Published in The Huffington Post on March 15th, 2013
The election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio as the new Pope Francis brought joy to Argentina, but has also cast a spotlight on the religious leader’s dark past, scarred by allegations of collaborating in the case of two Jesuits who were kidnapped by the country’s military dictatorship for five months in 1976. One of them accused Bergoglio — then his superior at the Society of Jesus — of being behind his abduction.
Bergoglio was also called to testify as a witness in a second case concerning the military government’s theft of the children of murdered political opponents. Some 500 missing children were delivered to military families during Argentina’s “Dirty War,” after the dictatorship killed their parents.
The new Pope would have been called as a witness during the trial of former dictators Jorge Videla and Reynaldo Bignone, relating to the disappearance of children between 1976 and 1983, reported Mexican daily La Jornada in December 2011.
Although he was not implicated in the military’s crimes, doubts remain as to whether he knew about them when they were happening. Speaking to the BBC, Adolfo Perez Esquivel, human rights activist at the time and Nobel Peace Prize honoree in 1980, said Bergoglio “had no link with the dictatorship.”
“There were bishops who were accomplices but Bergoglio wasn’t,” he added.
The Vatican also vehemently denies that the newly elected Pope was involved in any way with the former military dictatorship. Reuters reports : “that Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi told reporters the accusations: ‘Must be clearly and firmly denied. He added, ‘They reveal anti-clerical left-wing elements that are used to attack the Church’.”
In an interview with HuffPost Voces, Nestor Fantini, identified by Amnesty International as a former prisoner of conscience, explained the Argentina Society by the time was deeply and hopelessly divided. Fantini, who spent four years in jail, said that division also existed within the Church:
In the 1970s, the church was deeply divided in Argentina: there was a group that after the historic Ecumenical Council sought ways to bring the church closer to the people and, on the other hand, there were those who directly or covertly supported the military dictatorship. The Holy Father, unfortunately, was part of the last [group].
Split internally, the Church did not publicly denounce the disappearances.
“If the Episcopal Conference had joined and had had one voice, it would have had a strong force to save lives, but that did not happen in Argentina,” said Esquivel to the BBC.
The request to call the religious leader to testify in 2011 came from the prosecutor in the case against Videla and Bignone, Martin Niklison, due to statements made by now-Pope Francis saying he was unaware of the kidnapping and disappearances of children until around 2000, while survivors of the era claimed otherwise.
When required Bergoglio’s testimony in court, he didn’t give it in person — thanks to special treatment afforded to members of the Church — but responded in writing to a list of questions. The organization Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo have made documents from his testimony public. In them, the then Cardinal acknowledges having spoken with a father of a missing person. However, he says he doesn’t remember if by that time – around 1976 – it was mentioned at the meeting that the woman was pregnant or had given birth to a daughter.
It was the daughter and granddaughter of Alicia de la Cuadra Zubasnabar — the first president of Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo, who died in 2008. The family says Roberto Luis De la Cuadra — Alicia’s husband — asked Bergoglio help search for his missing daughter and granddaughter, Elena and Ana.
Back then Bergoglio received Elena’s father twice, directing him to the Archbishop of La Plata, Mario Picchi. He confirmed that Elena had given birth to a girl who called Ana Libertad and was in the hands of a family: “A family is raising the baby well, [what happened to] Elena is irreversible,” he explained.
Ana Libertad remains missing.
In response, Bergoglio recognizes that in a conversation with Father Pedro Arrupe, superior general of the Society of Jesus in Rome, in 1977, he spoke of the case of the Argentine family de la Cuadra. Subsequently. At the request of Arrupe, Bergoglio acknowledges having met with Roberto Luis de la Cuadra.
“Yes, I remember that the man was concerned about the disappearance of his daughter in the province of Buenos Aires… he told me he had a daughter that was kidnapped,” Bergoglio said, though he said he didn’t remember if he had said that she was pregnant.
Bergoglio adds that his role was to “alert Church authorities -– [in this case, Mario Ricci] — in the area where apparently a kidnapping would have occurred” to ask for their help.
The then Cardinal denied in another answer knowing of the pregnancy or the birth of the child in captivity, until many years later, through the media.
When asked if he took any action to contact military authorities, police or politicians in connection with the disappearance of Elena de la Cuadra, Bergoglio simply responded: “No, I did not.”
A copy of a letter sent by Bergoglio to Monsignor Mario Richi, Archbishop of La Plata, to whom De la Cuadra came asking for help, was also included in the bundle of documents.
Nowadays, it is known that all the efforts made by the religious hierarchy, if any, were unsuccessful.
The document is not conclusive. Bergoglio didn’t confirm to be completely unaware of the cases of the missing people –- it was common for desperate families in those days to try to get help in the Church — only about the stolen babies, which he reaffirmed in his testimony.
Today the followers of the Pope emphasize his “clear commitment to pastoral work in disadvantaged areas” and remember that he repeatedly “helped many during the regime,” including his efforts to interfere with Videla for the two Jesuits kidnapped.
The election of Francis, as Fantini wrote on in a blog on The Huffington Post titled “The Two Faces of Bergoglio” seems to reopen the wounds of those who lived through those years of suffering and terror in Argentina. The question now is whether the process of helping to heal those wounds will be on the agenda of the new Pope, he says.
“Francisco has a lot to do. In an interview today, with Estela de Carlotto, president of Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo, she states that: ‘[Bergoglio] forgot us a little, we never listen him speaking of our grandchildren, or missing people… He didn’t come to shake our hands or offer the necessary support from the church, that we all as Catholics expected. “