John Baglow

Pope Francis and his Church in Argentina

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Jorge Bergoglio, aka Pope Francis, is no sooner seated on the Petrine Throne than a controversy surfaces. It’s not one, I predict, that will blow over quickly.

His predecessor, Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger, was a member of the Hitler Youth; but in fairness all German boys his age were enrolled on a mandatory basis. The new Pope will have a harder time explaining away his past in Argentina, however, under one of the cruelest and most bloodthirsty regimes in Latin American history.

Jorge Rafael Videla, president of Argentina from 1976-1981, oversaw a reign of terror in the country: thousands of murders, the kidnapping of children for adoption, the routine use of torture.

The murderous ideology of the regime was summed up by one of his generals, Iberico Manuel Saint-Jean: “First, we are going to kill all of the subversives; then their collaborators; then their sympathizers; then the indifferent; and finally, the timid.”

The Argentine Roman Catholic hierarchy and some of the priesthood played an invidious role as this monstrous outbreak of evil spilled across the country. “The Church did not kill anybody, but it did not save anybody, either,” testified one repentant priest at the 2006 trial of Christian von Wernich, a fellow priest who avidly took part in torture sessions and who was subsequently sentenced to life imprisonment for his crimes.

Some three months of often chilling testimony in the trial illustrated how closely some Argentine priests worked with military leaders during the dirty war. Witnesses spoke about how Father von Wernich was present at torture sessions in clandestine detention centers. They said he extracted confessions to help the military root out perceived enemies, while at the same time offering comforting words and hope to family members searching for loved ones who had been kidnapped by the government.

And as early as 2005*, the present Pope was accused of deep complicity with the Videla regime.

[Argentinian author and journalist Horacio Verbitsky] recounts how the Argentinian navy with the connivance of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, now the Jesuit archbishop of Buenos Aires, hid from a visiting delegation of the Inter-American Human Rights Commission the dictatorship’s political prisoners. Bergoglio was hiding them in nothing less than his holiday home in an island called El Silencio in the River Plate. [See erratum below —ed.]

Even his own priests weren’t safe. He was sued in 2005 for sacrificing two of them to the right-wing paramilitaries, who disapproved of their work with the poor. They were found drugged and semi-naked in a field five months later. One angrily denounced Bergoglio for “effectively handing [the priests] over to death squads.”

“History condemns him,” Fortunato Mallimacci, a former dean at the University of Buenos Aires, once said of Bergoglio. “It shows him to be opposed to all innovation in the church and above all, during the dictatorship, it shows he was very cozy with the dictatorship.”

Human rights attorney Myriam Bregman told the AP that “the dictatorship could not have operated [so brutally] without this key support.”

He and his defenders, like his official biographer Sergio Rubin, claim that he actually saved many from the clutches of the junta, and that his personal intercession with General Videla saved the two priests’ lives. The whole truth may never be known.

But the new Pope has been caught in one undeniable lie, this having to do with the kidnapping of babies by the Videla regime:

Bergoglio also was accused of turning his back on a family that lost five relatives to state terror, including a young woman who was 5-months’ pregnant before she was kidnapped and killed in 1977. The De la Cuadra family appealed to the leader of the Jesuits in Rome, who urged Bergoglio to help them; Bergoglio then assigned a monsignor to the case. Months passed before the monsignor came back with a written note from a colonel: It revealed that the woman had given birth in captivity to a girl who was given to a family “too important” for the adoption to be reversed.

Despite this written evidence in a case he was personally involved with, Bergoglio testified in 2010 that he didn’t know about any stolen babies until well after the dictatorship was over. “Bergoglio has a very cowardly attitude when it comes to something so terrible as the theft of babies. He says he didn’t know anything about it until 1985,” said the baby’s aunt, Estela de la Cuadra, whose mother Alicia co-founded the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo in 1977 in hopes of identifying these babies. “He doesn’t face this reality and it doesn’t bother him. [emphasis added]

More recently, Bergoglio heroically spoke truth to power by denouncing his democratic government’s plan to legalize same-sex marriage, calling it the work of the devil. There is no record of his using similar language to describe the excesses of the Videla regime.

In any case, more digging will reveal more facts, and there will assuredly be digging. At this point we might simply observe that Pope Francis has shown up in Rome with an extraordinary amount of baggage.

[H/t Mike J. Casey]

ERRATUM: (March 14) The Guardian has now retracted the claim that Bergoglio hid political prisoners for the junta. [H/t reader Fergusrush for promptly drawing my attention to this.] The Wikipedia entry where it also appeared has been silently redacted as well.

The Guardian:

This article was amended on 14 March 2013. The original article, published in 2011, wrongly suggested that Argentinian journalist Horacio Verbitsky claimed that Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio connived with the Argentinian navy to hide political prisoners on an island called El Silencio during an inspection by human rights monitors. Although Verbitsky makes other allegations about Bergoglio’s complicity in human rights abuses, he does not make this claim. The original article also wrongly described El Silencio as Bergoglio’s “holiday home”. This has been corrected.

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* El Silencio: de Paulo VI a Bergoglio: las relaciones secretas de la Iglesia con la ESMA. Sudamericana (Bs. As.), 2005.

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This page contains a single entry by John Baglow published on March 13, 2013 11:14 PM.

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