VIDEO: Democracy Now! Explores Pope Francis’ Past with Argentine Journalists

Mar 15, 2013
3:06 pm

Yesterday we shared details about a piece that Argentine journalist Horacio Verbitsky wrote chronicling Pope Francis’ past and Argentina’s Dirty War.


Verbitsky also made an appearance on Democracy Now! to discuss this topic and others surrounding the Argentine pontiff.

Here is the rush transcript that Democracy Now! published:

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: For more on the new pope, we turn now to one of Argentina’s leading investigative journalists, Horacio Verbitsky, who has written extensively about the career of Cardinal Bergoglio and his actions during the military dictatorship that ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983. During that time, up to 30,000 people were kidnapped and killed. A 2005 lawsuit accused Jorge Bergoglio of being connected to the 1976 kidnappings of two Jesuit priests, Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics. The lawsuit was filed after the publication of Verbitsky’s book, The Silence: From Paul VI to Bergoglio: The Secret Relations Between the Church and the ESMA. ESMA refers to the former navy school that was turned into a detention center where people were tortured by the military dictatorship. The new pope has denied the charges. He twice invoked his right under Argentine law to refuse to appear in open court to testify about the allegations. When he eventually did testify in 2010, human rights activists characterized his answers as evasive.

AMY GOODMAN: Horacio Verbitsky joins us on the phone now from his home in Buenos Aires, an investigative journalist for the newspaper Página/12Page/12, it’s called in English. He is also head of the Center for Legal and Social Studies, an Argentine human rights organization.

We welcome you to Democracy Now! I wanted to just begin by you laying out for us what you believe is important to understand about the new pope, Pope Francis.

HORACIO VERBITSKY: The main thing to understand about Francis I is that he’s a conservative populist, in the same style that John Paul II was. He’s a man of strong conservative positions in doctrine questions, but with a touch for popular taste. He preaches in rail stations, in the streets. He goes to the quarters, the poor quarters of the city to pray. He doesn’t wait the people going into the church; he goes for them. But his message is absolutely conservative. He was opposed to abortion, to the egalitarian matrimony law. He launched a crusade against the evil when Congress was passing this law, and in the very same style that John Paul II. This is what I consider the main feature on the new pope.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, now, Horacio Verbitsky, that would be true of many of the cardinals elevated during the period of John Paul and now also of Benedict XVI, this basic conservatism. But in the case of Bergoglio, there’s also the issue, as you have documented and many—and several other journalists in Argentina, of his particular role or accusations about his involvement in the dirty wars in Argentina. Could you talk about that and some of the things that—because you’ve been a leading investigative reporter uncovering the relations between the church and the government in terms of the dirty wars?

HORACIO VERBITSKY: Of course. He was accused by two Jesuit priests of having surrendered them to the military. They were a group of Jesuits that were under Bergoglio’s direction. He was the provincial superior of the order in Argentina, being very, very young. He was the younger provincial Jesuit in history; at 36 years, he was provincial. During a period of great political activity in the Jesuits’ company, he stimulated the social work of the Jesuits. But when the military coup overthrow the Isabel Perón government, he was in touch with the military that ousted this government and asked the Jesuits to stop their social work. And when they refused to do it, he stopped protecting them, and he let the military know that they were not more inside the protection of the Jesuits’ company, and they were kidnapped. And they accuse him for this deed. He denies this. He said to me that he tried to get them free, that he talked with the former dictator, Videla, and with former dictator Massera to have them freed.

And during a long period, I heard two versions: the version of the two kidnapped priests that were released after six months of torture and captivity, and the version of Bergoglio. This was an issue divisive in the human rights movement to which I belong, because the president founding of CELS, Center for Legal and Social Studies, Emilio Mignone, said that Bergoglio was a accomplice of the military, and a lawyer of the CELS, Alicia Oliveira, that was a friend of Bergoglio, tell the other part of the story, that Bergoglio helped them. This was the two—the two versions.

