With the selection of Argentine Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio as pope, the Catholic Church broke new ground by tapping its first modern non-European pontiff, an acknowledgement of the church’s growing flock in the developing world.
Unlike many other contenders for the position, Bergoglio — who took Francis as his papal name — remains untainted by the widespread sex abuse scandal in the church, a welcome development for those looking to the new pope to make a definitive break from that chapter of the church’s troubled past. But Francis still arrives with something of a troubled history. As the head of the Jesuit Order during the country’s military dictatorship, he may be tainted by the church’s well-documented history of turning a blind eye to the regime’s practice of killing progressive priests.
From 1973 to 1979, a period that overlapped with military dictatorship lasting from 1976 to 1983, Francis served as the top Argentine Jesuit official. During that time, the Catholic Church remained silent in the face of widespread human rights violations during the country’s so-called "Dirty War," an effort by the military government to root out dissent by torture, murder, and disappearances. In several cases, Catholic priests collaborated with the government and were even in the room as prisoners were tortured. In February, an Argentine court ruled that the Catholic church hierarchy, of which Francis was arguably a member, had "closed its eyes" to the killing of progressive priests. In 2005, human rights lawyers filed a case against then-Cardinal Bergoglio alleging that he had been complicit in the kidnapping of two Jesuit priests.
The Associated Press provides details on Francis’ relationship to the regime, and one can easily read Francis’ record in two different ways:
At least two cases directly involved Bergoglio. One examined the torture of two of his Jesuit priests — Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics — who were kidnapped in 1976 from the slums where they advocated liberation theology. Yorio accused Bergoglio of effectively handing them over to the death squads by declining to tell the regime that he endorsed their work. Jalics refused to discuss it after moving into seclusion in a German monastery.
Both men were freed after Bergoglio took extraordinary, behind-the-scenes action to save them — including persuading dictator Jorge Videla’s family priest to call in sick so that he could say Mass in the junta leader’s home, where he privately appealed for mercy. His intervention likely saved their lives, but Bergoglio never shared the details until [Sergio] Rubin interviewed him for the 2010 biography.
Bergoglio — who ran Argentina’s Jesuit order during the dictatorship — told Rubin that he regularly hid people on church property during the dictatorship, and once gave his identity papers to a man with similar features, enabling him to escape across the border. But all this was done in secret, at a time when church leaders publicly endorsed the junta and called on Catholics to restore their "love for country" despite the terror in the streets.
Rubin said failing to challenge the dictators was simply pragmatic at a time when so many people were getting killed, and attributed Bergoglio’s later reluctance to share his side of the story as a reflection of his humility.
But [human rights attorney Myriam] Bregman said Bergoglio’s own statements proved church officials knew from early on that the junta was torturing and killing its citizens, and yet publicly endorsed the dictators. "The dictatorship could not have operated this way without this key support," she said.
Bergoglio also was accused of turning his back on a family that lost five relatives to state terror, including a young woman who was 5-months’ pregnant before she was kidnapped and killed in 1977. The De la Cuadra family appealed to the leader of the Jesuits in Rome, who urged Bergoglio to help them; Bergoglio then assigned a monsignor to the case. Months passed before the monsignor came back with a written note from a colonel: It revealed that the woman had given birth in captivity to a girl who was given to a family "too important" for the adoption to be reversed.
To his credit, Bergoglio has in recent years spearheaded the Argentine Catholic Church’s effort to apologize for its collaboration with the military regime, and last October Argentine bishops apologized for their failure to speak out against human rights abuses.
But with his ascendance to the papacy, greater scrutiny than ever will be directed toward his record during the time of Argentina’s military regime. The information that emerges may come to define Francis’ papacy.