Old Testament prophets, dogged journalists from Argentina and around the world have raised concern about the election of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio to become Pope Francis. Was he, they ask, complicit with the Argentine military that kidnapped, tortured, raped, killed, and "disappeared" tens of thousands of people starting even before the coup of March 1976? The victims included two bishops and as many as 150 priests and nuns, and the atrocities reached the absolute horror of stealing newborn babies from their mothers and throwing living prisoners from helicopters and airplanes into the South Atlantic.
The journalists are simply messengers. Most of their first-hand testimony come from sources within Argentina’s divided Church and will not go away no matter how often Vatican spokesmen dismiss it as old smears spread by the anti-clerical left. We have heard this spin before, over both the Church’s complicity with the Nazi Holocaust and early allegations of sexual abuse and cover-up. Pope Francis needs to do better than that. If he wants to put the dirty war behind him, he needs to provide full and convincing answers to nine deeply disturbing questions.
1. Gen. Jorge Rafael Videla, the imprisoned leader of the military junta, credits Papal Nuncio Pío Laghi, Archbishop Raul Francisco Primatesta, and other Church leaders with advising the military junta and helping handle the situation of the disappeared. "In some cases," the former dictator told Argentina’s Revista El Sur, "the Church offered its good offices and told the relatives to give up searching for their child because he [or she] was dead." But the Church only did this, said Videla, "if it was certain that the relatives would not use the information politically" against the junta. How, Your Holiness, do you explain such close collaboration?
2. Church officials in Argentina have repeatedly asked forgiveness for their failure to speak out against the junta’s human rights violations, and Bergoglio personally called for the Church to do public penance for the sins of the dirty war. The Church obviously lacked courage and moral clarity, but it was far from silent. It publicly supported the military junta. Cardinal Archbishop Juan Carlos Aramburu gave communion and his blessing to the newly installed dictator, Gen. Videla. Bishop José Miquel Medina, the head chaplain of the armed forces, and other church leaders justified torture, while providing chaplains to help the torturers overcome their moral qualms. In his visit to Buenos Aires in April 1982, Pope John II publicly embraced Videla’s successor General Leopoldo Galtieri and refused to meet with the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, who were demanding justice for their disappeared relatives. When, Your Holiness, will the Church face up to the depth of its complicity?
3. In 2007, an Argentine court convicted Father Christian von Wernich, a police chaplain, for his complicity in seven murders, 42 abductions, and 31 cases of torture. According to BBC News, several former prisoners testified that he used his position as a priest to win their confidence and then passed what they told him to police torturers and killers. The former prisoners said that he attended several torture sessions and told the torturers that they were doing God’s work. Von Wernich is now serving a life sentence. As archbishop, Bergoglio ruled against giving holy communion to politicians and health care workers who facilitate abortion, while allowing von Wernich to remain a priest and provide communion to his fellow prisoners. Does Your Holiness truly believe that Church doctrine on abortion and contraception is more important to uphold than prohibitions against torture and mass murder?
4. In a case directly involving Bergoglio when he was the top Jesuit in Argentina, the army kidnapped, drugged, tortured, and held captive two of his subordinates who had been living and doing social work in a Buenos Aires slum. The army held Fathers Orlando Yorio and the Hungarian-born Franz "Francisco" Jalics blindfolded and in chains for five months and then dumped them half-naked and drugged into a field on the outskirts of the city. Soon after, Father Yorio sent the Jesuit hierarchy in Rome a first-hand report in which he accused Bergoglio of promising to speak to people from the armed forces and assure them that the two priests were not working with the left-wing guerrillas. But, wrote Yorio, Bergoglio spread rumors that we were. "We began to suspect his honesty," wrote Yorio, who reportedly forgave Bergoglio, but never withdrew his charges. Would Your Holiness release the late Father Yorio’s full report and your detailed response to it?
5. Father Jalics made similar charges and has never withdrawn them. Now at a monastery in Germany, he says he has forgiven Bergoglio and does not want to comment on the new pontiff’s role in what happened. Would Your Holiness ask him, in the name of truth, to testify about what he knows?
6. In 1979, Father Jalics was living in Germany and asked Bergoglio to help him get his passport renewed. Bergoglio made the formal request, but The Guardian has published a typed note from the foreign ministry archives that "appears to prove that Bergoglio said one thing and did the opposite." The note records that Jalics and Yorio "lived in small communities that the Jesuit Superior [Bergoglio] disbanded in February 1976. They refused to obey, requesting that they be removed from the order." According to the note, the information came from Bergoglio, who recommended that the foreign ministry not renew Jalics’ passport. How, Your Holiness, do you respond to this damning evidence?
7. Horacio Verbitsky, one of Argentina’s best-known investigative journalists, uncovered the above document and interviewed many of the dissident voices within the Church, presenting their evidence in his left-leaning Peronist daily Pagina 12 and his best-selling "El Silencio: De Paulo VI a Bergoglio." He is also a direct participant in the story, having shown the courage after the coup to take up arms in the guerrilla war against the military dictators, and he is a staunch supporter of Argentine President Christina Kirshner, who fought against Bergoglio and the Church to legalize gay marriage and provide free contraception. But, whatever his politics, Verbitsky is an internationally respected journalist and human rights campaigner who interviewed and corresponded with Bergoglio, initially published the prelate’s version of events, and still goes out of his way to defend the new pontiff where the evidence against him is lacking. Would Your Holiness ask your defenders to stop trying to kill the messenger and deal with the specific evidence Verbitsky offers?
8. Pope Francis has long talked of making the poor central to the Church, encouraging Christian charity toward them and criticizing inadequate government and even IMF policies. But, in line with John Paul II and Benedict XVI, he worked to suppress Liberation Theology, which called for helping the poor to organize to fight for their own rights. This appears to have been an underlying issue in his treatment of Fathers Yorio and Jalics and in the heated divisions within Argentina’s Catholic Church. Will Your Holiness now reopen the debate and allow defenders of Liberation Theology to speak freely within the Church?
9. Horacio Verbitsky and other critics are quick to credit Bergoglio with helping many of the junta’s opponents and even hiding them from arrest. "I know people he helped," said Father Yorio’s brother Rodolfo. "That’s exactly what reveals his two faces, and his closeness to the military powers. He was a master at ambiguity." Over the years, Your Holiness, you have been a reluctant, vague, and often evasive witness about your role – and the role of your fellow priests – in the dirty war. Would you now, in the spirit of truth and reconciliation, give independent journalists and historians access to Church archives, which – along with in-depth interviews and already available government archives – will allow them to set the record straight?
A veteran of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the New Left monthly Ramparts, Steve Weissman lived for many years in London, working as a magazine writer and television producer. He now lives and works in France, where he writes on international affairs.