But during the research for one of my books, I found documents in the archive of the foreign relations minister in Argentina, which, from my understanding, gave an end to the debate and show the double standard that Bergoglio used. The first document is a note in which Bergoglio asked the ministry to—the renewal of the passport of one of these two Jesuits that, after his releasing, was living in Germany, asking that the passport was renewed without necessity of this priest coming back to Argentina. The second document is a note from the officer that received the petition recommending to his superior, the minister, the refusal of the renewal of the passport. And the third document is a note from the same officer telling that these priests have links with subversion—that was the name that the military gave to all the people involved in opposition to the government, political or armed opposition to the military—and that he was jailed in the mechanics school of the navy, and saying that this information was provided to the officer by Father Jorge Mario Bergoglio, provincial superior of the Jesuit company. This means, to my understanding, a double standard. He asked the passport given to the priest in a formal note with his signature, but under the table he said the opposite and repeated the accusations that produced the kidnapping of these priests.

AMY GOODMAN: And these priests—can you explain, Horacio, what happened to these two priests, Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics?

HORACIO VERBITSKY: Yes. Orlando, after his releasing, went to Rome.

AMY GOODMAN: How were they found?


AMY GOODMAN: How were they found? In what condition were they? What had happened to them?

HORACIO VERBITSKY: Well, he was released—both of them were released, drugged, confused, transported by helicopter to—in the outskirts of Buenos Aires, were abandoned, asleep by drugs, in very bad condition. They were tortured. They were interrogated. One of the interrogators had externally knowings about theological questions, that induced one of them, Orlando Yorio, to think that their own provincial, Bergoglio, had been involved in this interrogatory.

AMY GOODMAN: He said that—he said that Bergoglio himself had been part of the—his own interrogation, this Jesuit priest?

HORACIO VERBITSKY: He told me that he had the impression their own provincial, Bergoglio, was present during the interrogatory, which one of the interrogators had externally knowledge of theological questions. And when released, he went to Rome. He lived seven years in Rome, then come back to Argentina. And when coming back to Argentina, he was incardinated in the Quilmes diocesis in Great Buenos Aires, where the bishop was one of the leaders of the progressive branch of the Argentine church opposite to that of Bergoglio. And Orlando Yorio denounced Bergoglio. I received his testimony when Bergoglio was elected to the archbishop of Buenos Aires. And Bergoglio—I interviewed Bergoglio also, and he denied the charges, and he told me that he had defended them.

And Orlando Yorio got me in touch with Francisco Jalics, that was living in Germany. I talked with him, and he confirmed the story, but he didn’t want to be mentioned in my piece, because he told me that he preferred to not remember this sad part of his life and to pardon. And he was for oblivion and pardon. That he was, during a lot of years, very resented against Bergoglio, but that he had decided to forgot and forget. And when I released the book with the story, one Argentine journalist working for a national agency, [inaudible], who has been a disciple of Jalics, talked with him and asked him for the story. And Jalics told him that he would not affirm, not deny the story.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Horacio—Horacio Verbitsky, I’d like to ask you about another priest who was involved in the dirty wars, Christian von Wernich, who was a former chaplain of the police department in Argentina and also later was convicted of being involved—

HORACIO VERBITSKY: He was convicted—he was convicted, and he’s in jail, in a common jail, but the Argentine church, during the tenure of Bergoglio, hasn’t punished him, in canonical terms. He was convicted by the human justice, but by the church standards, he’s always a priest. And this tells something about Bergoglio and the Argentine church also.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And von Wernich was involved in murders, tortures and kidnappings. Could you detail some of the crimes that he was convicted of committing?

HORACIO VERBITSKY: Bergoglio involved in the crimes of von Wernich?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: No, no, von Wernich. Von Wernich, I said.

