(CBS NEWS) -- Almost as soon as Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was chosen as Pope
Francis, charges surfaced that he was to some degree involved in the
so-called "dirty war" during the years when Argentina was ruled by a
military dictatorship (1976-1983) - a period when the future pope was
the head of the Jesuit order in the country.
dictatorship was notorious for human rights violations. At least 30,000
people were killed by the military, some tossed out of airplanes into
the ocean after being tortured. Thousands more were simply tortured as
the dictatorship chased "subversives," real and imagined, and moved to
stifle any dissent whatsoever.
Aftershocks are still being felt today as the military stole the
infant children of kidnapped women who gave birth in captivity and then
gave custody of those children to military families after killing the
birth mother. Some of those children, now grown, are trying to find out
who their real parents were and what happened to them; others prefer not
That brings us to the most serious charge
against the new pope - that he was somehow involved in the military's
kidnapping of two Jesuit priests who had been organizing the poor. The
priests were held for months at a well known torture center inside a
Navy School known by its Spanish initials as ESMA.
is without doubt is that then Father Bergoglio, who at the time headed
up the Jesuits in Argentina, lifted church protection from the two a
week before their kidnapping because he felt their radical views and
activities were no longer in line with Jesuit teaching. It is still not
clear if his actions played any role in the priests' kidnapping. Charges
that go beyond this and say Bergoglio was actively involved in their
kidnapping are simply not backed up by any facts.
Shortly before the 2005 conclave (in which Bergoglio reportedly came
in second to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in the voting to succeed John
Paul II), he was sued by an Argentine lawyer and charged with being in
part to blame for the kidnapping. He refused to comment on the charges,
which a spokesman labeled "slander," and the suit was eventually
dismissed. Some saw the accusations as politically motivated in an
attempt to keep him from being chosen as pope at the time.
has since been more outspoken. In his authorized 2010 biography "El
Jesuita," he denies any role in the kidnapping and in fact says he
interceded to help free the two kidnapped Jesuits as well as helping
other victims of the dictatorship. But that's where the case gets murky.
Father Orlando Yorio, one of the priests (who died in 2000), is quoted
by Argentine journalist Horacio Verbitsky as saying he had "no reason to
think he did something for our freedom but rather the opposite."
Mignone, a woman who worked with the two kidnapped priests, was also
kidnapped and never seen again. Verbitsky spoke with her mother who he
quotes as saying, "the priests were freed by the efforts of (noted human
rights lawyer and father of the victim) Emilio Mignone and the
intercession of the Vatican, not by the actions of Bergoglio, who
betrayed them." Unfortunately there are no documents to provide
conclusive proof one way or the other.
On Friday the Reverend Francisco Jalics, one of the two kidnapped
priests who is now at a seminary in Germany, put out a statement saying
that years after the incident, he had met Bergoglio and the two had
"discussed 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," he said. Father Yorio, the
other kidnapped priest, was critical of Bergoglio, who he felt
endangered the two by criticizing their work.
Pérez Esquivel, the Argentine who won the Nobel peace prize for his
human rights advocacy in the early 1980's (while the military was still
in power) told the BBC's Spanish language service that "Bergoglio had no
ties to the dictatorship."
"Bergoglio's been questioned
because it's been said that he didn't do enough as head of the Jesuits
in the country to free the two priests, but I know that many bishops
asked the military junta to free prisoners and priests and their
requests were not granted," Pérez Esquivel said, adding that many
members of the church "quietly did what they could to free many
Vatican Spokesman Father Federico Lombardi
said Friday that the accusations were false and "reveal anti-clerical
left-wing elements that are used to attack the Church."
"There has never been a concrete or credible accusation," against the new pope, Lombardi added.
human rights worker in Argentina who has followed the case closely says
that it is important to keep in mind the role that the Argentine church
played during the dictatorship. Unlike its counterparts in some other
Latin American countries (such as Chile, El Salvador and to a lesser
extent, Nicaragua), the church in Argentina was not an outspoken
opponent of the dictatorship. Some members of the church actively and
publicly collaborated with the military; most were simply passive and
did little one way or another.
In the end, we will
probably never be able to say for sure exactly what Bergoglio's role
was. He was certainly not among the most public defenders of the
dictatorship but there's no real way of telling how strongly he
resisted. It's a matter of either taking him, or his accusers, at their
word. We may not have enough facts to draw conclusions about the new
pope's past actions but that situation will change. Now that he holds
one of the most public jobs in the world, we will certainly know far
more about his future actions.