The Pope of the Dirty War

There was general rejoicing yesterday at the election of Cardinal Jorge Maria Bergoglio of Argentina as God’s new deputy, following the unprecedented resignation of his worn-out predecessor.

Various commentators focused on the humility and simplicity of a Jesuit who took public transport and lived in a simple one-room apartment, and interpreted Bergoglio’s decision to take the name Francis as a more general expression of humility by an institution whose reputation has been badly tarnished during the Ratzinger years.

Some Vatican observers saw the election of the first Latin American pope as a sign of a new ‘opening to the developing world’ by the Catholic Church, and described the choice of a moderate conservative as a politically astute decision by the obscure medieval sect that decides such things.

Amid the general euphoria, a few journalists mentioned a less salubrious aspect of the new ‘world pope’; namely his alleged complicity with the military dictatorship of 1976-83 and its murderous ‘dirty war’ against leftwing ‘urban guerrillas’ and their real or imagined supporters, which the junta called the National Reorganization Process – or ‘el proceso.’

These allegations concern the kidnapping and torture of two Jesuit priests in May 1976, by a navy ‘task force’ based at the Navy Mechanical School (ESMA), one of the most notorious of the torture/execution bases used by the junta.

According to the 2005 book El Silencio,  by the Argentinian journalist Horacio Verbitsky,  Bergoglio helped facilitate these kidnappings by withdrawing official protection from the two priests, after they had disobeyed his orders to stop working in Buenos Aires slums.

Verbitsky’s allegations do not stop there.   The title of his book refers to an island owned by the Curia of Buenos Aires called El Silencio, where members of the church hierarchy relaxed at weekends and used for their holidays.   In 1979, the ESMA Task Force bought the island from the Church, using the name of one of its prisoners as the official seller, so that a group of prisoners could be taken there to escape scrutiny during a visit from the Inter-American Human Rights Commission.

The prisoners were held there for a month before being returned to the ESMA, and Verbitsky claims that Bergoglio knew about these arrangements -something that the latter has always denied. In 2005 a human rights lawyer filed a lawsuit against Bergoglio for his alleged role in the kidnappings of the two priests.

Bergoglio initially refused to appear in court and dismissed these allegations as ‘old   slander.’   When he did eventually appear in 2010, his answers were described by the court as ‘evasive.’  None of this constitutes conclusive evidence, but Verbitsky is not the only one to point the finger at the would-be Saint Francis.   In the opinion of sociologist Fortunato Mallimacci, of the University of Buenos Aires:

‘History condemns him: it shows him to be someone opposed to all innovative experiences within the Church, and above all in the epoch of the dictatorship; it shows him to be very close to the military power.’

The late Argentinian human rights campaigner Emilio Mignone also cited Bergoglio in his 1986 book Iglesia y dictadura (Church and Dictatorship) as an example of the ‘sinister complicity’ of the Church with the dictatorship.

These accusations raise the wider issue of the complicit role of the Argentinian Catholic Church with the crimes carried out by the military junta.  In her monumental account of the dictatorship A Lexicon of Terror (1998), Marguerite Feitlowitz relates an incident in which the wife of the disappeared scientist Gustavo Ponce de Léon Sarrabayusse went to the Papal Nuncio Pio Laghi in Argentina to enlist his help in locating her husband, only to be told that she was a ‘subversive’ because she had been adopted by Amnesty as a prisoner of conscience.

Such attitudes were not unusual.   Admiral Massera, one of the regime’s worst criminals and most persuasive ideologues, always insisted that the dictatorship was ‘Western, Humanist, and Christian’, and the Catholic Church hierarchy appeared to share the view that the regime was involved in a ‘holy war’ against communist subversion.

The man who became Pope Francis I yesterday  was – and is – a political conservative, who regularly met with the torture-king of the ESMA Admiral Massera,  and who shared the Church hierarchy’s ideological hostility to Marxism and to the grassroots Catholic political activism of ‘liberation theology’ that sank deep roots in many Latin American countries in the 60s and 70s, with its emphasis on the ‘option for the poor’.

In a 2010 article Verbitsky interviewed a former Jesuit who remembered an address from Bergoglio in 1974, in which he urged the Jesuits to reject ‘ abstract ideologies that do not reflect reality’ and respond ‘with healthy antipathy whenever anyone attempts to recognize Argentina on the basis of theories that have not emerged from our national reality.’

These criticisms certainly applied to the two priests who Bergoglio is accused of having betrayed, which does not in itself mean that he betrayed them.   But the  Church’s participation in his ‘war’ was not only manifest in official silence and discretion about the methods used to wage it.    Numerous priests and military chaplains sanctioned torture and forced disappearance and some actually observed these activities and participated in them.

In his more well-known book The Flight (1996), Verbitsky interviewed a low-level naval officer from the ESMA named Adolfo Scilingo, who took part in one of the vilest practices of the regime: the dumping of groups of naked, drugged prisoners by plane into the ocean.

Scilingo told Verbitsky that he was sufficiently troubled after his first flight to consult a chaplain, who reassured him that ‘it was a Christian death, because they didn’t suffer, that they had to be eliminated, that war was war and even the Bible provided for eliminating the weeds from the wheat field.’

The Church didn’t officially sanction such actions of course, and eventually made some tepid criticisms of human rights abuses carried out by the regime.    Some Church officials also engaged in behind-the-scenes efforts to save particular individuals.  Nevertheless, according to Patricia Marchak, the author of God’s Assassins (1999):

‘The Argentine Catholic Church played a pivotal role in the murder of thousands of young believers, union members, and even in its own priests.  There is substantial evidence that ranking officers of church informed on them, gathered information about these people, and collaborated with the military in ways that led to their destruction. ‘

In 1996, a number of prominent Argentinian bishops expressed regret that ‘their actions on behalf of human rights were insufficient’ – an apology which was qualified by regret that ‘there were Catholics who justified and participated in guerrilla activity inspired by the Marxist doctrine.’

In 2012, the Argentina Episcopalian Conference issued a joint ‘letter to God’ which issued another partial apology for its role during the dictatorship and admitted that ‘we have discriminated against many of our brothers without committing ourselves to the defense of their rights.’

This was something of an understatement, that was partly intended to distance the Church from declarations by the convicted dictator and mass murderer Jorge Videla about his close relationship with the Church hierarchy and the ‘advice’ he claimed to have received from the Catholic Church during his years in power.

In the letter, Argentina’s bishops insisted on their determination to revisit the crimes of the dictatorship and ‘promote a more complete study of those events, in order to continue seeking the truth, in the certainty that it will make us free.’

Whether these promises will address the murky past of the man who now calls himself Pope Francis I remains to be seen.   Certainly, the allegations against him clearly didn’t bother the Vatican cardinals too much, and one suspects that the Argentine Church will not be in any hurry to revisit them now.

Nor will many of those who are hailing the new would-be Saint Francis as a way out of the Church’s chronic institutional crisis – a crisis that is partly due to to the cover-ups of  paedophile priests and child abuse that took place under the new pope’s reactionary predecessors.

Now the weird medieval cabal that runs the Vatican has chosen a conservative who comes to office already tarnished over his possible involvement in one of the worst episodes of state terrorism of the 20th century, and I can’t help feeling that this decision is not best basis to begin a new era of progress, transparency and modernisation for the Catholic Church in the 21st.

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