Pope Francis is rarely talked about without mention of his humility, his reluctance to talk about himself. The self-effacement, admirers say, is why he has hardly ever denied one of the harshest allegations against him: That he was among church leaders who actively supported Argentina’s murderous dictatorship.
It is without dispute that Jose Mario Bergoglio, like most other Argentines, failed to openly confront the 1976-1983 military junta while it was kidnapping and killing thousands of people in a “dirty war” to eliminate leftist opponents.
However, the new pope’s biographer, Sergio Rubin, argues that this was a failure of the Roman Catholic Church in general, and that it is unfair to label Bergoglio with the collective guilt that many Argentines of his generation still deal with.
“In some way many of us Argentines ended up being accomplices,” at a time when anyone who spoke out could be targeted, Rubin said.
Some human rights activists accuse Bergoglio, 76, of being more concerned about preserving the church’s image than providing evidence for Argentina’s many human rights trials.
“There’s hypocrisy here when it comes to the church’s conduct, and with Bergoglio in particular,” said Estela de la Cuadra, whose mother co-founded the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo activist group during the dictatorship to search for missing family members. “There are trials of all kinds now, and Bergoglio systematically refuses to support them.”
Bergoglio twice invoked his right under Argentine law to refuse to appear in open court in trials involving torture and murder inside the feared Navy Mechanics School and the theft of babies from detainees. When he eventually did testify in 2010, his answers were evasive, human rights attorney Myriam Bregman said.
Bergoglio’s own statements proved church officials knew from early on that the junta was torturing and killing its citizens even as the church publicly endorsed the dictators, she said.
“The dictatorship could not have operated this way without this key support,” she said.
Rubin said Bergoglio actually took major risks to save so-called “subversives” during the 1976-1983 dictatorship, but never spoke about it publicly before his 2010 biography, The Jesuit.
In the book, Bergoglio explained that he did not want to stoop to his critics’ level — and then shared some of his stories. Bergoglio said he once passed his identity papers to a wanted man with a similar appearance, enabling him to escape to Brazil, and added that many times he sheltered people inside church properties before they were safely delivered into exile.
The most damning accusation against Bergoglio is that as the leader of Argentina’s Jesuits, he withdrew his support for two slum priests whose activist colleagues in the liberation theology movement were disappearing. The priests were then kidnapped and tortured.
Bergoglio said he had told the priests — Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics — to give up their slum work for their own safety, and they refused. However, Yorio later accused Bergoglio of effectively delivering them to the death squads by declining to publicly endorse their work. Yorio is now dead, and Jalics has refused to discuss these events since moving into a German monastery.
Both priests were eventually dropped off blindfolded in a field after a harrowing helicopter ride.