By: Charles Kenney (Professor of Political Science University of Oklahoma, specializing in Latin America).
Fr. Jorge Bergoglio, SJ, now Pope Francis, was a young provincial (36 when appointed, 39 when the coup took place), the context was volatile, the two priests, Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics, did not obey his demand that they leave the poor neighborhood where they worked and one or both asked to leave the Jesuits and join a diocese under a tolerant bishop.
The Argentine Church leadership, with a few notable exceptions, behaved abominably. They gave public recognition and support to the military dictatorship for years. They gave almost no public recognition or support to the victims and their families. Several priests played central roles in the detention, torture, and murder of suspected dissidents, and justified this in religious terms. Only a few bishops defended the human rights of the disappeared and supported organizations like the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. One priest, Christian von Wernach, is presently serving a life sentence for his role, while others have been accused but not yet put on trial.
In this context, Bergoglio would have to have been heroic to speak out. He did not.
The fear of Communism was both rational and irrational, and it led the military, civilians, and many within the Church to fear those among them who might be “subversive” and they allowed this fear to justify some of the most cruel and brutal treatment to which human beings have subjected other human beings in the Americas in the last half century.
This is not about comparing evils, as if the evil done by Communist regimes could somehow justify the evil done in the name of anti-Communism.
There were Catholics and ex-Catholics, some priests, who participated in or were strongly linked to some of the leftist groups who were carrying out assassinations and bomb attacks. There were many more Catholics committed to the poor who were not in any way involved in violent actions.
The regime tended to see anyone who worked with the poor or who defended human rights as subversive, either because they were directly participating in the violence or because their teaching of the Gospel provided ideological justification for leftist positions, violent or not.
Of what, to my understanding, is Bergoglio accused?
1. Bergoglio is accused of believing that either or both Fr. Orlando Yorio, SJ and Fr. Francisco Jalics, SJ, were dangerous subversives and of communicating this belief to many others in a way that facilitated their arrest. Released after five months, Yorio and Jalics told others in person and in letters that they thought Bergoglio was responsible for their arrest and that he had told others that Yorio and Jalics were involved with the guerrillas. Other Jesuits told Yorio and Jalics that Bergoglio was responsible. The priests’ beliefs are not evidence that Bergolio facilitated their arrest, but this does show that they thought the accusation highly credible.
2. Bergoglio is accused of withdrawing his protection from Yorio and Jalics before they were arrested. After much discussion and debate, Bergoglio gave them a letter ordering them to leave the community they were serving within 15 days; Jalics was to be transferred to Germany. Bergoglio told them that their only alternative to leaving the community was to leave the Jesuits. Yorio indicated in writing on March 19 that this was his intention, but also said he never received a response. Until his arrest he thought he was still a Jesuit and still communicated intensely with Bergoglio. Only after his release and exile in Rome did he find out that Bergoglio had expelled them from the Jesuit Order shortly before their arrest.
An important note about the context: Yorio and Jalics went to work in a poor neighborhood in 1974 during a time in which there was an elected government, but there were also armed organizations carrying out assassinations and bombings on both the left and the right. In 1973, one of the people who had worked with Yorio and Jalics in the neighborhood left and joined one of the leftist guerrilla groups and had no more contact with Yorio and Jalics.
The Argentine military coup took place on March 26, 1976, shortly after Yorio wrote to Bergoglio asking to leave the Jesuits. After the coup, the person who joined the guerrillas was captured and interrogated. It emerged that he had once worked in the neighborhood with Yorio and Jalics. On May 14 five catechists (and two of their husbands) who worked with Yorio and Jalics were arrested and eventually murdered by the regime without it ever acknowledging that it held them. One of these catechists was Mónica Mignone, the daughter of former Education Minister and Catholic activist Emilio Mignone.
If Bergoglio withdrew his protection, he did so knowing what risks the priests were facing. After their arrest, Yorio and Jalics were interrogated extensively about the catechists. Neither the priests nor any of the seven arrested the week before the priests were ever found to be involved with the guerrillas. None of the seven was ever seen again.
3. Bergoglio is accused of blocking the efforts of a sympathetic bishop to receive Yorio and Jalics. The bishop reportedly told others that he was fearful for their lives and sought to protect them, but that even after personally meeting with Bergoglio to plead his case Bergoglio did not cede. As I try to make sense of this accusation, I try to **imagine** that the two priests were seen by Bergoglio as something like “dangerous communist terrorists,” or, to make the point in a different way, as dangerous pedophiles. One could imagine why, as a matter of principle, the Jesuit Superior was unwilling to let them go to another diocese–if indeed it is true that he blocked their way. If this happened, perhaps it could be justified, perhaps not, but it is another part of the reason that Bergoglio is accused of contributing to the priests’ arrest.
