Election of Bergoglio as pope gives unfortunate impression to outside world

Implication is that failings of Catholic Church during Argentina’s Dirty War are now forgiven

No one got on well on El Silencio island, certainly not the prisoners nor their children nor their babies taken away from Esma, the torture centre in the centre of Argentina 's capital during the Dirty War in 1970.

The Inter-American Human Rights Commission was coming to investigate Esma, the navy's mechanical school on one of Buenos Aires 's main thoroughfares where proof had been piling up of the well-planned torture and murder of opponents of the ultra-conservative military junta and its many allies among the western powers. Orders were given from the Pink House – the Casa Rosada – where successive generals and admirals did what they wanted with the country and its inhabitants, and the military did not want any nosey lawyer poking his or her nose into Esma's filthy realities

Reign of terror
As the commission members were due to arrive, the prisoners were taken across the river Plate and dumped out of sight on the bare ground in El Silencio. Some of them were "sent upstairs" to some place in the sky from which they never returned – like the 30,000 other victims of a reign of terror under the Argentine dictatorship, the like of which the world had seldom seen before.

Esma and the Dirty War have come back into the limelight as one of those who was thoroughly familiar with the island has just been elected Pope Francis: Jorge Mario Bergoglio, until this week the cardinal/archbishop of Buenos Aires.


During the time of the Dirty War, the politically astute Jesuit, the first of his order ever to become pope, was among the many in the Argentine church who were familiar with the marshy island across the water from the capital. It was a place of rest and relaxation from the burdens of their pastoral duties to which they sometimes brought their friends and juniors.

On the cover of the book El Silencio , which Horacio Verbitsky, the distinguished Argentine journalist, wrote about the place, there is a captioned picture of the island's rickety landing stage: "No other case in the world is known of a concentration camp on church property."

Verbitsky says that Bergoglio was a major player in the drama which put the church on the side of western-supported military terrorists. “The church”, he says, “did not just bless the weapons of the dictatorship and justified torture with theological arguments but upheld throughout the 20th century a contempt of democracy, popular will and freedom of expression . . .”

The author widens the focus from a group of political prisoners plucked out of harm's way and kept out of the range of investigators for a time. He expands it to the wholesale collaboration of the vast majority of the Argentine bishops with successive military tyrannies whose human rights record was almost unbelievably gruesome. The military regime's victims included at least two bishops, not to speak of nuns and priests. Verbitsky's words embrace the sort of ill-treatment suffered by Irish priest Pat Rice, who was arrested and tortured in 1976 and who died in 2010.

Ruling junta
At the same time Bergoglio, as the senior Jesuit in Argentina, was held responsible for approving the awarding of an honorary degree at the Salvador, the Jesuit university in Buenos Aires, to Admiral Massera – one of the most bloodthirsty of the ruling junta. It could hardly have been done without his approval.

The author traces this drift to the extreme right to the influence in Argentina of a French group Cité Catholique from 1958. This contained many right-wing soldiers and military chaplains caught up in the war in Algeria. The French hierarchy finally rejected that sort of movement while Argentine clerics, unlike those in Brazil, embraced it."

The election of Bergoglio from among the Argentine church will give an unfortunate impression to the outside world.

Dirty War failings
Its failings during the Dirty War will by implication be forgiven, and the more Christian church in Brazil will be seen to be sidelined.

Furthermore, the continued boycotting by Rome of Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador – an undoubted martyr to a right-wing assassin in 1980, who was detested by many in the Roman Curia and the United States – will be seen as even more an anomaly than ever.

The election of an Argentine pope has confirmed the success of the strategies of two recent popes – Benedict XVI and John Paul II. They promoted men of their own conservative sort to the college of cardinals. Then they sat back to see their own views carried on into the next papacy.

Hugh O'Shaughnessy is a journalist who has written about Latin America for more than 40 years