Sam Ferguson: When Pope Francis Testified About the Dirty War

tags: The New Republic, Sam Ferguson, Pope Francis I, the Dirty War



Sam Ferguson is a visiting fellow at the Schell Center for International Human Rights at Yale Law School and a former Fulbright Scholar. He is writing a book, Remnants of a Dirty War, about human rights trials in Argentina.

While the world has generally welcomed the Catholic Church's selection of the Argentine Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio as pope, one large and dark question hangs over his ascension: As the head of the Jesuit order during Argentina’s last dictatorship, was he complicit with the military regime that kidnapped, tortured, and murdered thousands of its citizens?

Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, has rarely spoken about his own role in what's known as the "Dirty War," during which at least 9,000 people were forcibly disappeared. But in 2010, he appeared as a witness in the criminal trial of eighteen officers who had worked at the notorious Naval Mechanics School, where the country's military junta detained political prisoners—including a pair of Jesuit priests who'd been kidnapped shortly after the regime took power in a 1976 coup. Bergoglio, who was not a defendant in the case, insisted on clerical testimonial privilege and did not testify in open court; proceedings were held in his office. As part of my research into that trial, I obtained access to a transcript from the hearing, during which prosecutors and human rights lawyers grilled him for more than four hours over his alleged complicity in the kidnappings. The transcript has not been widely circulated, though it recently appeared in Spanish on the website of an Argentine human rights NGO. It offers a unique insight into the steps Bergoglio took and did not take to save the desaparecidos.

By the time he testified, Bergoglio had been facing criticism about the kidnapping for years. His critics allege that he withdrew Church protection from the priests, Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics, who worked with the poor in the Bajo Flores slum of Buenos Aires. According to this theory, Bergoglio had warned the priests that they should abandon the slum because sectors of the military and church saw their activity as "subversive." When the priests refused, he allegedly told them they'd have to leave the Compañia de Jesus, their local order, if they wanted to keep working there—effectively giving the green light to the military junta to detain them. In a 1999 interview, conducted shortly before he died, Yorio said that he faulted Bergoglio for his kidnapping. Bergoglio denied complicity. After the interview was published in a book in 2005, a local human rights lawyer filed a criminal complaint against Bergoglio over the incident. The courts, however, have not taken any steps to indict Bergoglio, according to the lawyer, Marcelo Parrilli. But the interview appeared just as Bergoglio was being mentioned as a possible successor to Pope John Paul II....




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