Vatican Criticizes Press for Raising Questions About Pope Francis and Argentine Dirty War

Ever since Jorge Mario Bergoglio was named Pope Francis last Wednesday, allegations about his role during Argentina’s Dirty War of the late 70s and 80s have resurfaced, with many stories (and inaccurate images) going viral online. The core issue involves Bergoglio’s alleged role and actions surrounding the kidnapping and torture of two Jesuit priests, Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics. The reaction via social media has been noticeable enough that the Vatican officially responded to the criticisms yesterday, saying that the allegations were part of “anti-clerical left-wing elements.”

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This newspaper cover features Horacio Verbitsky’s cover story about the role of the Church in Argentina during the time of the Dirty War. This original image went viral on social media, when people thought that the priest giving communion to former military dictator Jorge Rafeal Videla was Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis.

This is what The Washington Post reported:

The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, departed from his recent good cheer since the pope’s election to excoriate the criticisms in the press. He called the accusations against the former Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who served as a Jesuit provincial superior and then archbishop of Buenos Aires, stale and the work of “anti-clerical left-wing elements to attack the church [that] must be decisively rejected.”

Lombardi framed the criticism as part of a “campaign that’s often slanderous and defamatory.”

The story also adds the following:

…questions about the activities of Bergoglio from 1976 to 1983, when a military dictatorship terrorized much of Argentina and “disappeared” thousands of its own citizens, remain a cloud over his papacy’s otherwise bright early days.

Lombardi dismissed the accusations, mostly centered on Bergoglio’s alleged complicity in the torture of two slum priests, as old and unfounded.

“This was never a concrete or credible accusation in his regard,” Lombardi said. “He was questioned by an Argentinian court as someone aware of the situation but never as a defendant. He has, in documented form, denied any accusations.”

In addition, the story goes on to say that unlike other clerics who publicly spoke out against dictatorships of that time (particularly the one in Chile), it is hard to determine what Bergoglio did or did not do. As the story says, “Bergoglio once told a biographer that he purposely said Mass for the nation’s dictator, Jorge Videla, once in order to advocate for mercy.”

According to Lombardi, Bergoglio has never been formally accused. However, Argentine journalist Horacio Verbitsky produced information three years ago about what Bergoglio told judges at a meeting in his archdiocese’s office and how it contradicted testimony from others, as well as from Bergoglio himself. Verbitsky made an appearance this week on Democracy Now! to discuss this part of Pope Francis’ past.

The Post story also mentions that “that one of the Jesuit slum priests [Jalics] who was kidnapped in the case in question had earlier in the day issued a statement saying the two had reconciled.” It continues:

“The accusations pertain to a use of historical-sociological analysis of the dictatorship period made years ago by anti-clerical elements to attack the Church. They must be firmly rejected,” [Lombardi] said.

[Jalics], who had previously been silent about the incident, said in a statement that he had spoken with Bergoglio years later and that the two Jesuits had celebrated Mass together and embraced “solemnly.”

“I am reconciled to the events and consider the matter to be closed,” he said.

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Even though the Vatican defended Pope Francis, questions and memories still linger about one of Argentina’s darkest periods. A report by ABC News adds more details:

[Jalics and Yorio] spent much of their time working with the poor in a Buenos Aires slum, but they were kidnapped in a raid by security forces. In the ensuing months, the two men were reportedly tortured, kept in shackles and even threatened with electrocution. While they were eventually freed after five months, Yorio later said that he faulted [Bergoglio] for the incident.

Bergoglio, according to critics, was accused not only of staying silent about the government’s brutality, but of being partly to blame for the kidnappings by withdrawing church protection for them. Before Yorio died, he told [Verbitsky], “I don’t have any reason to think that [Bergoglio] did anything for our freedom.”

The ABC story also included this:

After Bergoglio emerged victorious from this week’s conclave at the Vatican to pick the successor to the retired Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, Yorio’s sister Graciela said in an email to Verbitsky that she was “distressed and full of anger” about the new pope.

“I can’t believe it,” she said.

Some of Francis’ most extreme critics think he should have been more vocal in speaking out against the Argentine dictatorship, yet many are already putting this issue into some perspective, as John Thavis, author of “The Vatican Diaries,” told ABC News:

“People are going to be looking at that period of history pretty closely. On the other hand, people have already looked at that period of history pretty closely and if there was any evidence that as a cardinal or Jesuit provincial he really did work hand in glove with military leaders we would have known it by now,” Thavis said.

Bergoglio, Thavis noted, did not have “a highly visible role” at that time and “it was not his job to go around denouncing things.”

Furthermore, Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, the Argentine human rights activist who won the 1980 Nobel Peace Prize, said this on Thursday: “There were bishops who were complicit in the dictatorship. But not Bergoglio.”

Even so, another ABC News story shared more details from Argentine families who lost their loved ones during the Dirty War, and why many still think that Bergoglio’s complicity should not be ignored. The Guardian also published a rather detailed report.

One is left to wonder if the Vatican underestimated how quickly information can be shared online, since within days, Bergoglio’s past has become a persistent issue.

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