Argentina’s Dirty War Casts a Pall Over Bergoglio

Questions persist about how Pope Francis behaved during the violence of Argentina’s Dirty War. Christopher Dickey digs into the evidence.

The new pope won over the crowd in St. Peter’s Square on Wednesday night with his kindly voice and humble words. But whispers about his past hover like a threatening storm over his papacy. When Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, was the head of the Jesuit order in Argentina, did he do too little to protect his priests from a savage military dictatorship? Or, worse, did he denounce some of them as guerrilla sympathizers, virtually sentencing them to death?

The allegations are not new, but they are persistent.

“It was the time of the civil war between the extreme right-wing and left-wing groups in Argentine society,” wrote Franz Jalics, an Argentine priest, looking back decades later. It was 1976, and after years of growing violence by various guerrilla groups, a military junta had seized power in Buenos Aires. The secretive campaign waged by the generals, known as the “dirty war,” was ferocious. Thousands of people were “disappeared” at the hands of a special Navy unit that took some prisoners to concentration camps and threw others into the sea from helicopters.

One Sunday morning the unit came for Jalics and another Jesuit priest, Orlando Yorio. Rumor had it that the two were sympathetic to the guerilla groups. An influential member of the local Catholic hierarchy had apparently confirmed that information to the junta.

Their tormentors used drugs and torture to try to make them talk. For five months, blindfolded and chained the whole time, the priests lived in terror, convinced that at any second they’d be killed. “My fears don’t seem exaggerated to me even today,” Jalics wrote, nearly 20 years later. When the dictatorship ended and several commanders were put on trial, he wrote, “there were no surviving witnesses from the 6,000 people whom this particular group had abducted. Only we two survived. All the others had been killed.”

In Jalics’s book, first published in 1994, he writes about the intense rage he felt against the man (unnamed) he believed had betrayed him in meetings with the military. More recently Argentine muckraker Horacio Verbitsky reported in a series of detailed articles and in his own book that the betrayer was Bergoglio, head of the Jesuit order in Argentina at the time. Verbitsky bases that allegation on interviews with Yorio, who died of natural causes in 2000, and on several documents.

Jalics does not name the object of his rage himself, and appears never to have confirmed Verbitsky's reports publicly. Why? Perhaps because, as Jalics writes, he forgave his enemy as Christians are supposed to do.

Bergoglio’s fellow cardinals certainly knew about the allegations, but chose not to believe them when they voted for him to be pope. Australia’s Cardinal George Pell told a television interviewer on Thursday: “Those stories were dismissed years ago. They were a smear and a lie. They were laid to rest years ago.”

Not really. As recently as October 2012, Argentina’s bishops under Bergoglio’s leadership issued a collective apology for failing to protect their flock adequately during the dictatorship, blaming both the right-wing generals and the left-wing guerrillas for the years of bloodshed. The Daily Beast’s Mac Margolis reports from Rio de Janeiro that Bergoglio’s biographer, Sergio Rubín, has been defending the new pope in the press by claiming that his “nonconfrontational” attitude toward the junta was pragmatism at a time when many people were being persecuted, tortured, and killed.

As Rubín tells the story, Bergoglio persuaded the chaplain of the junta's leader to call in sick so Bergoglio could go to the general's home to say Mass and raise the question of the abducted priests personally. Rubín argues that Bergoglio’s later reluctance to talk about his role during the dirty war is a sign of “humility.”

“What is a well-established point is that the leadership of the Catholic Church in Argentina during the dictatorship was pretty much silent,” says José Miguel Vivanco, director of the Americas division at Human Rights Watch in New York. He won’t comment on the allegations against the new pope, but acknowledges that “some bishops were openly sympathetic to the military junta.”

Jalics’s humble little book is not an exposé like Verbitsky’s, it is not a smear, and it does not read like a lie. I bought it on Thursday morning in the “spirituality” section of a store run by nuns a couple of blocks from St. Peter’s Square. Its title is Contemplative Retreat: An Introduction to the Contemplative Way of Life and to the Jesus Prayer.

