerrillas.
But Jalics’s most recent statement about the events directly contradicts previous statements he made to members of his own family on several occasions. In fact, on March 15, 2013, the same day Jalics made his first statement on the Jesuits’ website, members of his own family spoke to Marie Katharina Wagner, a reporter from the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine, and reiterated Jalics’s previous version of the events.
In Wagner’s article, according to one of Jalics’s brothers, Jalics was convinced that Bergoglio had betrayed Yorio and him to the military junta. Also, the same brother claimed that Jalics had made that same accusation several times within the family circle.
When contacted about the discrepancy and asked if the family had any comments about Jalics’s new statement., Wagner said they didn’t want to comment.
But in Wagner’s article, Jalics’s brother stated that some years ago, Francisco stopped talking about the incident because he wanted to close that chapter of his past after having reconciled with Bergoglio. According to his brother, Francisco said that he didn’t want to keep living his life in anger, like his friend Orlando.
Recently, an Argentine journalist with the newspaper Pagina12 published an email sent to him by Graciela Yorio, the sister of Father Orlando, in which she reacted emotionally to the election of Jorge Bergoglio. “I can’t believe it. I am so anguished and so angry that I don’t know what to do. He achieved what he wanted,” she wrote.
And just last month, Yorio shared the following with the newspaper La Tercera: “My brother and Francisco maintained that Bergoglio turned them in. I believe in my brother, and we are convinced about this.”
But others question the evidence and defend Bergoglio. One important dignitary who has defended Bergoglio’s role during the military dictatorship is Adolfo Perez Esquivel, who won the 1980 Nobel Peace Prize for his work in exposing the crimes of the junta. “There were bishops who were accomplices of the dictatorship, but Bergoglio was not,” Esquibel told BBC Mundo.
“Bergoglio was not a bishop during the dirty war. He was only a provincial, so he had little influence and cannot be held responsible for any military activities during the Dirty War,” Klaiber told me. There are also reports of how Bergoglio, as provincial of the Jesuits, went out of his way to help religious figures who were being persecuted during the dictatorship.
In The Jesuit, when Rubin asked Bergoglio how many people he hid and sheltered, Bergoglio said that he protected several people who were being persecuted by the military forces, hiding them in one of the facilities that belonged to the Society of Jesus.
He also told Rubin that he helped one young man escape the country by giving him his own identity card. And there are more accounts of how Bergoglio helped people during that time. For instance, an article recently published in the Uruguayan publication Brecha gives an account of a specific case in the mid-1970s, in which Bergoglio interceded on behalf of several priests and lay people who had been arrested in that country.
“I don’t think Bergoglio had a courageous attitude as other priests had during the time of the dictatorship,” said the journalist Uranga. “He had a direct ethical and moral responsibility because he was Jalics’ and Yorio’s superior, and the two of them have said that he did not protect them as he should have. This responsibility is clear. However, it does not seem to me that there are sufficient elements to accuse him of being responsible for the disappearance of the two Jesuits, nor to assign him direct responsibility for their kidnapping.”
Some of the most influential people during the military dictatorship – people with potential information about exactly what happened behind the scenes that led to the kidnapping of the two Jesuit priests – are already dead. But one of them, and perhaps the most influential in and the most knowledgeable about that period, is alive: Jorge Videla.
In The Jesuit, Bergoglio told Rubin that he met Videla twice, both times to plead on behalf of the two Jesuit priests who had disappeared. Vicente Muleiro, an authoritative expert who authored a book about the life of Videla said the former president and strongman, who is serving a life sentence in prison, is a religious fanatic who possesses feelings of idolatry toward the Church as an institution. He said Videla clearly has a servile respect for all the institutions surrounding the Catholic Church and even more for its ultraconservative and medievalist sectors.
“[Videla] ceased to wage war against Chile in 1978 because of the intervention of Pope John Paul II. He was afraid of the pope,” Muleiro said.
“It is very possible that he believes in the dogma of papal infallibility,” he added.
Muleiro said that, if asked, Videla would decline to divulge details about the content of his two encounters with the current pope. “Videla would never say anything against the pope.”
In an article by Ceferino Reato, one of the few people to have ever interviewed Videla, Reato wrote that he posed a written question to Videla, with the assistance of a family member of another inmate in prison, asking if Videla had anything to say about the two meetings he had with Jorge Bergoglio about the case of the two Jesuit priests. Also in writing, the family of the inmate whom Reato consulted responded that Videla did not wish to comment.