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Thursday, 14 March 2013 07:12

The New Pope and Argentina’s "Dirty War"

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Considering the church’s serial obfuscations and cover-ups, it is worth asking what role Cardinal Jorge Maria Bergoglio, now Pope Francis I, might have played during Argentina’s Dirty War.

The election of Argentina’s Jorge Maria Bergoglio, now Pope Francis I, as the first pope from Latin America is a truly historic moment. The purported runner up in 2005 to then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (the now-retired Pope Benedict XVI), Bergoglio is now the worldwide leader of the Catholic Church. 

Early reports are describing him as a humble man who took the bus to work in Buenos Aires, cooked his own meals, rejected many of the opulent perquisites of his position, and a man who genuinely cares about the poor. Some describe him as conservative on doctrinal issues, and progressive on social issues.

According to a reporter from Argentina, Archbishop Bergoglio has vociferously opposed the Argentine government on a number of recent political issues, including his opposition to Argentina’s same-sex marriage law. In 2010, when the Argentine government introduced legislation to allow same-sex marriage, Bergoglio called it a "real and dire anthropological throwback." In a letter to the monasteries of Buenos Aires, he wrote: "Let's not be naive, we're not talking about a simple political battle; it is a destructive pretension against the plan of God. We are not talking about a mere bill, but rather a machination of the Father of Lies that seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God."

Bergoglio has also insisted that adoption by gay and lesbian is a form of discrimination against children.

However, it may be that Argentina’s “Dirty War” against leftists in the 1970s and 1980s will “become the first scandal to haunt Latin America's first pontiff,” International Business Times’ Julian Kossoff recently wrote.

Bergoglio and Argentina’s Dirty War

According to the National Catholic Reporter’s John L. Allen Jr., in 1958 Bergoglio  “entered the Society of Jesus and began studies for the priesthood… .[spending] much of his early career teaching literature, psychology and philosophy, and early on he was seen as a rising star. From 1973 to 1979 he served as the Jesuit provincial in Argentina, then in 1980 became the rector of the seminary from which he had graduated.”

Bergoglio was involved with, and a leader within the Catholic Church in Argentina during the “dirty war” of the late-1970s and early 1980s, and successive military dictatorships that ruled the country. Argentina’s “dirty war” led to the torture, imprisonment, murder, and disappearance of tens of thousands of left-wing activists.

What role did Bergoglio play during that period?

“In 2005, a human rights lawyer filed a criminal complaint against the then Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, accusing him of conspiring with the Argentinian junta in 1976 to kidnap two Jesuit priests,” Kossoff reported. “He had asked the priests to leave the Society of Jesus of Argentina because of a conflict within the society over how it should respond to the new military dictatorship. Some priests had advocated a violent overthrow of the regime.”

Bergoglio’s spokesperson “flatly denied the allegations and no evidence was presented linking the cardinal to the kidnapping.

Horacio Verbitsky is an Argentinean investigative journalist who was given an International Press Freedom Award by the Committee to Protect Journalists in 2001. Among his books are The Silence: from Paulo VI to Bergoglio, the secret links between the Church and the Navy Mechanics School (2005) and The Flight: Confessions of an Argentine Dirty Warrior (New Press, 2005).

In the introduction to an excerpt from The Silence, opendemocracy.net pointed out that, “In 1979, the Inter-American Human Rights Commission visited Argentina and inspected the most notorious detention centre, the Navy Mechanical School in Buenos Aires. They found no prisoners. … the prisoners had been dispersed, some of them to El Silencio, an island property that had belonged to an official of the Catholic archbishop of Buenos Aires.”

A July 2010, Council on Hemispheric Affairs report by Elizabeth Gavin pointed out that Argentine Catholic leaders “have admitted that the Church was complacent during the Dirty War of 1976 – 1983. Before active ‘counter-terrorism’ efforts had even begun, Catholic groups were already combating left-wing activists by resorting to practices outlined in Jean Ousset’s Le Marxisme-léninisme, which called for ‘profound faith, an unlimited obedience to the Holy Father, and a thorough knowledge of the Church’s doctrines.’ A naval chaplain later introduced the film The Battle of Algiers to counter-insurgency classes in Argentina. As cadets would later testify, the chaplain used the film to justify the use of torture against a civilian population that posed a threat to the Church’s hierarchy.

“Furthermore, some Argentine Church leaders played an insidious role during the dictatorship. For example, Father von Wernich, former chaplain of the Buenos Aires Province Police, attended torture sessions in clandestine detention centers while simultaneously offering comforting words to family members of the disappeared. He was not the exception, and if such a transgression occurred under rule of law, he and approximately thirty other priests would have been charged for involvement in torture. Evidently, last week was not the first time Church leadership has taken decisive action that could be construed as anti-human rights.

In 1996, one year after the Argentine military apologized for the Dirty War, the Catholic Church issued its own rather unique apology. According to the International Business Times’ Julian Kossoff, the “bishops …  document sa[id] they made insufficient efforts to stop human rights violations. They also asked for forgiveness for crimes committed by Catholics on both sides of the political fence but of themselves they only conceded ‘there is no doubt that all that was done was not enough.’" 

Over the years, obfuscation and cover-ups by Catholic Church hierarchy has become all too common, whether over the sexual molestation scandal still haunting the church, the dysfunctional internal operations of the Vatican, or the possibly criminal activities of the Vatican Bank, activities that are still under investigation. While his fellow cardinals elected him, it goes without saying that several of them have less than a sterling record dealing with the church’s massive loads of dirty laundry.