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Only six of the book’s 332 pages deal with Jalics’s experiences in 1976 and what happened to him afterward, and he tells the story as an example of the power of contemplation, the importance of forgiveness. The entire grim experience, he claims, was a source of “purification.”

He and Yorio were living at the edge of the slums of Bajo Fores in Buenos Aires. They were theology professors at different universities. Many of their students were joining the guerrillas, but the priests wanted to demonstrate that it was possible to take up the cause of the poor without resorting to violence. In those days, such distinctions usually were lost on generals and their sympathizers, so the priests needed staunch defenders in the church hierarchy. They didn’t find them.

“We knew which way the wind was blowing, as well as who was responsible for the malicious talk,” wrote Jalics. “So I went to this particular person to tell him that he was playing with our lives. The man promised me he would communicate to the military that we were not terrorists.”

“Yet on May 23, 1976, a Sunday morning, 300 heavily armed soldiers with police vans surrounded our shack,” writes Jalics. “They invaded our house, brutally tied our hands behind our backs, pulled narrow hoods over our heads (which made us choke), and abducted us. For five days, almost without food, I lay on the stone floor with the hood over my face and hands tied behind my back. My fellow Jesuit fared much worse. He was given drugs in order to extract from him information he otherwise would never have given. As we later learned, he had—against all expectations—talked about God and Jesus Christ. The military were deeply impressed. Until then they had been convinced we were terrorists.”

After several days, Jalics and Yorio were moved to another building where their choking hoods were replaced by tape over their eyes and they were both chained to heavy weights. They were told they were going to be released in a day or so, but they were not. They were held for another five months.

“The injustice of being kept under arrest in spite of our proven innocence evoked helpless rage and great anger in me,” writes Jalics. “My rage was more and more directed against the man who had given false witness against us.

“After a day of helpless rage, I was overcome by great fear of what would happen, including the thought of execution,” says Jalics. “The fear, together with an inner shaking, lasted a day and a half. After that I got very depressed: all was lost.”

Bergoglio’s defenders suggest now that it was his intervention that saved these two men. If so, neither saw fit to thank him. “We knew that a certain person had spread the rumor about us and, because of his authority, had made the accusation credible in wide circles,” says Jalics. “Only shortly before the abduction, I had said to his man that he was playing with our lives. He must have been aware that his denunciation would mean our certain death.”

After the two were released, Yorio went into hiding and Jalics traveled to the United States, where he collected information and documents to clear his name and finger his accuser. But, almost like those victims of other kinds of priestly abuse who fight a constant battle against church secrecy, Jalics discovered few people wanted to hear his story. “Nothing doing,” he says. “All doors remained closed.”

Finally Jalics abandoned any thought of returning to Argentina, and went instead to Germany, where he still lives. From the moment he arrived there, he says, he asked those who had taken up his cause to drop it. He was bringing his rage under control, he said, even though he continued to be denounced by those who viewed his story as a threat: “Lies, calumnies and unjust actions against me did not cease.”

Jalics wanted to forgive those who had done him wrong, but he couldn’t quite do it. “I was still carefully guarding the evidence against them in a closet,” he says. Eventually, to prove to himself that he really had taken the next step, Jalics burned the documents. Then, eight years after he was abducted, Jalics met with the most senior official of the Jesuits during a conference in Rome. His superior asked him if “everything was in order.” Jalics told him his story, but at the same time asked him to do nothing about it.

“During this conversation, a very deep pain, probably worse than I had ever experienced before, rose up in me for the last time,” says Jalics. “It was no longer anger, but pain. I could not hold back my tears.”

On Thursday morning we called the offices of the Jesuits in Munich to try to get in touch with Jalics and ask him about his reaction to Bergoglio’s election as pope. The spokesman for the office said that Jalics is leading a contemplative retreat until May 10, and cannot be reached.

—with Nadette De Visser in Amsterdam.