Pope Francis and the Dirty War: Why His Role Then Matters Today and Reasons for Hope

The media has been full of stories about Pope Francis’ alleged complicity with the junta that ruled Argentina between 1976-1983. Some have claimed that, as the young Jesuit Provincial of Argentina, he was complicit in the kidnapping, torture, and imprisonment of two Jesuit priests at the junta’s most infamous torture center. (Fr. Tom Reese and Eduardo Peñalver and their commenters give excellent run-downs of this controversy.) For many years, both Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics believed that the then-provincial had denounced them. Yorio went to his grave believing this, and his family members still maintain this position. However, according to the New York Times in a statement issued March 20, Father Jalics wrote he that he “tended to believe that we were the victims of having been reported…By the late ‘90s, however, it became clear to me after many conversations that this assumption was unfounded.” It now seems clear that the worst charges can be rejected.

However, exploring Pope Francis’ actions or failures to act during Argentina’s Dirty War is entirely appropriate. Although Vatican spokesperson Federico Lombardi, SJ lashed out against “anti-clerical left-wing elements” for raising questions about Pope Francis’ role during this time, the fact is that during this period, members of the Argentine hierarchy and many priests were complicit in the torture, disappearance, and murder of 30,000 Argentines. Here’s the testimony from Argentina: Nunca Mas [Never Again] about Catholic priest Cristian Von Wernich, who is now serving a life sentence for his crimes:

The three ex-subversives who were still alive were taken out. They were thrown on the grass, the doctor gave them two injections each, directly in the heart, with a reddish poisonous liquid. Two died but the physician left all three for dead. They were loaded on to a van belonging to the unit and were taken to Avellaneda. We went to wash and change our clothes because we were bloodstained. Father Von Wernich left in another car. We immediately went to the Police Headquarters where Chief Inspector Etchecolatz, Father Von Wernich and all the members of the group involved in the operation were waiting for us. Father Von Wernich saw that what had happened had shocked me, and spoke to me telling me that what we had done was necessary; it was a patriotic act and God knew it was for the good of the country. Those were his very words … (Testimony of Julio Alberto Emmed, file No. 683.)

The priest returned several times; on one occasion he ordered me to remove the blindfold from my eyes, and when I refused to do so, he removed it himself. He told me he came from the parish church of Nueve de Julio in the Buenos Aires province. I once overheard Christian Von Wernich reply to a detainee who was begging for his life to be spared that ‘the life of men depends on God and your collaboration’. On another occasion he came to me and touching the hair on my chest smiled and said, ‘They burned the hairs …’ I also heard him defend and justify tortures, acknowledging that he had on occasion witnessed them. (Testimony of Luis Velasco, file No. 6949.)

And here’s a quote from Cardinal Juan Carlos Aramburu, the archbishop of Buenos Aires during the Dirty War:

In Argentina there are no common graves… Everything was recorded in the regular fashion in the books. The common graves belong to people who died without the authorities being able to identify them. Disappeared? Let’s not confuse things. You know that there are ‘disappeared people’ who live quietly in Europe.

Mainstream human rights activists in Argentina view Aramburu, along with Cardinal Raul Francisco Primatesta, as having been complicit with the crimes of the regime. This regime threw tortured, still-alive political prisoners out of helicopters over the Rio Plata. It imprisoned pregnant women, tortured them during their pregnancy, waited for them to give birth, killed the mothers, and gave the babies to childless military families. About 150 Catholic priests, along with thousands of other Catholics, were victims of the regime. The Argentine hierarchy did not fight to find out what happened to them after the regime was thoroughly defeated in 1983, something that Church leaders did in other countries. We don’t need to be “anti-clerical left-wing elements” to support those who demand accountability for these crimes. Minimizing these crimes as something that happened in the 1970s and 1980s is obscene, for any Christian, or any human being.

Perhaps the past is the past, but as a young adult, I am the age that the victims of the Dirty War were, and now the age of many of the children who were stolen from their parents—my generation, throughout Latin America is struggling through the residue of these crimes today.  Because of the work of human rights activists, millennial Argentines like Maria Eugenia Sampallo Barragan, raised by “adoptive” parents who were part of the regime that murdered her parents, have found out the truth of their origins, have demanded accountability, and are being reunited with their biological families, or what is left of them. Through the truth and reconciliation process, they are able to start knitting back together the social and family fabric that was destroyed in the torture chambers they were born into.

Given this context, I am encouraged by the initial reactions to Pope Francis from several of the leading human rights activists and theologians who have made defending the Church of the Poor their life’s work, including two of the most prominent founders of liberation theology, Leonardo Boff and Jon Sobrino, as well as Nobel Laureate Adolfo Perez Esquivel. These men have never kept silent in the face of the crimes against humanity committed in Latin America in the name of a cruel and blood-thirsty God.

