When Argentine archbishop Bergoglio was installed as Pope Francis in March 2013, no one foresaw the impact the church leader in Buenos Aires would have on the world. His elevation has given him iconic status in Argentina and is as popular as soccer star Messi. Known in the capital for his stern countenance, images of his paternal smile now are everywhere. In Argentine society, long battered by the economy crashing and notorious government corruption, Pope Francis holds a worldwide audience.
For some Argentines, he will never be Pope Francis but simply Bergoglio. Many people are still asking questions about what he knew and when he knew it during Argentina’s “Dirty War” when 30,000 people were murdered by the military junta that ruled from 1976 − 1983.
One Argentine asking questions is Estela de la Cuadra who lost family members. “Disappeared” were her husband, a brother-in-law and her sister Elena. Elena, pregnant when she was kidnapped, figures prominently in her sister’s distrust of Francis. The sister’s parents contacted a family friend in Rome. The friend was well-connected, he was the leader of the Jesuits. He gave them his word to help and sent an introductory letter to the Jesuit leader in Argentina, Father Jorge Mario Bergoglio.
De la Cuadra still has the letter that Bergoglio wrote to a bishop in La Plata asking him to intervene for the family. After many weeks, word got back to the grieving family. Elena was dead. Before being murdered, she had given birth to a child who had been adopted.
And this is where some people are distrustful about the pope’s taking the stage as one of the world’s leading upstanding voices. In 2010 he gave testimony to a court as it investigated the military junta’s crimes. Bergoglio, by now archbishop of Buenos Aires, claimed to have become aware of the junta’s adoption policy only “…10 years before…” Later, he corrected himself to say he became aware of the campaign to locate the children during earlier military trials in 1985.
In 2011, Cardinal Bergoglio provided a signed statement in which he claimed ignorance of Elena’s disappearance. His statement is hard for some to mesh with what happened. Ms. De la Cuadra’s mother, and other founding members of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, had campaigned for years seeking knowledge about their absent family members.
Despite the censorship imposed by the dictatorship, de la Cuadra’s parents were able to get the media to cover the issue of the disappearances. De la Cuadra still keeps an archive of articles the mothers had been able to get placed in national and international newspapers. “And this intelligent man says he knew nothing about it?” De la Cuadra asks.
Rodolfo Yorio is another Argentine critical of the pope. Yorio’s brother, Orlando, was a Jesuit working in a Buenos Aires slum in 1976. The military dictatorship saw social work like Orlando’s as subversive. Father Yorio and his colleague, Father Franz Jalics, were kidnapped in 1976. Following five months of secret detention, the two young priests were flown over Rio de Plata and thrown from an airplane.
Pope Francis has denied that he gave the military the go-ahead to disappear the priests and he claims that he worked with the dictatorship to get the two released. One priest, Jose Caravias, claims he was rescued from certain death by the pope’s intervention.
For many others, the question remains about what did Pope Francis actually do during the Dirty War.
By Jerry Nelson