The Legacy of Argentina’s Dirty War Is a Problem For Lots of People

As questions are raised about Pope Francis and the “dirty war,” it’s worth noting that few survived the conflict with perfect morality intact, says Mark Szuchman.

The election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio, a 76-year-old Jesuit, as Pope Francis has generated mostly positive reactions throughout much of the Catholic world. For most Argentines, the event represents another source of national pride. Many of them will point to Francis as yet further evidence that Argentina is a respected member of the community of nations, an assertion tirelessly expressed by Argentines—except during frequent periods of political debacle or economic downturn, when withering self-criticism replaces the occasional lapses into nationalistic hubris.

But it is the pall of Argentina’s so-called dirty war, conducted against its own citizens by the military juntas that serially ruled the country between 1976 and 1983, that critics say threatens to mark the papacy of Francis.

Horacio Verbitsky, a noted investigative journalist based in Buenos Aires whose past was also characterized by his involvement in the conflict—with violent leftist guerillas—has written of Bergoglio’s alleged responsibility for the temporary disappearance and torture of two fellow Jesuits. According to his accusers, Bergoglio is suspected of removing his protective mantle, thereby exposing the lives of Francisco Jalics and Orlando Yorio to the government’s repressive machinery. Proof has been difficult to find.

But the issue speaks to larger matters of responsibility and accountability. The Catholic Church in Argentina was then deeply divided. Many within the rank and file worked among the poor and were committed to the notion that the church has a responsibility to address poverty and work for a more just society. Fathers Jalics and Yorio were two such priests. The hierarchy, however, favored a more cautious approach to social problems, and quite a few preferred a collaborationist posture toward the military regime. But even here, there were divisions.

Ceferino Reato, an Argentine journalist, recently published a series of interviews given by Jorge Rafael Videla, who, as general of the Army, served as leader of the first military junta. Videla is now serving a life sentence for his participation in the murders of Argentine citizens, the disappearances of many others, and the kidnapping of numerous babies, who were taken from their parents in clandestine prisons and given over to military and civilian supporters.

Videla makes no mention of Bergoglio. By itself this proves nothing one way or another. But he does mention others within the church hierarchy, some whose support was active and enthusiastic and others who, by willful ignorance, chose not to inquire into the rumors and accusations of terror. Archbishop Monsignor Adolfo Tortolo, chief military vicar, expressed his joy that the military would finally put an end to the moral and political decay occasioned by the left and its satanic ideas. For his part, Cardinal Pio Laghi, then the Vatican’s ambassador to Argentina, would claim years later that he knew nothing of the junta’s repression and terror.

The church hierarchy generally presented itself as the defender of God, the Argentine homeland, and the family. This was the same all-too-easy-to-articulate ideological trinity regularly espoused by the military junta. Even among the divided church’s principals, these were the priorities. These were also the priorities of too many Argentines who, at the time, refused to believe what others, mostly on the outside, were reporting and, on the inside, whispering. Surely, no government of theirs, regardless of how it arrived to power, could do what others, mostly abroad, were saying.

Whether on the violent left or right, or part of the silent majority, there were few saints in Argentina’s dirty war. And perhaps those hurtful and deep imperfections will make a better pope.