BUENOS AIRES — The man who is now Pope Francis was a young Jesuit leader, not long out of seminary, when Argentina’s military junta unleashed a reign of terror that became known as the “dirty war.” That was more than 30 years ago, but the reaction to the naming of the first Argentine pope shows that the wounds have not yet healed.
Many Argentines were still stunned Thursday that Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the archbishop of Buenos Aires, had become the first pope from the Americas. But the joy was somewhat tempered by a public debate over Bergoglio’s actions, or inactions, from 1976 to 1983, when 30,000 dissidents were killed or “disappeared,” among them an estimated 150 priests.
At the time, Bergoglio was a Jesuit “provincial,” in charge of the religious men’s order, and then rector at a seminary, leadership positions that would not have given him the political clout later afforded by his post as archbishop. Still, critics in Argentina have started revisiting old allegations, including the claim that Bergoglio did not protect two Jesuit priests, Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics, who were seized and tortured by military authorities in May 1976.
The priests had been doing social work in poor areas of the capital, a suspect activity at the time, and Yorio later accused Bergoglio of in effect cooperating with the authorities by not publicly endorsing their work. However, in a biography by an Argentine journalist, Sergio Rubin, Bergoglio denied the allegation and described how he had worked behind the scenes to save the two men from being killed.
In 2010, Bergoglio testified before a special tribunal investigating the killings and detentions of that era, denying that he had anything to do with the arrest of the two priests. An attorney for the tribunal subsequently described Bergoglio as a “reluctant witness.”
If nothing else, the case of the two priests hints at the general attitude of the Catholic Church in Argentina at the time. Much of the Latin American church was strongly influenced by liberation theology, a Marxist-tinged movement that called for social justice for the poor. Although many young Argentine priests were taken by the movement, it did not make as deep inroads in the country as elsewhere, and Bergoglio is said to have resisted its influence. Nor did the Catholic hierarchy in Argentina publicly resist the junta.
“What I think is clear is that the church never came out and publicly denounced the disappearances and never aligned itself with the progressive forces, as it did in Chile and El Salvador,” said Iain Guest, founder and executive director of the Advocacy Project, a Washington-based nonprofit, and the author of “Behind the Disappearances: Argentina’s Dirty War Against Human Rights and the United Nations.” The church, he said, “was certainly not heroic in Argentina.”
Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo, a group of relatives of the victims that had criticized Bergoglio for his lack of action during the dictatorship, responded enigmatically to the news of his election, issuing a one-word statement, “Amen.”
But supporters of the new pope point to his backing of the canonization of three priests and two seminarians who were killed in July 1976 in the San Patricio Church of Buenos Aires, apparently on orders from the junta, as evidence of support for priestly resistance to the regime.
One of the pope’s most prominent defenders is Adolfo Perez Esquivel, who won the 1980 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to expose the crimes of the junta. “Perhaps he didn’t have the courage of other priests, but he never collaborated with the dictatorship,” Perez Esquivel told Radio de la Red in Buenos Aires. “Bergoglio was no accomplice of the dictatorship. He can’t be accused of that.”
Graciela Fernandez Meijide, a former congresswoman who led the National Commission Against the Disappearance of Persons, similarly said, “I have no proof linking Bergoglio to the dictatorship.”
Many porteños, as Buenos Aires natives are called, seemed ready to give the new pope the benefit of the doubt. Francis’ most prominent critic, President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, announced she would attend the pope’s installation Tuesday despite rocky relations with the former cardinal over same-sex marriage and contraception.
Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi on Thursday seemed to encourage the idea that the pope may soon visit his homeland. Asked by a reporter about the pontiff’s first trip, Lombardi said, “It is to be hoped the pope will make a trip to Argentina.”
Reaction in the pope’s hometown continued to be one of amazement.
“You see much joy in the faces of people,” said Irene Busquier, 74, a drama teacher who was interviewed in the central Plaza de Mayo. “I don’t know if it will change our lives, but at least we are content for the moment. I hope it unifies us.”
Special correspondents D’Alessandro reported from Buenos Aires and Kraul from Bogota, Colombia. Times staff writer Mitchell Landsberg in Los Angeles contributed to this report.