As Pope Francis takes his place as the leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics, his participation in Argentina's US-backed 'Dirty War' is sure to come under increased scrutiny.
From 1976 until 1983, Argentina was governed by a series of US-backed military dictators who ruled with iron fists and crushed the regime's opponents, many of them students, trade unionists, journalists and leftists. Kidnapping, torture, murder by death squads and disappearances characterized this brutal 'Dirty War,' and many of the leading perpetrators, including two junta leaders and the military dictator Gen. Leopoldo Galtieri, were trained by the United States in kidnapping, torture, assassination and democracy suppression at the School of the Americas in Panama. As many as 30,000 people were killed or disappeared during this horrific period, and many children and babies were stolen from parents imprisoned in concentration camps or murdered by the regime.
During this harrowing period, the Argentine Catholic church was shamefully silent in the face of horrific atrocities. Argentine priests offered communion and support to the perpetrators of these crimes, even after the execution of two bishops, including Enrique Angelelli, and numerous priests. Worse, leading church figures were complicit in the regime's abuses. One priest, Father Christian von Wernich, was a former police chaplain later sentenced to life in prison for involvement in seven murders, 42 kidnappings and 31 cases of torture during the 'Dirty War.' At his trial, witnesses testified how the priest used his position to gain their trust before passing information to police, who tortured victims-- sometimes in von Wernich's presence-- and sometimes killed them.
Senior military commanders who justified the regime's appalling practice of dumping drugged and tortured 'Dirty War' prisoners into the sea from airplanes, known as 'death flights,' told participants that the Church sanctioned the missions as "a Christian form of death."
"We have much to be sorry for," Father Ruben Captianio told the New York Times in 2007. "The attitude of the Church was scandalously close to the dictatorship to such an extent that I would say it was of a sinful degree."
So exactly what role did Jorge Bergoglio play in his country's brutal seven-year military dictatorship?
A 1995 lawsuit filed by a human rights lawyer alleges that Bergoglio, who was leading the local Jesuit community by the time the military junta seized power in 1976, was involved in the kidnapping of two of his fellow Jesuit priests, Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics, who were tortured by navy personnel before being dumped in a field, drugged and semi-naked, five months later.
At the time, Bergoglio was the superior in the Society of Jesus of Argentina. According to El Silencio (Silence), a book by Horacio Verbitsky, one of Argentina's most respected investigative journalists, Bergoglio urged the two priests, who were strong believers in liberation theology, to stop visiting Buenos Aires slums where they worked to improve the lives of some of the country's poorest people. After the priests refused, Bergoglio allegedly stopped protecting them, leading to their arrest and torture. According to the Associated Press, Yorio accused Bergoglio of "effectively handing [the priests] over to death squads."
Despite his alleged role in the Jesuits' imprisonment, Bergoglio did eventually take action to secure their release. His intervention and appeal to the vicious junta leader Jorge Videla quite likely saved their lives.
But that wasn't the only time Bergoglio allegedly cooperated with the regime. According to Verbitsky, he also hid political prisoners from a delegation of visiting international monitors from the Inter-American Human Rights Commission.
Bergoglio was also silent in the wake of Father Angelelli's assassination, even as other leading Argentine clergy condemned the murder. He was quick, however, to hail the slain priest as a "martyr" years later in more democratic times.
"History condemns him," Fortunato Mallimacci, a former dean at the University of Buenos Aires, once said of Bergoglio. "It shows him to be opposed to all innovation in the church and above all, during the dictatorship, it shows he was very cozy with the dictatorship."
Human rights attorney Myriam Bregman told the AP that "the dictatorship could not have operated [so brutally] without this key support."
Bergoglio is also a proven liar when it comes to his personal knowledge of the regime's atrocities. In 1977, the De le Cuadra family, which lost five members, including a pregnant woman, to state security forces, appealed to the Jesuit leadership in Rome for desperately-needed protection. According to the Associated Press, the Jesuits in turn urged Bergoglio to help the family. Bergoglio assigned an underling to the case, who returned with a note from a colonel stating that the slain woman, who like many other 'Dirty War' victims was kept alive just long enough so that she could give birth, had her baby given to a family "too important" to remove it from. The colonel's letter is written proof that Bergoglio knew about the regime's practice of stealing babies from its victims, yet the archbishop testified in 2010 that he had no knowledge of stolen babies until after the military regime fell.
"Bergoglio has a very cowardly attitude when it comes to something so terrible as the theft of babies," Estela de la Cuadra, daughter of Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo founder Alicia de la Cuadra, told the AP.
Under Bergoglio's later leadership as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, the church apologized for its abject failure to protect its flock. But he also refused to appear in open court to answer questions about his role in the 'Dirty War' oppression-- twice, and when he finally did appear in 2010, his answers-- some of which, like the denial of knowledge of stolen babies-- left many human rights advocates extremely dissatisfied.
"He doesn't face this reality and it doesn't bother him," de la Cuadra said. "The question is how to save his name, save himself. But he can't keep these allegations from reaching the public. The people know how he is."