Jorge Mario Bergoglio was a young Jesuit Priest when an Argentinean military junta began its campaign of terror against suspected left-wing dissidents in the late 1970s, killing or “disappearing” about 22,000 people and leaving scars on the nation’s psyche that still resonate today.
Almost 40 years later, that young Jesuit priest is now none other than just-anointed Pope Francis, the new the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics. His rise to the church's top slot has resurrected the role of the church during Argentina’s so-called "Dirty War," a period of brutal military dictatorship from the mid 1970s to early 1980s involving widespread governmental abuse and torture of thousands of innocent people.
While there has been very little evidence implicating the Argentinean Catholic Church directly to the atrocities committed during the “Dirty War,” its relative silence about the killings and disappearances has led to criticism from human rights activists and scholars both in Argentina and around the globe.
“The church was silent on the disappearances and this disappointed many human rights activists,” said Iain Guest, executive director of the Advocacy Project, a Washington-based nonprofit group. “It’s very difficult, however, to look at some isolated cases and draw a point of collusion between the Church and the junta.”
While the exact start date of the “dirty war” is debated – some argue that it began as early as the 1960s with the assassinations of trade unionists by Peronist loyalists – the true campaign of torture, killing and kidnapping began in full with the 1976 military junta led by Gen. Jorge Rafael Videla after the ousting of Argentinean President Isabel Perón.
The military regime closed the National Congress, blocked unions, imposed strict press censorship and moved state and municipal agencies under military control. Under the auspices of the alleged threat of the left-wing guerilla group the Montoneros – which were active in Argentina in 1960s and 1970s – the Videla government began kidnapping, killing and imprisoning purported dissidents in clandestine concentration camps around the country.
While the majority of the violence was state-sponsored, the left-wing guerrilla groups operating in Argentina during the period were also responsible for approximately 6,000 deaths, mostly of military and police members but also a number of civilians.
Of all the Latin American churches, the Argentinean Church was the most compromised by its relationship with the authoritarian regime.
- José Casanova of Georgetown University's Berkely Center
Liberation Theology, an ultra-left political movement within the Catholic Church that sprouted in the 1980s and which encouraged priests to become politically active to combat social and economic injustice, didn’t make inroads in Argentina like it did in Central America, but some Jesuit priests in the South American country did take up the mantle.
“There were many Jesuits who sided with the regime, but there were also those with left leanings who opposed it,” said José Casanova, a fellow at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs. “It all depended on where you were and what your situation was.”
Casanova said while the Jesuits were divided, Bergoglio saw his role as maintaining his order and not picking sides.
“Whatever he did during that time is very open to interpretation,” he said.
In 2005, a human rights lawyer filed a criminal complaint against then-Cardinal Bergoglio accusing him of conspiring with the junta in the 1976 kidnapping of two left-leaning Jesuit priests during his time as Jesuit leader in Argentina. Despite much being written about the accusations since his ascension to the papacy, no hard evidence has been revealed against Bergoglio and even strong critics of the junta doubt his direct involvement.
Two years after the complaint was filed, Christian von Wernich, a former chaplain of the Buenos Aires Province Police during the junta years, was found guilty of complicity in seven homicides, 42 kidnappings and 32 instances of torture and was sentenced to life imprisonment.
Despite the conviction, Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, the Argentine dissident and 1980 Nobel Peace Prize recipient, sided with the Vatican's vehement denials of any involvement by Bergoglio. The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo -- a group of mothers of those disappeared which is still active today -- condemned the silence of the Church during the dictatorship, but did not blame Pope Francis for the disappearance of 150 priests during the junta.
In a country in which 90 percent of the population identifies as Catholic, the Church’s role – or lack thereof – into the events during the “Dirty War” continues to be debated. While the Church in other Latin American nations was vocal in condemning state-sponsored violence, the Argentinean Church’s close relations with the government kept them from speaking out.
During the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in Chile following the coup that brought him to power in 1973, the country’s church formed an advocacy group to stop the abduction and killing of Chilean citizens by the government. In El Salvador, the Catholic Church’s opposition to the military atrocities committed during the country’s civil war led to the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero — the virtual face of Liberation Theology — on the steps of San Salvador’s Cathedral.
“Of all the Latin American churches, the Argentinean Church was the most compromised by its relationship with the authoritarian regime,” Casanova said.
Oppressive regimes are sensitive to outside censure, particularly when it comes from the Catholic Church. Pope John Paul II criticized Paraguay’s military regime for not doing enough for the peasants and the unemployed following pleas from the country’s bishops, and he was also a strong supporter of the church-run advocacy group in Chile.
Some experts argue that if the Argentinean Church has been more vocal against the atrocities of the “Dirty War,” more would have been done to prevent them.
“The junta was very critical to any form of international criticism,” Guest said. “If the church had come out against the regime, it would have had an impact on what went on in Argentina.”