I am not a “Vaticanista,” as journalists who specialize in covering the Holy See are called, so I was surprised when the white smoke drifting over the Sistine Chapel heralded the election of Argentine Cardinal and Archbishop of Buenos Aires Jorge Bergoglio as the new pope.
I was not aware that Bergoglio had been the runner-up in the voting when Joseph Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI in 2005. My surprise stemmed from the fact that the cardinals were either unaware or chose to ignore a dark shadow from the past: Allegations that Bergoglio was complicit with the military dictatorship that ruled Argentina from March 24, 1976, to the end of 1983.
Argentina still has a gaping wound from an explosion of political violence and terrorism in the 1970s that prompted a military coup to save the nation from what the military viewed as an attempt at a communist takeover. As part of a Nazi-style campaign to exterminate “subversives” in what has come to be known as the “Dirty War,” thousands of people, including pregnant women and children, were “disappeared” (forcibly abducted is the term used today). They were taken from their homes to clandestine prisons, routinely tortured and, in most cases, never appeared again. Official figures indicate that at least 15,000 people were murdered, though the current government and some human rights organizations put the figure at 30,000. Bodies were disposed of by burning, burying in secret graves or by dropping prisoners, drugged but alive, into the sea from military planes on “death flights.”
The new pope's involvement in the “crimes against humanity” for which top military leaders have been convicted, with most sentenced to life imprisonment, is peripheral, but I assumed Bergoglio would automatically be excluded from consideration as the leader of a church already deeply mired in controversy. I forgot, for a moment, that the cardinals were also able to overlook Ratzinger's membership of the Hitler Youth movement.
The papal ambitions of the late Pio Laghi, who was Vatican ambassador to Argentina during the dictatorship, were ruined because of allegations that he colluded with the military during the “Dirty War.” I knew Cardinal Laghi well and I think that he summed up the situation correctly when he said, according to his obituary in The Guardian, “Perhaps I wasn't a hero, but I was no accomplice.” Laghi, in my view, was blind to the monstrous crimes of the Argentine military because of his fear of communism. When I met him in Washington, where he served as representative to the Holy See from 1980-90, he did not want to discuss his relationship with the military dictatorship, but he told me: “They were monsters.”
The situation of the new pope is similar. Bergoglio was provincial (leader) of the Jesuit Order in Argentina when the military seized power on March 24, 1976. He was also no hero. His stance is best described by Argentina's Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, who told the pro-government newspaper Tiempo Argentino: “He didn't have the courage that a few of our bishops showed in our fight for human rights, but he was not a direct accomplice of the military.”
I was a witness to the dark episode that has dogged Bergoglio for 37 years and that has resulted in one journalist, Horacio Verbitsky, of the left-wing newspaper Pagina/12 pursuing him much as Javert pursued Jean Valjean in Victor Hugo's “Les Miserables.” According to Verbitsky, Bergoglio has successfully covered up his complicity with the military dictatorship. Verbitsky goes on to suggest that Bergoglio's task now is to cover up the “rottenness” that Pope Benedict left behind him.
The vehemence of Verbitsky's attack on the new pope is ostensibly because Bergoglio allegedly failed to protect two young Jesuit priests who, inspired by Liberation Theology, worked with dirt poor people living in a Buenos Aires slum. One day, the priests were forcibly abducted by heavily armed men. The priests were held for a time in the notorious ESMA concentration camp where they were tortured. They were eventually freed, dropped off by helicopter in an open field. Both have alleged that Bergoglio withdrew his support for their work, effectively making them marked men to be kidnapped and killed.
Bergoglio, who has given limited testimony in court, citing clerical privilege, has established as a fact that he successfully intervened to save the lives of the two priests by working behind the scenes, even appealing directly to former dictator Jorge Rafael Videla.
Bergoglio never spoke out against the dictatorship but has earned the enmity of President Cristina Férnandez de Kirchner by his fierce criticism of her administration's demagogic, totalitarian tendencies and tolerance of corruption. This places him to the right of center, politically, roughly where Pope John Paul II stood when he took on Soviet communism. Pope Francis is deeply conservative on social issues and church dogma, yet walks in the sandals of the saint whose name he adopted (St. Francis of Assisi, who dedicated his life to the poor) while also honoring St. Xavier, a founder of the Jesuit Order.
Does his failure to denounce the crimes against humanity committed by military monsters disqualify him as the leader of more than a billion Catholics?
I think not. It will, I am sure, remain on his conscience. Self-knowledge of his own human failure will make him a better, more human pope.
Robert Cox is a former assistant editor of The Post and Courier. He was editor of the Buenos Aires Herald during the military dictatorship. His experiences during those years are recounted in the book “Dirty Secrets, Dirty War” by his son, David Cox.