HORACIO VERBITSKY: Oh, von Wernich was part—was active part in torture and killings, and he was convicted not as an accomplice, but as a participant in the crimes. He was present during the torture sessions, von Wernich. And there is not the just one chaplain; there are some others that are under trial in this moment. Chaplain Regueiro is under house arrest because he’s an older man. A Chaplain Zitelli in Santa Fe province, for being present during torture sessions. So, there are a lot of them that were part of the dirty war.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to read, Horacio, a part of a State Department cable released by WikiLeaks that references, well, the Roman Catholic priest Christian von Wernich, who you were just talking about, convicted in 2007 of being an accomplice in several cases of murder, torture and illegal imprisonment in Argentina during the military dictatorship. It notes the conviction came, quote, “at a time when some observers consider Roman Catholic primate Cardinal Bergoglio to be a leader of the opposition to the Kirchner administration because of his comments about social issues, the Von Wernich case could also have the effect, some believe, of undermining the Church’s (and, by extension, Cardinal Bergoglio’s) moral authority or capacity to comment on political, social or economic questions,” unquote. That was a State Department cable that was released by WikiLeaks. Horacio, could you respond?

HORACIO VERBITSKY: We can go attack this paper by parts. First of all, the State Department considered that Bergoglio was the chief of the position to the Kirchner government. And I agree with this statement. The State Department tells also that the conviction of Father von Wernich can be directed to undermine Bergoglio’s position. This is not true, to my understanding. The conviction of Father von Wernich is a consequence of a trial that started much before the Kirchners arriving to power and has its own judicial logic and not a political timetable.

AMY GOODMAN: Horacio, are you still there?


AMY GOODMAN: Ah, let me ask you a question. We thought we lost you for a minute. We’re talking to Horacio Verbitsky, a leading Argentine investigative journalist, well known for his human rights investigations. I wanted to ask you about this issue of hiding political prisoners when a human rights delegation came to Argentina. Can you tell us when this was, what are the allegations, and what was the role, if any, of Bergoglio, now Pope Francis?

HORACIO VERBITSKY: No, in this episode, Bergoglio has no intervention. The intervention was from the cardinal that in that time was the chief of the church in Buenos Aires. That is the position that Bergoglio has in the present. But in that time, he was not archbishop of Buenos Aires. When the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights came into Argentina to investigate allegations of human rights violations, the navy took 60 prisoners out of ESMA and got them to a village that was used by the Cardinal Aramburu to his weekends. And in this weekend property were also the celebration each year of the new seminarians that ended their studies. In this villa in the outskirts of Buenos Aires were the prisoners during the visit of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. And when the commission visited ESMA, they did not find the prisoners that were supposed to be there, because they were—

AMY GOODMAN: ESMA being—ESMA being the naval barracks were so many thousands of Argentines were held. So where were they?

HORACIO VERBITSKY: Yes, but Bergoglio has no intervention in this—in this fact. Indeed, he helped me to investigate a case. He gave me the precise information about in which tribunal was the document demonstrating that this villa was owned by the church.

AMY GOODMAN: He said that they were hidden in a villa that was owned by the Catholic Church?

HORACIO VERBITSKY: Yes. And the prisoners were held in a weekend house that was the weekend house of the cardinal archbishop of Buenos Aires in that time. And Bergoglio gave me the precise information about the tribunal in which were the documents affirming this relationship between this property and the archbishop of Buenos Aires.

AMY GOODMAN: We have to break, and then we’re going to come back to Horacio Verbitsky, as well as our guest in studio named Ernesto Semán, who is a historian at New York University, former reporter for the Argentine newspaper, both the same as Horacio’s newspaper, Página/12, and Clarín, where he reported on politics and human rights, as well as, well, Father Bergoglio, now Pope Francis. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.

