The Pope’s Dirty Past

Christopher Dickey on the new pontiff’s role during Argentina’s dictatorship.

The so-called “Dirty War” in Argentina ended 30 years ago. But the trials of the Argentine military men accused of monstrous crimes during that time go on. On Thursday, a woman who had been tortured and raped in one of their concentration camps looked at the 44 men in the dock and named the sadists she remembered—the one who liked to burn breasts with cigarettes; the one who tied her to a cot—pointing her finger as she spoke. And as the spectators in the court looked at the accused, they saw every one of the 44 was wearing a curious badge: white and yellow ribbons, the colors of the Vatican, to honor the Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio who had been named Pope Francis I the night before.

They weren’t doing the new pontiff any favors. Suspicions have surfaced many times over the years that when Bergoglio was the young head of the Jesuit order in Argentina during the late 1970s he took no effective stand against the systematic terror waged by the military, and may indeed have been complicit.

Today, the Dirty War stories are entirely at odds with the image of the humble, kindly old man who appeared on the balcony of St. Peter’s – a man of the people, a man who cares deeply about the poor. So the Vatican spin machine has gone into high gear. And on Friday, Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi issued a statement claiming that the attacks on Bergoglio’s reputation were the work of “left-wing anticlerical elements” who are always attacking the Church.

Lombardi also noted that a Jesuit who was abducted and tortured by the Argentine military in 1976, and who reportedly blamed Bergoglio for failing to protect him and possibly implicating him, had issued a statement saying they had been “reconciled” long ago.

But the language of that statement was very careful. It was even, one might say, Jesuitical. The priest in question is the Hungarian-born Father Franz Jalics, who is now in his mid-80s and living in a German monastery. As we have reported, Jalics wrote eloquently in 1994 about his horrific experiences in captivity in Argentina and the many years of prayer and contemplation that it took before he could forgive the man he blamed for what happened to him—a man he let others identify as Bergoglio.

The statement issued in Jalics’s name by the Jesuits in Germany today does nothing to clear up the facts of what happened in Buenos Aires in 1976. It only shows, once again, that Jalics has indeed decided to forgive Bergoglio for whatever he did and that he wants to move on.

“I cannot comment on the role of Fr Bergoglio during that period,” Jalics says in the statement. He notes that he celebrated mass with him years later, and “as far as I am concerned the case is closed.” He then wishes Pope Francis “God’s rich blessings for his office.”

Meanwhile, testimony at the ongoing trial of the 44 men charged with crimes against humanity in Argentina continues to raise new questions about Bergoglio’s performance amid the horrors of the past.

There was very little in the Dirty War that seemed clear-cut to those caught between the violent extremes of left and right. The military that had seized power in 1976 was trying to crush a violent Communist rebellion and consolidate its own grip on the country. Soldiers and their allied death squads rounded up thousands of real and imagined leftists who were then held in concentration camps, tortured, raped, murdered, and “disappeared” forever.

According to Human Rights Watch, there is little question that in Argentina, many senior churchmen were complicit with the generals. Argentine investigative journalist Horacio Verbitsky, in his book El Silencio, reports that one concentration camp was actually set up on Church property that had previously been used as a retreat by senior clergy.

In the 1970s, Bergoglio was on a fast track in the church hierarchy. He’d been made the Jesuit Provincial in Argentina, the head of the entire order there, in 1973 when he was only 36. And what the specific allegations made about him suggest is that he gained and kept that position for several years not by taking responsibility in perilous circumstances, but by evading it.

Testimony at the trial of the 44 military men in Buenos Aires on Wednesday focused on one particular set of crimes that remains like an untreated wound in the breast of many Argentines. When pregnant women were “disappeared” by the military they would be kept until their babies were born and then the infant would be given away to couples the military deemed sympathetic. The relatives of those stolen children – the grandparents, aunts and uncles -- are still looking for them.

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!

Daily Digest

Start and finish your day with the top stories from The Daily Beast.

Cheat Sheet

A speedy, smart summary of all the news you need to know (and nothing you don't).

By clicking “Subscribe,” you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason.

In 1977, on orders from Pedro Arrupé, who was the head of the Jesuit order worldwide, Bergoglio received the father of a young woman named Elena de la Cuadra who had been picked up by the military when she was five months pregnant. Through various connections, her family had heard after many months that she had given birth at a police barracks in the city of La Plata and the baby had been taken from her. Elena’s parents, that baby’s grandparents, were asking Bergoglio for help. He received Elena's father, wrote a brief note to the auxiliary bishop of La Plata, and then appears to have forgotten the meeting.

Elena’s mother Alicia Zubasnabar de De la Cuadra would soon be a major figure in the “Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo,” a protest movement that became the focal point for the fight for human rights in Argentina. Alicia organized the group “Argentine Grandmothers with Disappeared Grandkids.” The De la Cuadras were not people to be ignored.

But when Bergoglio was ordered deposed by the courts years later, according to the Argentine press, he responded in writing that he remembered Arrupé asking him to help people who were searching for their loved ones. But he couldn’t remember the precise details of the meeting; he didn’t remember that the De la Cuadras’ daughter was pregnant, and didn’t think he’d done anything other than inform the bishop in La Plata. He’d heard of the Grandmothers movement, but only much later, he said. Then he added, “They have carried out, and continue carrying out, a colossal task.”

It was not a task that this priest—now pope—appears to have made any easier.