What Did the Pope Do in Junta-Era Argentina? 1

From the mid seventies to the early eighties, Argentina was politically wracked by a military junta that had illegally seized power from the Péron government in 1976. The generals, led by unelected President Jorge Videla, held on to the reins until 1983.

Thousands of people who opposed the regime were murdered, a purge that Videla deemed regrettable but necessary to restore “Christian morals and values.” The dictator saw himself as a bulwark against terrorism, and he defined a terrorist as

…not only someone with a gun or bomb, but also anyone who encourages their use by ideas incompatible with Western Christian civilization.

Suspected dissidents could expect to be arrested or kidnapped, and taken to secret detention centers, where they might undergo torture

…with methods including electric shock, rape, simulated asphyxiation with water, and mock executions. They were left naked in cold wet cells through the winter, and were told their families would be killed if they didn’t tell what they knew.

Perhaps we will soon learn what Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now the new Pope, did and didn’t do during those seven dark and terrifying years.

We already know this: The Catholic Church as a whole did not oppose the dirty war, nor did it publicly protest the treatment of any of the scores of left-leaning activists and intellectuals who were kidnapped, beaten, tortured and killed. In fact, the church did pretty much the opposite. It habitually offered Videla support and advice.

A relative of one of dictator Videla's "disappeared" reacts to the news of his sentencing.

A relative of one of dictator Videla’s victims reacts to his sentencing.

Just last year, around the time of Videla’s long-overdue sentencing, the close ties between Videla’s goons and the Roman Catholic prelates who lent him a veneer of legitimacy was confirmed by none other than … Videla himself.

Argentina’s former military dictator said he kept the country’s Catholic hierarchy informed about his regime’s policy of “disappearing” political opponents, and that Catholic leaders offered advice on how to “manage” the policy.

Jorge Videla said he had “many conversations” with Argentina’s primate, Cardinal Raúl Francisco Primatesta, about his regime’s dirty war against left-wing activists. He said there were also conversations with other leading bishops from Argentina’s episcopal conference as well as with the country’s papal nuncio at the time, Pio Laghi. “They advised us about the manner in which to deal with the situation,” said Videla in a series of interviews conducted by the magazine El Sur in 2010 but published only on Sunday [July 21, 2012].

Videla’s confession to El Sur

… confirms long-held suspicions that Argentina’s Catholic hierarchy collaborated with the military’s so-called process of national reorganisation, which sought to root out communism. In the years following the 1976 coup led by Videla, thousands of left-wing activists were swept up into secret detention centers where they were tortured and murdered. Military chaplains were assigned as spiritual advisers to the junior officers who staffed the centers.

In the 2012 book Disposición Final by Argentinian journalist Ceferino Reato,

Videla confirms for the first time that between 1976 and 1983, 8,000 Argentinians were murdered by his regime. The bodies were hidden or destroyed to prevent protests at home and abroad.

It’s debatable whether the ex-dictator truly came clean with that statement. Other sources, including human-rights groups, put the number of disappeared at 30,000 or more.

But the complicity of so-called men of the cloth has long been an open secret. Military cadets of the era recall that Catholic chaplains told them that “torture was not a moral problem but a weapon.”

The vicar for the army, Bishop Bonamin, characterized the government’s actions as a defense of

…morality, human dignity, and ultimately a struggle to defend God … Therefore, I pray for divine protection over this ‘dirty war’ in which we are engaged.

Through it all, where was Father Bergoglio, now known as Pope Francis?

It’s a fair question, isn’t it? He was already a star within Argentina’s Catholic hierarchy, recognized for his work rigor and leadership potential.

And there just may be a couple of skeletons in his closet:

On 15 April 2005, a human-rights lawyer filed a criminal complaint against Bergoglio, as superior in the Society of Jesus of Argentina, accusing him of involvement in the kidnapping by the Navy in May 1976 (during the military dictatorship) of two Jesuit priests. The priests, Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics, were found alive five months later, drugged and semi-nude. The complaint did not specify the nature of Bergoglio’s alleged involvement, and Bergoglio’s spokesman flatly denied the allegations.

Nothing came of it, but I expect that a tenacious investigative journalist can build substantially on the groundbreaking work of award-winning Argentinian muckraker Horacio Verbitsky, who explored his country’s Dirty War in books and articles. Verbitsky got several of the Videla regime’s henchmen to talk about their crimes. For instance, former navy captain Adolfo Scilingo, now serving a 640-year sentence in Spain for killing suspected leftists in Argentina, told Verbitsky that under Videla, “We did terrible things …, worse than the Nazis.” Scilingo pushed some 30 of his victims out of military planes flying over the Atlantic. Scilingo says he was so disturbed by his first death flight that he went to see a navy chaplain, Time magazine reported in 1995.

“He told me that it was a Christian death because they did not suffer, that it was necessary to eliminate them, that war was war and even the Bible provided for eliminating the weeds from the wheat field.”

The Roman Catholic Church, long criticized for tolerating the military, responded last week with a veiled mea culpa chastising priests who may have condoned the “dirty war.”

Perhaps Father Bergoglio somehow managed to avoid this then-pervasive, nasty political maelstrom. Or he might have found himself in the middle of it — holding, as he did, a position of prominence within the very Catholic Church that collaborated with Videla’s junta at the highest levels.

General Jorge Rafael Videla Redondo, beloved by Catholics

General Jorge Rafael Videla, beloved by Argentina’s Catholic establishment

As the brand new Pope Francis, who shepherds more than a billion Catholics and who is their final arbiter of morality, Cardinal Bergoglio should both expect to and be able to withstand a little scrutiny.

For the sake of the Catholic Church and its followers, critical questions about il Papa‘s past should have been raised well before his election today. If they were, within the conclave perhaps, the world is now entitled to the answers. If they weren’t, I’m counting on a few enterprising reporters to begin providing the facts in some detail.


P.S.  For another example of how the Catholic Church too often aids strongmen and dictators, going as far as to encourage oppression and murder, read Luis Granados’ spine-chilling account of the Spanish Civil War. The Vatican, the Spanish Catholic leadership, and Generalissimo Franco all egged each other on to see who could be the fiercest anti-communist. With the Church’s blessing, Franco accepted military aid, including operational support, from both Hitler and Mussolini. More than 100,000 people went missing in the Spanish conflict. In most cases, they were never heard from again. In the Spanish countryside, the bones of the victims still occasionally work themselves to the surface of their unmarked shallow graves, as if begging to be acknowledged.

 [top image via De Volkskrant; bottom image via Cutting Edge News]

One comment on “What Did the Pope Do in Junta-Era Argentina?

  1. Marty Mar 13,2013 9:11 pm

    this is a good step in letting people know what the church has supported in South America. Videla and Pinochet should’ve had a bunch of clergy standing trial with them.

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