Bergoglio’s links to military rule still raising questions

Dark days of Argentine dictatorship still hide many secrets

Then  Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio giving a Mass outside the San Cayetano church in Buenos Aires, in 2009.   Photograph:Natacha Pisarenko

Then Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio giving a Mass outside the San Cayetano church in Buenos Aires, in 2009. Photograph:Natacha Pisarenko


For a Catholic leadership reeling from paedophile and financial scandals, the elevation of Buenos Aires cardinal Jorge Bergoglio to the papacy is loaded with risk.

Argentina is still coming to terms with the legacy of the military’s brutal rule between 1976- 83, when more than 10,000 people were murdered in a dirty war against what the generals saw as left-wing subversion.

The role of the church hierarchy during those dark years has long caused fierce debate, which, since his elevation to the archdiocese of Buenos Aires in 1998, has often come to focus on the role of Cardinal Bergoglio, now Pope Francis.

As the country’s leading Jesuit during the military’s rule, Bergoglio, like most church leaders, failed to speak out against the military’s systematic violation of human rights. That failure was widespread among his generation. Human rights activists though have made more serious charges against him.

The gravest is that he withdrew his protection from two young Jesuit priests after they refused his order to stop working in a shanty town in Buenos Aires. Inspired by the Latin-American church’s liberation theology with its call to get closer to the poor, Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics were working with a group of young church activists evangelising and starting literacy programmes in the slum of Belén–Bethlehem.

However the military equated such work with subversion. Yorio later claimed that when Bergoglio withdrew his protection, it acted as a green light for the military to detain them in May 1976. They were held for five months, but several lay Catholic activists who worked with them were swept up in the operation and never seen again.

Bergoglio insisted to his biographer he only told the two priests to quit the slum for their safety and worked hard to get them released. He did not say if he worked for the release of the youth workers held with them.

Yorio, who died in 2000, claimed that during his disappearance, Bergoglio contacted his family to say he had been executed. Fr Jalics, the second priest who was kidnapped, has never spoken publicly about Bergoglio since his release.

Investigative journalist Horacio Verbitsky, in his 2005 book The Silence , examined the Argen tinian church’s links to the dictatorship. Verbitsky has gone so far as to say Bergoglio’s complicity even included letting the military use the Jesuit headquarters as a clandestine base.

Bergoglio says in fact it harboured dissidents and dismisses Verbitsky’s claims as those of an author trying to sell books.

In 2010 Bergoglio appeared before a court investigating the case of babies born to detainees which were then secretly adopted by pro-military families once the mother was killed.

He said he had only become aware of such cases some time between 1985 and 1990, but his claim is disputed by the family of Elena de la Cuadra. She was one of five members of her family to die during the dictatorship and was five months pregnant when she disappeared in 1977.

Her parents had sought the church’s help in locating her.

The family claims that Bergoglio told Elena’s father that his daughter had given birth to a daughter and “the child is being raised by a good family, the situation of Elena is irreversible”.