A fierce dispute is raging over the new pope’s moral integrity and credibility as a promoter of human rights and democracy. The arguments center on what Jorge Mario Bergoglio did or didn’t do during the “dirty war” of Argentina’s 1976-1983 military junta.
“The Vatican strongly denied accusations by some critics in Argentina that Pope Francis stayed silent during systematic human rights abuses by the former military dictatorship,” Reuters reports:
Some human rights activists in Argentina have questioned the moral credentials of Francis since his election as pope on Wednesday, because of the allegations over the dirty war period.
The Argentinian Church’s reputation was tarnished by links between some high-ranking Roman Catholic clergymen and the military junta that kidnapped and killed up to 30,000 leftists. The wounds have yet to heal.
One of the most biting reactions, the New York Times reports….
…..came in a statement from the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo (above), the association of women whose children were disappeared during Argentina’s military dictatorship, from 1976 to 1983. The group contrasted Francis, who has long been criticized for not confronting the dictatorship, with the 150 or so other priests who were killed during the so-called Dirty War.
“About this pope they named, we have only to say, ‘Amen,’ ” Hebe de Bonafini, the group’s president and a longstanding critic of the incoming pope, said in a statement steeped in irony.
”Beyond the details, the main thing is that it’s clear that he was not—by a long shot—at the level needed in the dramatic circumstances,” Gabriel Pasquini, an Argentine playwright and author of the current-affairs magazine El Puercoespín, told the New Yorker’s Jon Lee Anderson :
There were other clergymen—“Catholic and from other religions”—who “did whatever they could to save lives,” Pasquini added. “For someone who aspires to be a bastion of moral values, it doesn’t seem like a great precedent. Never, in the years he headed the Catholic Church in Argentina, did he acknowledge its complicity in the dictatorship, much less ask for forgiveness. Will he do so now, from the Vatican?”
But other rights advocates absolved him of complicity with the junta.
Adolfo Perez Esquivel, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for defending human rights during the dictatorship, said Bergoglio “tried to… help where he could” under the junta.
“It’s true that he didn’t do what very few bishops did in terms of defending the human rights cause, but it’s not right to accuse him of being an accomplice,” he told Reuters.
“Perhaps he didn’t have the courage of other priests, but he never collaborated with the dictatorship,” he told Radio de la Red in Buenos Aires. “Bergoglio was no accomplice of the dictatorship. He can’t be accused of that.”
“I have no proof linking Bergoglio to the dictatorship,” said Graciela Fernandez Meijide, a former congresswoman who headed the National Commission Against the Disappearance of Persons.
Church authorities in Rome rejected accusations that Bergoglio “knew about serious human rights abuses but failed to do enough to halt them,” the New York Times reports.
Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi told reporters the accusations: “Must be clearly and firmly denied,” adding that, “They reveal anti-clerical left-wing elements that are used to attack the Church”.
“The Pope himself has denied such allegations in the past,” the FT reports, “saying in the book The Jesuit that he had nothing to hide.”: “I did what I could with the age I had and the scant relations I had, to work on behalf of the people who had been kidnapped.”
The principal source of the allegations against Francis emanate from Argentine journalist Horacio Verbitsky, author of a book “The Silence,” about the church’s role under the junta.
“He turned priests in during the dictatorship,” said Verbitsky, a journalist close to President Cristina Fernandez.
“I used to have the same opinion of him that most people have, of a humble, intelligent man dedicated to the poor … but then I discovered everything that is contained in my books, in my research,” he added.
But some observers consider the writer’s perspective to be overly simplistic.
“Verbitsky is not wrong, but he doesn’t understand the complexity of Bergoglio’s position back then when things were so dangerous,” said Robert Cox, former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald, the only Argentinian newspaper to report the murders at the time. “He can’t see how difficult it was to operate under those circumstances.”
But Cox, who moved to North Carolina after death threats against his family in 1979, suggests Bergoglio could have done more.
“I don’t think he gave them in,” he said. “But Bergoglio didn’t protect them, he didn’t speak out.”
Vatican spokesman Lombardi dismissed accusations of Bergoglio’s “alleged complicity in the torture of two slum priests, as old and unfounded,” the Washington Post reports:
Lombardi pointed out Friday that no courts had ever formally accused Bergoglio of wrongdoing and that one of the Jesuit slum priests who was kidnapped in the case in question had earlier in the day issued a statement saying the two had reconciled.
While Bergoglio did not confront the abuses of the junta with anything approaching the public fervor of his fellow clerics facing other dictatorships, as in Chile, it is not clear whether he used other, more private channels, to protect his flock. Bergoglio once told a biographer that he purposely said Mass for the nation’s dictator, Jorge Videla, once in order to advocate for mercy.
“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.”
“The accusations pertain to a use of historical-sociological analysis of the dictatorship period made years ago by anticlerical elements to attack the Church. They must be firmly rejected,” he said.
Francisco Jalics, one of two Jesuit priests Bergoglio was said to have betrayed, said that he had since spoken with him.
AP news agency quoted Jalics as saying: “It was only years later that we had the opportunity to talk with Fr Bergoglio… to discuss the events.
“Following that, we celebrated Mass publicly together and hugged solemnly. I am reconciled to the events and consider the matter to be closed.”
The new Pope’s official biographer, Sergio Rubin, argues that the Jesuit leader “took extraordinary, behind-the-scenes action to save them”.
The Church failed to publicly denounce the disappearances because of internal divisions, Nobel laureate Esquivel told the BBC.
“If the Episcopal Conference had joined and had had one voice, it would have had a strong force to save lives, but that did not happen in Argentina,” he said.
It’s no surprise the Argentina’s left-leaning president, Cristina Fernandez Kirchner gave a lukewarm reaction to news of Francis’s appointment, said Argentine political analyst Rosendo Fraga.
Fraga said Francis “was a critic of corruption, of social inequality, drugs, human trafficking, which in reality wasn’t an agenda of confrontation, but that the government perceived as an agenda of confrontation.”
Vatican analyst George Weigel told NBC News that Francis had been “a reformer his whole life” and “a great defender of democracy in a country where democracy is under real stress right now in Argentina.”
“At a moment when the momentum of the democratic project in Latin America is flagging (while new opportunities are opening up in places like post-Chávez Venezuela and the inevitable post-Castro-brothers Cuba), the new pope should be able to rally Catholic forces in defense of religious freedom and other civil liberties in a continent where they are now under assault,” he said.