After arrest, Yorio and Jalics were taken to the ESMA (Escuela Superior de Mecánica de la Armada or Naval Petty Officers School of Mechanics), which became infamous as a detention and torture center from which many hundreds were taken and killed by drugging them, putting them in airplanes, and dropping them into the ocean so that their bodies would never be found. The two priests were manacled and not allowed to move or use the bathroom for five days while they were interrogated. While this was a form of torture, they were not subjected to electric shock and the other harsher tortures that were systematic under the regime. Unlike more than a thousand of those who were taken to ESMA, Yorio and Jalics survived. They were taken after five days to another location and held, manacled and blindfolded, for five more months before being dumped on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, alive. Yorio was sent to Rome and Jalics to Germany.
4. Bergoglio is accused of having presented to the regime a written petition to renew the passport for Fr. Jalics on December 4, 1979, while Jalics was in Germany and for fear of his life could not return to Argentina. The written petition supports Jalics’ request and carries Bergoglio’s signature. Another document was found attached to the first. It states that Jalics’ passport should not be renewed, and carries the signature of a government official.
There is a third document attached that states the following (this is translated from the original scanned document uploaded by Verbitsky to the Página 12 website):
Father Francisco Jalics:
- Dissolute activity in the women’s religious congregations (Conflicts of obedience)
- Detained in the Naval Mechanical School 5/24/76 [- ] XI/76 (6 months), accused with Fr. Yorio
Suspected of guerrilla contacts
- They lived in a small community that the Jesuit Superior dissolved in February 1976 and they refused to obey, requesting that they be allowed to leave the Jesuits on March 19; the 2 were expelled, [but] Fr. Jalics not because he had solemn vows.
No Bishop in Greater Buenos Aires wanted to receive them.
NB: this information was furnished to Mr. Orgoyen [the government official handling the passport renewal request] by Fr. Bergoglio himself, the signer of the original petition, with special recommendation that the petition not be granted.”
[Below this is the signature of Orgoyen, the government official.]
In other words, Bergoglio is accused of having acting visibly and in writing to support Fr. Jalics’ petition, and of having acted invisibly and not in writing to undermine his request. He is accused of making numerous charges against Jalics, including that he was in contact with the guerrillas.
5. Bergoglio is accused of publishing Church documents in a book regarding the period of the Dirty War, emphasizing that they were published “without omissions.” The original of at least one of the documents was subsequently found and it was seen that the published version in fact omitted text that revealed much greater complicity by the Church with the regime than the published version. My understanding is that the original version has been published, but I have not seen it.
6. Bergoglio is accused of claiming that he and other Church leaders were unaware of certain things—that detainees were being tortured, that detainees were being murdered and disappeared without trial or acknowledgement of their detention; that babies born to detained (and soon to be disappeared) women were being given in adoption to military and police families—during periods when documents exist demonstrating that he and others discussed and knew about these things.
7. Bergoglio is NOT accused of having helped to hide detainees from an international human rights group’s visit to the torture center by taking them to a summer retreat owned by the Church and used by the Cardinal. These events took place, but Bergoglio had no role, and Horacio Verbitsky (the journalist who wrote about this and who provided the evidence for many of the accusations made in points 1-6 above) says not only was Bergoglio not part of this, it was Bergoglio himself who helped Verbitsky find the evidence that proved the Church’s connection to the incident.
Yorio later returned to Argentina to serve in the Diocese of Quilmes and it was he who contacted Verbitsky to denounce Bergoglio. Yorio died in 2000. Jalics remains a Jesuit in Germany and is active giving lectures and leading spiritual exercises. When contacted by Verbitsky, he confirmed Yorio’s denunciations and added his own information. He said, however, that he had forgiven Bergoglio and preferred not to revisit that painful period of his life, and did not want his name to appear in print. When contacted by a second journalist, he said he would neither confirm nor deny the allegations.
