From Dirty War to Child Abuse, Church’s Past Confronts Pope Francis

The new pontiff’s past reputation is hard to square with his affable presence today. His actions in the weeks to come will tell us who he really is, writes Christopher Dickey.

Spencer Platt/Getty

It was probably inevitable that Pope Francis, whose humor and informality charmed hundreds of members of the international press corps at a gathering on Saturday, would lean down and pet the big golden Labrador seeing-eye dog that accompanied a blind journalist. Of course the crowd applauded. The gesture was perfectly natural and unforced; the kind of thing parishioners would expect from a fatherly priest, and that many of the world’s Catholics hope for from the man they now call Holy Father.

There was no hint on the stage Saturday of the uptight young Jesuit administrator, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, accused of complacency if not complicity while a savage military regime waged what came to be called the “dirty war” to exterminate guerrillas in his native Argentina more than 30 years ago.

The contrasting images are so striking that it’s tempting to say that one of them must be false, or that, if the past was ugly, it really is just ancient history now. As one young woman with the Vatican staff said indignantly when asked about the Argentine allegations, “If this press corps had been around when Saint Peter became pope, you would be writing headlines about how he denied Christ three times” (as the Gospel tells us he did). “What is important,” she said, “is what the Holy Father does now.”

She has a point. But what Pope Francis does now, in the first days and weeks and months of his papacy, will tell us an enormous amount about where he is coming from and how that affects where he hopes to go.

Francis’s personal style certainly has brought a current of fresh air to the stuffy precincts of the Curia, those bishops and cardinals accustomed to running the Vatican. But he will need to take several concrete steps to build credibility with Catholics who are disillusioned and drifting, or running away, from the church. And even the pope has only so much room to maneuver.

When it comes to the church hierarchy’s opposition to birth control, abortion, gay marriage, women in the clergy, changes are very unlikely. These issues are among a whole host of tenets that will remain graven in the stone foundations of the Catholic Church of today and the foreseeable future. Bergoglio would never have become Pope Francis, or for that matter a cardinal or a bishop (and might not have stayed a priest) if he had any known inclination to oppose entrenched dogma on those matters. But there is no doctrine that prevents Francis from explaining openly and honestly what he did during the “dirty war,” and why.

Until he does, there will be a certain bitter irony in his often expressed, and oft-cited, identification with the poor. At the media event on Saturday, for instance, he explained that he took the name of Saint Francis of Assisi for just that reason. He even suggested that he’d like to see the church be poor, a revolutionary idea if ever there was one. But many of Bergoglio’s fellow priests in Latin America who actually acted to identify with the poor in the 1970s were persecuted and, in some cases, executed by right-wing extremists.

It may be that Francis now feels guilty that he did not identify more—that he did not do more—back then. It would be understandable if he has come to terms with himself and his God over the years, and has been changed in the process. As cardinal in Argentina, Bergoglio encouraged his fellow bishops to issue a statement just last year apologizing for their failure to protect their flocks during the dirty war. That was quite a significant step in a church where secret confessions are part of the ritual for the faithful but public apologies by prelates are almost unthinkable and usually come only under duress.

Over the years, some of his accusers have forgiven him, although they did not withdraw their claims that he failed to protect them and may have implicated them unjustly in terrorist activities. No less an authority on the dirty war than Nobel Peace Prize winner Adolfo Pérez Esquivel has spoken on his behalf, saying that “there were bishops who were accomplices of the dictatorship, but Bergoglio was not one of them.”

The biggest test for Francis as an inspiring leader for change and renewal—at least in the minds of many Catholics in the United States, Ireland, Belgium, and other countries with horrific histories—will be the way he addresses the issue of child abuse by predatory priests and the insidious cover-ups that have protected them even when it meant endangering many more children.

There is no question of dogma here. Official church policy is flatly opposed to child abuse, of course. The problem is that when priests have been the abusers, and there are thousands of cases, church practice often has been hard to reconcile with its policy.

Symbolically, Francis is off to a bad start. The morning after his election he went to pray at the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore, which is the papal basilica in the city of Rome. That would not be controversial, except that the infamous former cardinal of Boston, Bernard Law, is resident there. Law resigned his post in the United States more than 10 years ago after the courts reviewed devastating evidence that he knowingly protected criminally abusive priests. His former archdiocese has paid out more than $100 million to settle hundreds of civil suits by the victims.

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What Francis said to Law when the two of them met and briefly embraced at the Rome basilica is not known. Some reports in the Italian press said the pope told Law he must retire to a monastery. But Vatican spokesmen flatly denied that.

David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivors’ Network for those Abused by Priests, said Saturday that the encounter between the pope and this known protector of pedophiles was “extraordinarily hurtful.” “If you ignore wrongdoing,” said Clohessy, “you condone wrongdoing.” And if that is the case under Francis, then millions of children will remain at risk from predators in clerical collars. But Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of, an exhaustive database of abuse, was, while very cautious, also a little optimistic. She would give Francis “the benefit of the doubt,” she said.

At a series of press conferences, Doyle and Clohessy have suggested several substantive steps Francis might take to strengthen the church’s reputation for zero tolerance of child abuse. One critical change would be the removal of such senior officials in the Vatican as Gerhard Ludwig Müller, who heads the powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Clohessy and Doyle presented specific allegations that Müller had protected a convicted pedophile among the priests in his archdiocese. Ideally, the activists would like to see Müller’s office release the name of all credibly accused priests who have come to its attention, so that, at a minimum, parents and children in their parishes can be warned. The pope does not have to write an encyclical to make that happen. All he has to do is give the word.

Another key appointment for Francis will be a new secretary of state, a position often described as vice-pope. Selecting a cardinal with a record of cleaning up abuse in his own diocese or religious order would send a powerful message, said Doyle. “It should be someone in whom Catholics, as victims, can have some sliver of confidence,” said Clohessy, adding that as affable as Francis appears, “his first real decisions have yet to come.”

And only when they do will the world be able to judge whether the kindly old man on stage today is the real Pope Francis.