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How close was Pope Francis to Argentina’s military dictators?

Amid jubilation following the announcement of Latin America’s first pope, the Argentinian Jorge Bergoglio, lurk some dark questions about his past.

What exactly was his role during the military dictatorship, at a time when the Catholic Church lent support to the torturers, with some priests even giving spiritual sustenance to perpetrators during torture sessions?

While mainstream media outlets are full of celebratory fanfare, people on social media are looking a little deeper.

Some refer to a 2005 letter, signed by leading human rights journalist Horacio Verbitsky which talks of ‘five new testimonies that confirmed the role of Bergoglio in the military governments repression…. including the disppearances of priests.’

Pope Francis as Cardinal
Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio (now Pope Francis) in Buenos Aires, 2008 Aibdescalzo, under a CC License

The cardinal is alleged to have withdrawn the right to preach to a number of priests shortly before they were ‘disappared’.

Bergoglio was also called to testify in the case of babies stolen from female political prisoners who gave birth in captivity and later disappeared.

An estimated 30,000 disappeared during the years of repression. Around 5,000 passed through the sceret torture centre at the Army’s Mechanical School (ESMA). Only around 100 survived.

Gaston Chiller of the Argentinian human rights organization CELS comments: ‘ The Catholic Church has never apologised for its involvement with the dictatorship.’

Will it do so now?

In terms of other rights issues, the new pope opposed Argentina’s progressive equal marriage laws (allowing same sex marriage); remains opposed to the legalization of abortion and is against any form of euthansia or ‘dignified death.’

The adoption of the name Francis – to signify humility and poverty – is a wise move, but another image may yet haunt the new pontiff: a photo of him with the dictator General Videla.

As for a break with tradition – it’s hard to see in this regard. Remember the former Pope Benedict’s days in the Hitler youth?

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  1. #1 Pat 14 Mar 13

    This is really lazy journalism and poorer history. In Argentina you can bring a case against someone with out evidence. Once you get to court you have to, before you can say pretty much anything. The only evidence is circumstantial at best.

    Also if your going to do the whole Hitler Youth thing with Joey Rat can you please point out that all boys had to join the Hitler Youth, regardless? My uncle's German and his father was forced to join. You're just taking liberties with history to make a point.

    If your going to say anything, talk about his views to same sex marriage or how he linked Gay Adoption to physiological abuse?

    As to the link with the Junta, all you have is one guys claim in a book and letter and a photo. The two Jesuits kidnapped didn't even accuse him, even after they left Argentina.

    Hows this for a title and article?

    New Pope, same Gender Repression?

  2. #2 David Deshler 14 Mar 13

    I hope the new Pope will continue to be humble and have compassion for the poor. However, true concern for those in poverty must go beyond charity. The conundrum for the Catholic Church is rhetoric that speaks about economic justice, but at the same time continues a patriarchal policy that oppresses women through its opposition to contraception, a leading cause of overpopulation and poverty. The status of women is central to overcoming poverty in the workplace as well as in the family.

  3. #3 Vanessa 15 Mar 13

    For much more detail on this contested theme, see interview with Horacio Verbitsky and Amy Goodman at

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About the author

Vanessa Baird a New Internationalist contributor

Vanessa Baird lived and worked as a journalist in Peru during the tumultuous mid-1980s, and she maintains a passionate interest in South America. She joined New Internationalist as a co-editor in 1986 and since then has written on everything from migration, money, religion and equality to indigenous activism, climate change, feminism and global LGBT rights. She also edits the Mixed Media, arts and culture section of the magazine.

Vanessa’s books include The No-Nonsense Guide to World Population (2011), Sex, Love and Homophobia (2004), The Little Book of Big Ideas (2009) and, People First Economics (2010). In 2012 she won a prestigious Amnesty International Human Rights Media award.

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