AMY GOODMAN: Our guests are Horacio Verbitsky, an Argentine investigative journalist for the newspaper Página/12, orPage/12. He has reported extensively on the church’s involvement in Argentina with the military junta that once ruled Argentina, specifically on the role of Father Bergoglio, who is now Father—who is now Pope Francis. Among his books, The Silence: From Paul VI to Bergoglio: The Secret Relations Between the Church and the ESMA. ESMA refers to the former Navy school that was turned into a detention center where people were tortured. Verbitsky also heads the Center for Legal and Social Studies, an Argentine human rights organization. You can also go to our website at, where we broadcast from Buenos Aires several years ago, talking about these issues, including the children who were taken from dissidents who were then killed and handed to military families to be raised, which we’ll talk about.

Ernesto Semán is with us, as well. Semán, the historian at New York University, former reporter for the Argentine newspapers Página/12 and Clarín, where he reported on politics and human rights, as well as Father Bergoglio.

As we continue this conversation, Ernesto Semán, can you underscore what Horacio is saying, what you think we know at this point about Pope Francis, what we don’t?

ERNESTO SEMÁN: Yeah, I think that what Horacio Verbitsky wrote during these several years is he’s tried to uncover what is this kind of social conservatism, that you were trying to describe at the beginning of the program. It’s not—in terms of the discourse, it’s not the kind of Catholic conservatism that you’re going to find in the United States, with this emphasis on the individual salvation, on government crushing individual liberty and economic activity, and because it’s much more socially loaded. But the paradox—and I think that that’s the most important point of Horacio Verbitsky’s work—is how this same discourse, with a lot of emphasis on social justice and on equality, at the same time has worked to undermine the work who had tried to solve those same problems.

The case of this complicity of Bergoglio with human rights violations during the dictatorship is by far the most important episode. But during the last decade, he did, as the State Department implicitly suggests, the opposition to the government, in a decade in which Argentina lived the largest and fastest reduction of poverty and inequality, as in most of all Latin American countries. So that kind of paradox between the kind of social conservatism and an opposition to social agenda that has been pretty successful during the last years is very important.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you about that, precisely, and the parallels, it seems to me, in terms of the cardinals selecting John Paul II, when he was elevated to pope, he coming out of Poland, where there was a Solidarity movement and in opposition to the previous government, that, in essence, his elevation helped to fortify that movement. I’m wondering whether there’s some parallel now with the changes in Latin America now to the elevation of a very conservative cardinal from that region, might help to bolster forces that are opposed to continuing this enormous change that’s occurring in Latin America.

ERNESTO SEMÁN: You might say so. The problem that you have there is to what extent that’s going to make the gap between the church and the Catholic followers even deeper. In the case of Argentina and some of the social issues that happened over the last decade, you see that in a country that 75 percent of people consider themselves Catholic, has been a strong support to some of the social decisions made by the Kirchner administration that Bergoglio opposed. The last and most important one was the same marriage law—that is, matrimonio igualitario in Argentina, egalitarian marriage.

AMY GOODMAN: Yeah, and let’s talk about this—


AMY GOODMAN: —because Bergoglio really took on the Argentine president in a major way. This was 2010. Then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio led the opposition against Argentina’s law that gives same-sex couples the right to marry and adopt children. Before the law passed, Bergoglio wrote a letter, and addressed the monasteries in Argentina, in which he asked monks to pray fervently about a, quote, “situation whose outcome can seriously harm the family. … At stake are the lives of many children who will be discriminated against in advance, and deprived of their human development given by a father and a mother and willed by God. At stake is the total rejection of God’s law engraved in our hearts. … Let us not be naive: this is not simply a political struggle, but it is an attempt to destroy God’s plan,” he said—

ERNESTO SEMÁN: Yeah, yeah. I think—yeah, I think [inaudible]—

AMY GOODMAN: —about what President Cristina Kirchner was pushing for, which was—


AMY GOODMAN: —legalization of gay marriage.

ERNESTO SEMÁN: Cristina—Cristina Kirchner promoted this, but it was a movement by the LGBT movement that had been going on for many years. It’s an extensive social movement that the government took and put into law. And after that, Bergoglio called to a holy war, una guerra de Dios, against this evil’s move.

