Pope Francis’s defense against the worst allegation about his role in the dirty war


Pope Francis delivers a speech during a meeting of the world's cardinals. (EPA/Osservatore Romano)

In 2010, three years before he became Pope Francis, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio sat down with prosecutors and human rights lawyers in his office to give formal testimony about his role during Argentina's "dirty war." The internal conflict had killed thousands of civilians from 1976 to 1983, but was, and is, still only partially resolved. The Catholic Church, a powerful institution in Argentina, has long been accused of working with the right-wing military regime. It was probably only a matter of time until someone in Argentina asked about Bergolgio's role.

In Bergolgio's four hours of testimony, those questions were never quite fully answered. But now that he's pope, the world's most powerful religious institution is at the center of those same questions about a murky, 30-year-old conflict. A scholar of that war, Sam Ferguson, says he has a transcript of Bergoglio's contentious 2010 testimony, which he discusses in a lengthy piece for the New Republic.

Much of the testimony focuses on a specific incident from 1976. There are other accusations against Bergoglio, for example not doing enough to halt the military's kidnapping of children, but this may be the most specific and thus the most potentially damaging. According to long-simmering accusations in Argentina, Bergoglio had left two of his priests out to dry, perhaps for political reasons, withdrawing the church's protection at a time when their activities made them prime targets for "disappearance" by the military. This, according to his critics, made him complicit in the military's subsequent arrest of the two priests, who were secreted away to a notorious political prison in Buenos Aires.

Bergoglio, in his testimony, offered his own very different version of events, in which he did his best to protect the priests and ultimately win their safe release. But Ferguson, in his analysis of the transcripts, finds some gaps in Bergoglio's testimony. It's nothing damning, but probably enough to keep the questions about his role swirling.

What happened in 1976, according to Bergoglio's accusers:

Bergoglio warned two priests, Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics, to abandon their work with poor families in a nearby slum, an activity some saw as leftist and potentially "subversive"; recall, this was a time of Marxist uprisings. They refused. He said they would have to leave their Jesuit order, even suspending one or both of their licenses. This may have been taken by the military as a sign that the church had withdrawn its protection of the priests, who were taken soon after. They were released in an empty field after several months.

Yorio, who died years ago, faulted Bergoglio for his kidnapping and once said, "I don't have any reason to think that [Bergoglio] did anything for our freedom." Jalics, who lives in Germany now, has not commented. (Update: Jalics finally spoke today, saying "I am reconciled to the events and consider the matter to be closed.")

What happened in 1976, according to Bergoglio's testimony:

In his 2010 testimony, the then-cardinal said he had supported Yorio and Jalics in their work despite the well-known dangers, even resisting internal church pressure to transfer them elsewhere. He said their licenses had not been withdrawn and that he had even granted them shelter at the provincial priesthood. Once they'd been taken, Bergoglio met with senior military officials to plead for their release, including the dictatorship's national leader, Jorge Rafael Videla. After the priests reappeared, he helped them to flee the country.

The holes Sam Ferguson found in the testimony:

In his analysis for the New Republic, Ferguson did pick out some puzzling moments in Bergoglio's 2010 testimony. Perhaps the biggest question is why Bergoglio never brought any legal charges or made any public statements about the incident, neither during the dirty war when it might have held some sway, nor after when the country was undergoing its painful and arduous effort to reconcile itself with what had happened. During his testimony, one lawyer asked Bergoglio why he had never "approached the courts" to share his information, as so many else had done. According to Ferguson, "The court did not allow the question, and Bergoglio did not answer."

The issue came up separately, though, in another point in the testimony. Here's Ferguson on Bergoglio's odd statement:

Bergoglio admitted that he did not file any judicial charges, nor did he make any public statements about Yorio and Jalics. But when asked by one of the three presiding judges if Yorio or Jalics ever told him what they thought about his behavior during their kidnapping, he replied that, in personal conversations, "neither one of them asked me what more I could have done. … They didn't blame me."

Of course, Yorio had blamed Bergoglio, quite publicly and famously. When asked about this, Bergoglio said that Yorio probably only said this because he had been "conditioned by the suffering that he had to go through."

Another strange moment came when Bergoglio was discussing the priest licenses for Yorio and Jalics. Recall, critics allege he had withdrawn their licenses and official church support. Bergoglio insisted he had not. Or, mostly he did. Ferguson found one moment in the testimony when Bergoglio seemed to suggest that the two priests might not have had official church sanction after all:

At one point, however, Bergoglio seemed to backtrack from this assertion. "I told them [Yorio and Jalics] that they could celebrate mass" after they had been asked to leave the slum during a moment of "transition." He added that when he told the priests they could continue their work, despite being in transition, "I left it a bit to their interpretation," implying that their work might not be officially sanctioned, but that he would not disapprove. Yorio's brother Rodolfo also recalled at trial that Bergoglio had privately given Yorio permission to continue giving mass after his license was revoked.

There does seem to be some uncertainty, then, around the question of whether or not the two priests had official church sanction when they were taken by the military. If they did not, this does not necessarily implicate Bergoglio, but it does confirm a component of his critics' story – and possibly contradict the new pope's version of events.

Again, none of these divergences or contradictions are especially damning, but they are worth nothing. Perhaps it's a sign that the now-pope may have left something out, or maybe it's just what happens when you ask a then-74-year-old about a conflict that happened decades earlier and was difficult to understand even then.

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Max Fisher · March 15, 2013