According to an article published on Sunday, March 17, 2013 by Horacio Verbitsky in the Argentine newspaper Página 12, (I translate):
“… Jalics has forgiven the evil they did to him. This says more about him than about Bergoglio. Jalics does not deny the events, which he narrated his 1994 bookMeditation Exercises:
“Many people who had political convictions of the extreme right looked poorly on our presence in the slums. They interpreted the fact that we lived there as support for the guerrillas and they decided to denounce us as terrorists. We knew from where the wind blew and who was responsible for this slander. So I went to speak with the person in question and explained to him that he was playing with our lives. This man promised that he would make sure the military knew that we were not terrorists. Through later declarations by an officer and thirty documents that I was able to access we were later able to prove beyond a doubt that this man had not fulfilled his promise but that, on the contrary, he had presented a false accusation to the military.
“In another part of the book, he added that this person made “credible the slander by virtue of his authority” and “testified before the officers who kidnapped us that we had worked on the scene of the terrorist action. Shortly before this I had told this person that he was playing with our lives. He should have understood that he was sending us to certain death with his declarations.”
“In a letter he wrote in Rome in November of 1977 to Fr. Moura, the Assistant General of the Jesuits, Orlando Yorio told the same story but replaced “a person” with Jorge Mario Bergoglio.”
In recent days Jalics provided a written statement that has been translated.
In it Jalics says that he has become reconciled with the events that took place and that, for his part, he considers this a closed matter. He says he is unable to comment on the role played by Bergoglio in these events. He says he met once with Bergoglio in recent years, spoke about this, celebrated Mass together, and solemnly embraced.
Note: this is not an exoneration by Jalics, as some have chosen to interpret it.
Jalics also says that, with the permission of Bergoglio, he went with Yorio to live in the poor neighborhood, and that neither of them had any contact with the military junta or with the guerrillas. I think the inclusion of “contact with the military junta” may have been meant to draw a contrast with Bergoglio or with other members of the Church leadership. Jalics says that “due to the lack of information and targeted misinformation at that point in time our position was open to misinterpretation within the church.” He does not say who was the source of the “targeted misinformation” and he does not say who within the Church misinterpreted their position.
Emilio Mignone, whose daughter Mónica was arrested a week before Yorio and Jalics, became a leader in the human rights movement in Argentina. He held that Bergoglio had responsibility in her disappearance. His colleague in the human rights movement, Alicia Oliveira, was Bergoglio’s friend and knew of his efforts to help some of those persecuted by the regime, and defended him. Neither knew at the time of the “passport document” discovered only recently, which seems to show Bergoglio acting in defense of Fr. Jalics publicly while undermining and accusing him in secret.
Nobel Prize winner Adolfo Pérez Esquivel has said that Bergolgio was not one of those who were complicit with the regime, but that Bergoglio lacked the courage to defend those who were being tortured and murdered by the regime.
I end with a little more context: in the early morning hours of Sunday, July 4, 1976, as the United States celebrated its bicentennial and six weeks after the arrest of Yorio and Jalics, a military death squad went to the parish house of San Patricio and murdered the three priests and two seminarians living there. When those coming to Mass that morning investigated, they found the five men lying face down on the floor in their pajamas in a pool of blood, riddled with bullets. This became known as the Masacre de San Patricio, or St. Patrick’s Massacre.
The death squad left two written messages.
One said: “for the comrades dynamited in the Federal Security building. We will win. Long live the fatherland.”
[This was a reference to a guerrilla bomb attack in the cafeteria at the Federal Security building that killed 20 police officers.]
The other said: “These leftists died for being indoctrinators of virgin minds and for being MSTM,” MSTM being the initials of the Movement of Priests for the Third World.
The concern about Bergoglio’s role cannot be understood while focusing only on two Jesuit priests who survived. It must be understood that Mónica Mignone and hundreds of lay Church activists like her were brutally tortured and murdered, being guilty of nothing more than serving the poor and thinking the wrong thoughts; that dozens of priests and religious were likewise murdered in Argentina for the same crimes, and that the murderers were praised and blessed for their work by still other priests and religious. These were the same crimes for which Jesuit Rutilio Grande would be murdered the following year in El Salvador, for which Archbishop Oscar Romero would be assassinated three years after that, and six more Jesuits, their housekeeper, and her daughter nine years after that. And so on.
Bergoglio has said in the past that we should not focus on his public silence, but know that in private he sought to aid the persecuted. He does appear to have helped some of the persecuted, but if the documents uncovered regarding his assistance in getting Fr. Jalics’ passport renewed are an indication of what he did in private, it appears that there may be still another, even more private level at which he acted, and for which he has much to answer.