AMY GOODMAN: Is he saying that President—

ERNESTO SEMÁN: In the same level.

AMY GOODMAN: —Kirchner represented that evil?

ERNESTO SEMÁN: That the law was an evil’s move. So, some degree of ambiguity. But it was clearly that kind of conservative message in relation to a law that, A, was passed overwhelmingly after two months of very open and public debate, and, B, that polls suggested that between 60 and 70 percent of people had no problem whatsoever with this kind of law. So that shows you—and he was personally involved and clearly involved in leading the opposition to this.

It was the last point of several other issues, including abortion and contraception, in which Bergoglio took the side of an opposition to the administration. The most important, one of the most—one of the most famous ones was when the military chaplain in 2005 said that the minister of health, because of the contraception policy, had to be thrown into the sea. And the government—

AMY GOODMAN: Bergoglio said the—

ERNESTO SEMÁN: No, no, no, no, the military chaplain—

AMY GOODMAN: Oh, the military chaplain.

ERNESTO SEMÁN: —said that the government immediately asked for his remotion, and Bergoglio refused to do so and has just waited until the priest had to retire because of his age. But this shows you the kind of—how this emphasis on social justice and equality goes along with the very, very conservative stance in cultural and social issues that makes the work of the church and the relation with the followers much more, much more difficult. And it’s a challenge for them in Latin America.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Horacio Verbitsky, I’d like to ask you—you’ve interviewed the former Cardinal Bergoglio many times. You have a sense of him, not only his political role, but his personality. Do you have any expectations that, now that he’s been elevated to pope, that he may have some change in his perspectives on some of these issues? Or do you expect him to maintain the same populist conservatism that you say have marked his rise through the church hierarchy?

HORACIO VERBITSKY: I do believe that he is a man—he is the man he is, and he will not change. His first days as a pope show perfectly this attitude of humility. He refused the limousine and took the bus. He asked the people to pray for him, instead of praying him for them. These kind of gestures would be common in his tenure as a pope. And it’s possible that he would be revered by the masses because of this different attitude that seems more democratic and less monarchical than that of the former Benedicto XVI.

But in doctrinary questions, he would be tied to conservative, and this is the thing that I wait. And I believe that he can play, concerning Latin America and the populist governments of the region, the same role that Pope John Paul played against East Europe during the first years of his tenure.

AMY GOODMAN: Horacio Verbitsky, do you think that Cardinal Bergoglio would have become Pope Francis if he hadn’t played the role he did during the dirty wars, if he had sided with these two Jesuit priests, who were speaking up for the poor at the time and who were great proponents of liberation theology?

HORACIO VERBITSKY: He was against liberation theology. He was a man, during his tenure in the Jesuit company—the publication of the Jesuit company are full of articles, of pieces, against liberation theology. Being among the poor doesn’t mean to be for the poor. I remember a very funny thing that happened during the trial to the first military junta in 1985. The French government sent in 1979 an emissar to investigate the disappearance of French citizens in Argentina. This man, François Cherome, talked with Almirante Chamorro that was the chief of the main concentration camp of the navy, ESMA. And this Admiral Chamorro told François Cherome, who told the story to the justices in 1985, that also the church was infiltrated by communism. And as a demonstration, he cited that the new pope was Polish. Well, in the same meaning, Bergoglio is a Third World pope. He comes from the Third World, but he is not a partisan of the liberation theology, in the same sense in which John Paul came from Poland but wasn’t communist.

AMY GOODMAN: We are going to have to leave it there. We want to thank Horacio Verbitsky for spending this hour with us, Argentine investigative journalist for Página/12, or Page/12, the newspaper in Argentina, has reported extensively on the church’s complicity with the military junta during the dirty wars in Argentina. And Ernesto Semán, historian at New York University, former reporter for the Argentine newspaper Clarín, as well as Página/12, where he reported on politics, human rights, as well as Bergoglio.