"Pope Francis & the Junta: What Did Bergoglio Do During the Dirty War?" Commonweal, March 18, 2013
By Tom Quigley
Virtually everyone in Latin America (and North America as well) had
every reason to be thrilled with the election of Jorge Mario
Bergoglio, SJ, cardinal archbishop of Buenos Aires, to the papacy.
Still, there were some who have raised questions based on their views
of what Bergoglio, as Jesuit provincial, did or did not do during
Argentina’s guerra sucia. The main sources for Bergoglio’s critics are
articles published in the Buenos Aires paper Página 12 by veteran
journalist Horacio Verbitsky concerning the abduction of two Jesuit
activists, Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics.
The era of the “dirty war” extended from the time of the military coup
of 1976 to the junta’s end in 1983. The first years were the worst,
and 1976 is remembered as an annus horribilis, beginning with the
Videla military coup on March 24. In that one year, Monica Mignone,
daughter of famed human rights lawyer Emilio Mignone, was abducted
from her family’s home on May 14 and never seen again. Three
Pallottine priests and two seminarians were murdered in the rectory of
the San Patricio parish on Sunday, July 4. Bishop Enrique Angelleli of
La Rioja was killed when his automobile was forced off the road on
August 4. That same month American La Salette missionary Fr. James
Weeks was arrested and tortured but released through the intervention
of the U.S. ambassador. The following month, Irish national Fr.
Patrick Rice of the Little Brothers of the Gospel was similarly
arrested, tortured, and released through his government’s intercession.
During that period, according to Emilio Mignone’s Witness to the
Truth: The Complicity of Church and Dictatorship in Argentina, some
sixteen priests were murdered or disappeared, nine of them in 1976
alone. And on May 23, the two Jesuits, Francisco Jalics and Orlando
Yorio, residents of the Bajo Flores shantytown, were arrested. Five
months later, they showed up, drugged and beaten, in a swamp,
apparently deposited there from a helicopter.
Convinced that their superior, Fr. Jorge Mario Bergoglio, had not only
not gone to bat for them but may even have facilitated their arrest,
Yorio left the Jesuits and incardinated in Argentina’s diocese of
Viedma. He has since died. Jalics, a Hungarian, left Argentina to join
his fellow Jesuits in Germany. In 2000 he and then-Cardinal Bergoglio
met, celebrated Mass together, and proclaimed their reconciliation.
It is the brother and sister of the late Fr. Yorio who seem determined
to revisit the question of Bergoglio’s alleged complicity in the
kidnappings, with Verbitsky as chronicler. The strongest charge is
Verbitsky’s curious account of what he takes to be Bergoglio’s
“betrayal” of his fellow Jesuits. In his book The Silence, Verbitsky
writes, “Bergoglio withdrew his order’s protection of the two men
after they refused to quit visiting the slums, which ultimately paved
the way for their capture.”
“Visiting the slums” was what Bergoglio himself later became famous
for as archbishop, with fellow Argentines coming to dub him their papa
villero, their slum pope. The two Jesuits were doing more than just
visiting—they were involved in activities that, from the Junta’s point
of view, were clearly subversive. Bergoglio says he warned them that
they were risking arrest, if not worse, and urged them to be more
prudent. According to an AP report, “Bergoglio has said he told the
priests to give up their slum work for their own safety, and they
refused.” And they were kidnapped—or, if you prefer, extrajudicially arrested.
What now seems clear is that both men were freed after Bergoglio took
measures to protect them. On one occasion he persuaded Videla’s
personal chaplain to call in sick so Bergoglio could say Mass in the
president’s home, where he pleaded for the two priests, most likely
saving their lives.
It’s known as well that Bergoglio regularly hid people on church
property and once gave his personal ID to a man with similar features,
allowing him to slip across the border.
Verbitsky’s telling seems to imagine some great power held by the
Jesuits in that country. What has been too little noted in all the
furor since Bergoglio’s election as pope is the relative impotence of
the religious communities in Argentina during the dirty war, as
compared with the vastly superior influence of the country’s
ultra-conservative bishops. Mignone’s book names no fewer than
twenty-five bishops and two cardinals whom he considers indifferent,
if not hostile, to concerns for human rights. There are even bishops
he terms "integrist." The "good" bishops he numbers at seven or eight.
In that climate, the relatively young Jesuit provincial had his work
cut out for him.
And although Mignone doesn’t say so, Bergoglio, Pellegrini, Angelleli
and other churchmen were fortunate to have as papal nuncio Archbishop
Pio Laghi (1974-80), later nuncio to the United States. It was to
Laghi’s office, not to that of the archbishop or of the bishops’
conference, that loved ones of the disappeared turned for information
and help. (See “Tennis with Tyrants,” Commonweal, May 20, 2011.)
Bergoglio’s essential responsibility as provincial of the Jesuits,
given the dramatic context of a murderous regime and bands of hardly
nonviolent “subversives,” was to protect his men. When some of them
courted confrontation with the regime, we have every reason to believe
he did what he could to rein them in. With Jalics and Yorio he tried,
failed, but finally succeeded in saving them.
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