Vatican Rejects Claims of Pope’s Ties to Argentina’s ‘dirty War’

By Daniel J. Wakin, Alan Cowell and Gaia Pianigiani
New York Times
March 15, 2013

Daily prayer at St. Peter’s on Friday. The Vatican defended the pope over charges that he knew of human rights abuses during Argentina’s “Dirty War” in the 1970s.

Reacting with unusual swiftness, the Vatican on Friday rejected any suggestion that Pope Francis of Argentina was implicated in his country’s so-called Dirty War during the 1970s, tackling the issue just two days after the pontiff’s election.

On a day when Francis delivered a warm address to his cardinals and continued to project humility, the Vatican seemed intent on quickly putting to rest questions about the pope’s past, dismissing them as opportunistic defamations from anticlerical leftists. The swift response contrasted with past public relations challenges during the papacy of Pope Benedict XVI, when the Vatican often allowed criticisms to linger without rebuttal.

“There has never been a credible accusation against him,” said the Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, adding that such charges “must be rejected decisively.” On the contrary, he said, “there have been many declarations of how much he did for many people to protect them from the military dictatorship.”

The charges derive from the pope’s days as the provincial, or leader, of Argentina’s Jesuits in the 1970s, a time of conflict in his country when the dictatorship tortured, killed or “disappeared” as many as 30,000 people.

Many of the questions have emerged from articles and books published by journalists in Argentina, drawing from documents and statements by priests and lay workers who clashed with the Rev. Jorge Mario Bergoglio before he became a bishop, cardinal, and then, on Wednesday, pope.

Some human rights activists and authors have criticized his election as pope, while some leftists in Argentina have defended him, as have ordinary Argentines.

Father Lombardi repeated assertions by a prominent human rights campaigner in Argentina who said there had been “no compromise by Cardinal Bergoglio with the dictatorship.” In Argentina, Fernando Solanas, a film director and congressman who was forced into exile during the dictatorship, said Francis was known for his “enormous fairness and wisdom.”

Nuria Cabrera, a surgeon’s assistant in Buenos Aires, noted that those people who were in Argentina during the dictatorship, including Francis, “have since had to do things in order to recover and change.”

“I think this was one reason he was elected pope,” she said, “because he lived through the dictatorship and was changed by it. Everyone has the right, if they’ve done wrong, to repent. If he hasn’t done anything wrong, then he’s been judged in vain.”

It was not clear how much the cardinals who elected Francis delved into that past.

Cardinal Bergoglio was certainly familiar to about 50 of the cardinals at this week’s conclave who also participated in the previous one in 2005, when he was widely reported to have been a top contender. Cardinal Bergoglio was not a prominent presence at the Vatican, and several cardinals interviewed said they did not know him well.

Francis’ position in Argentina in the 1970s had been noted by some cardinals in the past, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago said in a recent interview. “I don’t know if it was talked about this time or not,” he said. Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington said he had seen only “conjecture.”

One of the charges is that Francis was complicit in the kidnapping of two Jesuit priests with antigovernment views whom he had dismissed from the order a week before.

After the church for years denied any involvement with the dictatorship, Francis, then a cardinal, testified in 2010 that he had met secretly with Gen. Jorge Videla, the former head of the military junta, and Adm. Emilio Massera, the commander of the navy, to ask for the release of the priests.

The next year, prosecutors called him to testify on the military junta’s systematic kidnapping of children, a subject he was also accused of knowing about but failing to prevent.

In an interview published by an Argentine newspaper in 2010, Francis, then still a cardinal, said he had helped hide people being sought for arrest by the military because of their political views, had helped others leave Argentina and had lobbied the country’s military rulers directly for the release and protection of others.

Father Lombardi said the recent reports were part of a long line of “negative campaigns” against the church. “Honestly, I’m not surprised by anything,” he said, calling it normal for someone to use “a moment of great attention and audience like this” to spread attacks.

He pointed out that one of the two priests, the Rev. Franz Jalics, had made a statement on Friday. It was issued by the German branch of the Jesuit order and also released by the Vatican.

Father Jalics said that he and the other priest moved to a Buenos Aires slum in 1974 to work among the poor, with the permission of the archbishop and of then-Father Bergoglio.

He said their position was “misunderstood within the church” and that they were later falsely linked to leftist guerrillas. Soldiers arrested and interrogated them, and they were “inexplicably held in custody blindfolded and bound” for five months, even after an officer said he believed in their innocence, according to Father Jalics. “I cannot comment on the role of Father Bergoglio in these events,” he said.

Years later, he continued, the priests met with Father Bergoglio, who by then was archbishop of Buenos Aires. “Afterward, we together celebrated Mass publicly and embraced,” Father Jalics said. “I am reconciled to the events and view them from my side as concluded. I wish Pope Francis God’s rich blessing for his office.”

A spokesman for the German Jesuits said the meeting with Archbishop Bergoglio took place in 2000. On Friday, Father Jalics was said to be on a spiritual retreat in his native Hungary and could not immediately be reached.

Also on Friday, the Vatican said Francis sent a message to the chief rabbi of Rome, Riccardo Di Segni, on the day of his election, saying he hoped to “contribute to the progress that relations between Jews and Catholics have known from the Second Vatican Council, in a spirit of renewed collaboration.”

Francis has adopted a distinctly more humble tone than Benedict, his predecessor, who opened the door to Francis’ election by resigning last month. Vatican officials have highlighted his informality and modesty.

When Francis spoke to the cardinals on Friday, Father Lombardi pointed out, the pope addressed them as “brother cardinals” rather than as the more usual “lord cardinals.” The spokesman made it known that the pope, when taking meals with the cardinals at the Santa Marta residence before moving in to the papal apartments, sat wherever he could find an open seat.

On Friday, Francis urged the cardinals to find ways to spread word of their faith. “Let us not give in to pessimism, to that bitterness that the devil offers us every day,” he said.








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