Leonardo Boff, the most well-known liberation theologian to be sanctioned by the Vatican, is generally happy to criticize the Vatican. A former Franciscan priest, he is surprisingly hopeful:

Why did Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio choose the name Francis? I think it’s because he realized the Church is in ruins because of demoralization due to the various scandals that have affected the most precious thing it had: morality and credibility. He avoided all spectacle in the figure of Pope. He didn’t extend both arms to greet the people. He remained still, serious and sober, even frightened, I would say. One only saw a white figure who greeted the people affectionately. But he radiated peace and confidence. He showed his mood by speaking without official-sounding rhetoric, like a pastor speaks to the faithful. It’s worth mentioning that he’s a pope who comes from the Great South, where the poorest of humankind are and where 60% of Catholics live. With his experience as pastor, with a new view of things, from below, he will be able to reform the Curia, decentralize the administration, and give the Church a new and credible face.

Regarding the role of Pope Francis in the Dirty War, he said, “Until now they haven’t found anything concrete. To the contrary, (he) saved and hid many people persecuted by the military dictatorship.’

Jesuit priest Jon Sobrino, who was away from El Salvador when six of his companions, their housekeeper, and her young daughter were murdered by the Salvadoran army at the University of Central America, rarely minces words. Also a founder of liberation theology, and criticized by the Vatican as well, he is not as optimistic as Boff, but he recognizes a certain progression and development in Pope Francis:

It doesn’t seem right to talk about complicity, but it does seem correct to say that in those circumstances Bergoglio had a distance from the Popular Church that was committed to being with the poor. He wasn’t a Romero—celebrated for his defense of human rights and assassinated in the exercise of his pastoral ministry. I don’t have sufficient knowledge and I say this fearful I may be mistaken. Bergoglio was not like Monsenor Angelelli, the Argentine bishop assassinated by the military in 1976…

On the other hand, since 1998, as the archbishop of Buenos Aires he accompanied in different ways the sectors mistreated by the large city, and with concrete acts…For some, perhaps the greatest virtue and strongest force that may carry forward his current ministry as Pope is that Bergoglio is a man open to dialogue with the marginalized, from their pain.

Perhaps most importantly, within a day of his election, Adolfo Perez Esquivel, a torture survivor who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1980 for his work documenting the crimes of the regime, defended the new pope, telling Radio de la Red that “perhaps he didn’t have the courage of other priests, but he never collaborated with the dictatorship…Bergoglio was no accomplice of the dictatorship. He can’t be accused of that.” And, to underline the point, this past Thursday, Pope Francis received Perez Esquivel in an audience.

In 1976, Jesuit Provincial Jorge Bergoglio and Bishop Oscar Romero, in Argentina and El Salvador respectively, had not found the courage to speak out against the atrocities of their governments. They both were wary of the social involvement of the Jesuits they were responsible for. In 1977, when his friend Rutilio Grande, SJ was murdered for working with the poor, Romero found his voice, and it cost him his life a few years later. As Provincial, Bergoglio never found a strong voice.

As a bishop and then archbishop, he didn’t find the same voice as other bishops who played pivotal roles in demanding a full accounting for the crimes perpetrated against the people of their countries. Cardinal Paolo Evaristo Arns helped to bring down his country’s dictatorship through his work producing Brazil: Never Again. Bishop Juan Gerardi was bludgeoned to death, so disfigured that his corpse was identified by his episcopal ring, two days after his office published Guatemala: Never Again.

However, it is clear that Bergoglio later began to find his own voice, one dedicated to dialogue and the defense of the poor. In a fascinating book of conversations between Argentine Rabbi Abraham Skorka and himself, Sobre El Cielo y La Tierra, he says:

Approaching things in black and white is a dangerous tendency that always privileges conflict over unity…Humility…is what levels the path for an encounter; to privilege conflict only puts obstacles in the path. And the spirit of God is revealed in this leveling. George Handel beautifully expresses this at the beginning of The Messiah, in a baritone voice with the text of Isaiah: “Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, so that the path may be made smooth in order to prepare the way of salvation.” Seeking paths is a prophecy towards unity.

How much of this rejection of black and white comes from his own struggles making sense of his country, his church, and himself in light of the repression? To how he may have reacted with rigidity and confusion as a young Provincial? Uruguayan poet Mario Benedetti writes of this time that:

The truth is that urgencies

Although ferocious

Always end up deforming us

And in this way they wear away our presumptions and pride

Or, on the contrary, they grow like tumors

And in this way hatred and love are concentrated in us

In this hard geography that is the Manichaeism of the heart

The purpose of regimes of torture is to distort and break down societies, to isolate and alienate, to make it impossible to tell up from down, night from day, friend from enemy, to deform us all. But, through addressing this dark night, and with the mercy of God, men and women can be born anew. We know that the voice of Jesuit Provincial Bergoglio and Cardinal Bergoglio was sometimes silent, and to some, this was an inexcusable silence in the face of terror. But, we know that as the years wore on, he began to find a voice very much his own.

The question now is what Pope Francis’ voice will be. We have real reason to hope that Francis’ presumption and pride have been worn down and that he has learned to refuse the geography of division. While it is not one of prophetic denunciation like Angelelli’s or Romero’s or Gerardi’s, it may be that his voice of dialogue is what we need to cut through the polarization and fundamentalism that tears apart our church and our world today.