Francis can make a difference if he acts on vow to make church a voice for poor
Awareness of moral failings in not speaking out against junta in Argentina could be new pope’s biggest strength
A man pulls a cart with recyclables he has collected to exchange for money near the Virgin of the Miracles of Caacupe church in Buenos Aires where Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, used to perform charity work. Photograph: Mario Tama/Getty Images
Is it ridiculously optimistic to imagine that the new pope might make a difference – not in spite of his murky past but because of it?
A few years ago, I was in Buenos Aires. Passing a church called San Patricio (St Patrick’s) in the nice middle-class Belgrano district, I dropped in out of mere parochial Irish curiosity. What I saw next to the altar, though, was a haunting shrine that had only a little to do with the history of the Irish in Argentina.
It was made up of photographs of five men against the backdrop of a bloodstained red carpet. They were three Pallotine priests – Pedro Dufau, Alfredo Leaden and Alfredo Kelly – and two seminarians, Salvador Barbeito and Emilio Barletti. The carpet was the one on which they had been made to kneel before they were executed in the early morning of July 4th, 1976.
Kelly (who, with Leaden, was a member of the Irish Argentine community) had spoken in his sermons about the “disappeared” victims of the vicious military junta. He had received death threats accusing him of being a communist.
He and the others were murdered as part of a killing spree by the military in response to the bombing of a police headquarters.
I asked people from the Irish-Argentine community about the shrine. It was clear that the memory was still as raw as that of Bloody Sunday was in Derry. The five victims were just a few drops in a great wave of bloodshed.
The junta’s orgy of sadistic depravity, in which tens of thousands were murdered, victims (including children) routinely raped and tortured and infants kidnapped from their mothers, left a fearsome legacy of trauma. Even so, the murders of the Pallotines were remembered with particular anger by faithful Catholics.
Priests and nuns have been martyred through the ages. Very rarely have the killers had the blessing of the church itself. The Argentine hierarchy knew of the military coup in advance and gave its blessing to the junta’s claim to be acting in defence of “Western and Christian civilisation”.
In contrast to its stance in similar situations in Chile and Brazil, the hierarchy refused to give shelter to human rights groups and limited itself to extremely mild criticism, even of the murders of clergy.
In the case of the massacre of the Pallotines, the hierarchy issued a statement that did not name the incident directly but expressed concern about “what kind of forces are so powerful that they can act at their own discretion in our society with total impunity and anonymity”.