As soon as Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected Pope, some Argentine journalists starting linking him to the Dirty War, a civil war between left-wing guerillas and a military junta from 1976 to 1982. He had been a collaborator and did nothing to stop military atrocities, they alleged. These smears about a bishop whom most Catholics outside of Argentina had never heard were relayed by a gullible international media. “An Argentine with a cloudy past,” sneered the New Yorker.
On Facebook and Twitter appeared photos of Bergoglio standing with General Jorge Rafael Videla, the Argentine dictator. One of them showed a priest with his back to the camera giving him communion.
But the priests were not Bergoglio and the smears are false.
The “National Reorganization Process”, as the military junta styled itself in a grandiloquent Orwellianism, lost the Falklands War and made Argentina into an international pariah for years. It was an appalling era. There were between 9,000 and 30,000 deaths. Thousands of left-wing sympathisers were “disappeared” by masked gunmen; some were dropped from planes over the South Atlantic so that their bodies would never be found. Babies were taken from imprisoned mothers and adopted by military families. Both sides fought with murderous zeal.
Even though many priests openly opposed — at least at the beginning of the regime — the military junta, some of the Catholic Church hierarchy did support the policies of the dictatorship.
Nowadays in Argentine society the Dirty War is a touchstone for moral darkness. So associating her archcritic, the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, with it made political sense for the government of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.
Disagreements with Bergoglio started with the late Néstor Kirchner, president from 2003 to 2007, the current President’s husband. He was stung by criticism of social policies which had led to one of the worst social, economic and political crises of Argentina’s history.
When Kirchner’s wife, Cristina Fernández, became President, relations initially seemed to change for the better, but they rapidly grew frosty. Bergoglio reminded her of inequality and poverty, he opposed same-sex marriage legislation, and he defended farmers over taxes. He opposed poverty reduction with hand-outs rather than real justice and opportunity. “This is the most inhumane political practice that I know,” he told Joaquín Morales Solá, an columnist at La Nación newspaper, “because it condemns the poor to being dependent, always begging, without any hope.”
Fernández seethed. In a terrific snub, she even refused to attend the anniversary celebration of the 1810 revolution at which the Archbishop of Buenos Aires traditionally says a Te Deum of thanksgiving. She refused 14 requests from the Archbishop for an interview.
So when Bergoglio was elected, the government fell into a state of shock. Having an Argentine as head of 1.2 billion Catholics should have been an honour for the La Patria, but for Fernández it was a political humiliation. Fortunately, Pope Francis was gracious and tactful. La Presidenta was first to have a private audience with the new Pope.
What about the allegations that Bergoglio had worked for the dictatorship in the Dirty War?
Most of these originated with a journalist for the Página 12 newspaper, Horacio Verbitsky, a former Montonero guerilla. He claimed that when Bergoglio was the Provincial of the Jesuits in Argentina, he was familiar with the theft of babies from imprisoned women, he betrayed two Jesuits to the military government, and he was a friend of General Videla.
The Vatican has flatly denied this. “The campaign against Bergoglio is well-known and dates back to many years ago. It has been carried out by a publication specializing in sometimes slanderous and defamatory campaigns. The anticlerical cast of this campaign and of other accusations against Bergoglio is well-known and obvious”, said a press release two days after the election.
“There have been many declarations demonstrating how much Bergoglio did to protect many persons at the time of the military dictatorship. Bergoglio’s role, once he became bishop, in promoting a request for forgiveness of the Church in Argentina for not having done enough at the time of the dictatorship is also well-known. The accusations pertain to a use of historical-sociological analysis of the dictatorship period made years ago by left-wing anticlerical elements to attack the Church. They must be firmly rejected.”
This version of events is not just kneejerk loyalty to the new Pope. It is supported by a number of Argentines who opposed the dictatorship.
Argentina’s 1980 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, is a human rights activist who survived torture by military regime. He quickly declared that Bergoglio has nothing to do with the Dirty War. “Although he limited himself to protest, it’s not right to accuse him of complicity. Even if he was not among the bishops in the front line for the defence of human rights, he opted for a silent diplomacy, appealing for the release of prisoners,” Pérez Esquivel told a press conference at the Holy See. “To be an accomplice means to have collaborated, as some bishops did. At that time, Bergoglio wasn’t a bishop but only provincial superior of the Jesuits in Argentina.”
Leonardo Boff, a well-known exponent of liberation theology in Brazil, denied the smears as well. “It runs against his known character – he is strong but also tender, and poor, and he continuously speaks out against social injustice in Argentina and for the need for justice, not philanthropy,” he told the IPS news service.
And human rights activist Graciela Fernandez Meijide, a self-styled atheist, dismissed speculation about Bergoglio as a collaborator. She is a former member of the national commission on the disappearance of persons and has reviewed the evidence. Her own son was “disappeared”, she told the El Clarín newspaper, and she had been unable to do anything to help him. What could Bergoglio have done for the two Jesuit priests? “What this government wanted least is that a person like Bergoglio, who is truly concerned about poverty, to become Pope. The last thing that Cristina wanted is Bergoglio as Pope. Anybody but him.”
Even one of the Jesuit priests whom Bergoglio supposedly betrayed in 1976, Fr Franz Jalics, has denied it. The two men were kidnapped, tortured, and held in a secret prison for five months. “The truth is that Orlando Yorio [the other priest, who died in 2000] and I were not denounced by Father Bergoglio,” Fr Jalics said.
In fact, Archbishop Bergoglio led a national examination of conscience during the Holy Year of 2000 and asked Catholics to do penance for the sins committed during the years of the dictatorship. Bergoglio has also supported the cause of beatification of three Pallotine priests and two seminarians who were murdered by a military death squad in 1976. Magistrates and other human rights activists have defended the Pope Francis as well.
Even President Fernández seems to have understood that she cannot quarrel with Bergoglio any more. According to polls, 8 out of 10 Argentineans are delighted with the Pope. Página 12 has moderated its criticism and and Hebe de Bonafini, the head of the human rights organization Madres de Plaza de Mayo, has stopped calling him a “fascist”. Sooner or later, the truth always triumphs.
Pedro Dutour writes from the capital of Uruguay, Montevideo.