Broad speculation has surrounded the new Pope, Francis I, and his connection to the Argentinian Dirty War. Author David Sheinin‘s book, Consent of the Damned: Ordinary Argentinians in the Dirty War, examines how Argentine civilians and foreign powers ignored and even abetted the state’s vicious crimes against humanity. Here, he gives his own perspective on the dispute of Pope Francis I’s involvement.
What did the Pope do in 1976 under dictatorship in Argentina? Here’s the evidence….(?)
This is the evidence! This is the last page of the document that Argentine journalist Horacio Verbitsky uncovered in the Argentine Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Worship Archive to show that Francis I collaborated with a brutal military government in Argentina. It is an image now circulating widely on the internet.
But what does it tell us? It’s signed by Anselmo Orcoyen, then director of the Catholicism division of the Ministry. But the signature is only his last name, which likely means that he didn’t write the document, but simply saw it come across his desk. Verbitsky says it implicates Pope Francis I in the military government’s 1976 detention and torture of two Jesuit priests, Francisco Jalics and Orlando Yorio. He points to the last three lines of the document, which render authorship of the document still murkier. Whoever wrote it identifies the then head of the Jesuit Order in Argentina, Jorge Mario Bergoglio (now Francis I), as having “supplied the information to Mr. Orcoyen” that the priests were subversives and that Yorio was “suspected of having had contact with [leftist] guerrillas.” Bergoglio, Verbitsky tells us, fingered the two priests as subversives to military authorities itching to get their hands on them.
But did he? So far, all we have is Orcoyen’s word that Bergoglio was the source of this information, which raises two problems. First, as a functionary in a thuggish regime charged with justifying the torture, illicit detention, and execution of Catholic priests, Anselmo Orcoyen’s word isn’t worth a plug nickel. Second, what exactly did Bergoglio say? It’s entirely possible, that Bergoglio simply reported to the Ministry the parishes in which each of the priests under his charge worked. Both Yorio and Jalics ministered to impoverished urban slums at a time when the very act of catering to such populations – as teachers, social workers, or priests – was enough to warrant the tags “subversive” and enemy of the state in the eyes of military government officials. In the end, then, the evidence simply isn’t compelling for Bergoglio’s wrongdoing.
For Consent of the Damned: Ordinary Argentinians in the Dirty War, I combed through thousands of Foreign Relations Ministry documents like this one in coming to the conclusion that the range of responses to violent state terror in Argentina was far greater than we’ve understood until now. That goes for the Catholic Church, as it does for other institutions. Many in the Church openly supported dictatorship, many opposed it courageously, but many more found themselves somewhere in the middle of that binary for all sorts of reasons. We may never know exactly where Francis I stood.
In the book, I urge caution at indicting ordinary Argentinians – good people struggling to put food on the table day in, day out – for not having stood on the ramparts in fighting dictatorship. At the same time, in contemplating Pope Francis’ response to military rule twenty-five years ago, is it relevant to point out that he wasn’t an ordinary Argentinian? We celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. as heroic for having assumed a mantle of courageous political leadership in the civil rights movement because he felt he should, by virtue of how he imagined his moral and spiritual leadership responsibilities. Is it fair to ask, then, why Father Bergoglio, as leader of the spiritually and politically important Jesuit order in 1976 Argentina never spoke out publicly (by his own admission) against the ravages of military rule?
David M. K. Sheinin, professor of history at Trent University, is the author of five books, including Argentina and the United States: An Alliance Contained.