Rubin said Bergoglio only reluctantly told him the rest of the story: that he had gone to extraordinary, behind-the-scenes lengths to save them.
The Jesuit leader persuaded the family priest of former Argentine dictator Jorge Videla to call in sick so that he could say Mass instead. Once inside the junta leader’s home, Bergoglio privately appealed for mercy, Rubin wrote.
All this was done in secret, at a time when other church leaders were publicly endorsing the junta.
“It’s a very sensitive subject,” Rubin said. “The Argentine church was one of the most conservative in Latin America. It showed a good disposition toward the military authorities, who, to make matters worse, considered themselves Christians and called themselves good Catholics.”
Within the church hierarchy at the time, there were about 50 bishops, and most were conservatives. Some were very progressive, and ended up killed. Bergoglio was somewhere in the middle, Rubin said.
“There were some who were in it up to their necks,” he said, citing Christian Federico von Wernich, who served as a police chaplain then and is now serving a life sentence for torture and kidnapping.
“There were those who risked it all to openly challenge the junta, and some of those ended up dead,” Rubin added, among them Bishop Enrique Angelelli who was killed in a suspicious traffic accident in 1976 while carrying evidence about two murdered priests.
Rubin says activists closely allied with the government of Argentine President Cristina Fernandez “have tried to insert Bergoglio into some human rights trials, even when he truly shouldn’t be.”
On the other hand, activists say the Argentine church waited far too long to apologize for its human rights failures, and has yet to identify those responsible for many human rights violations.
Bergoglio was named Buenos Aires cardinal in 2001, but it was not until 2006, after then-Argentine president Nestor Kirchner declared an official day of mourning for Angelelli on the 30th anniversary of his death, that Bergoglio called him a “martyr” in the church’s first official recognition that the bishop was murdered.
Under Bergoglio’s leadership, Argentina’s bishops also issued a collective apology in October last year for the church’s failures to protect its flock during the dictatorship, but the statement blamed the era’s violence in roughly equal measure on the junta and its enemies.
“Bergoglio has been very critical of human rights violations during the dictatorship, but he has always also criticized the leftist guerrillas; he doesn’t forget that side,” Rubin said.
Bergoglio was also accused of turning his back on the De la Cuadra family, which lost five relatives to state terror, including Estela’s sister Elena, who was five months’ pregnant before she was kidnapped and killed in 1977.
The family appealed to the leader of the Jesuits in Rome, who urged Bergoglio to help them. Bergoglio then assigned a monsignor to talk with police, who gave them a heartbreaking statement: The woman was a communist, and therefore doomed, but she had given birth in captivity to a girl. That baby, in turn, was given to a family “too important” for the adoption to be reversed.
Despite this evidence, Bergoglio testified in 2010 that he did not know about any stolen babies until after the dictatorship was over.