New pope tied up in Argentina's 'dirty war' debate
In this picture taken March 20, 2008 Argentina's cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, right, kisses the feet of a man during a mass with youth trying to overcome drug addictions in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Bergoglio, who chose the name of Pope Francis, is the 266th pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church. The famous words uttered to announce that a leader of the Catholic Church has been chosen now have special resonance for Latin America, which had felt neglected by the Vatican and has finally produced the New World's first pope.(AP Photo/Str )
BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — It's beyond dispute that Jorge Mario Bergoglio, like most other Argentines, failed to openly confront the 1976-1983 military junta as it kidnapped and killed thousands of people in a "dirty war" to eliminate leftist opponents.
But human rights activists differ on how much responsibility Pope Francis personally deserves for the Argentine church's dark history of supporting the murderous dictatorship.
The new pope's authorized biographer, Sergio Rubin, argues that this was a failure of the Roman Catholic Church in general, and that it's unfair to label Bergoglio, then a thirtysomething leader of Argentina's Jesuits, with the collective guilt that many Argentines of his generation still wrestle with.
"In some way many of us Argentines ended up being accomplices," at a time when anyone who spoke out could be targeted, Rubin recalled in an interview with The Associated Press just before the papal conclave.
Some leading Argentine human rights activists agree that Bergoglio, now 76, doesn't deserve to be lumped together with other church figures who were closely aligned with the dictatorship.
"Perhaps he didn't have the courage of other priests, but he never collaborated with the dictatorship," Adolfo Perez Esquivel, who won the 1980 Nobel Peace Prize for documenting the junta's atrocities, said Thursday. "Bergoglio was no accomplice of the dictatorship. He can't be accused of that," Perez Esquivel told Radio de la Red in Buenos Aires.
But others say Bergoglio's rise through the Argentine church since then has put him in many positions of power where he could have done more to atone for the sins of Catholic officials who did actively conspire with the dictators. Some priests even worked inside torture centers, and blessed those doing the killing.
And now that Argentina is actively putting former dictatorship figures on trial for human rights violations, they say he's been more concerned about preserving the church's image than providing evidence that could lead to convictions.
"There's hypocrisy here when it comes to the church's conduct, and with Bergoglio in particular," said Estela de la Cuadra, whose family lost five members during the junta years and whose mother co-founded the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo activist group to search for missing people. "There are trials of all kinds now, and Bergoglio systematically refuses to support them."
Bergoglio twice invoked his right under Argentine law to refuse to appear in open court in trials involving torture and murder inside the feared Navy Mechanics School and the theft of babies from detainees. When he eventually did testify in 2010, his answers were evasive, human rights attorney Myriam Bregman told the AP.
Bergoglio's own statements proved church officials knew from early on that the junta was torturing and killing its citizens even as the church publicly endorsed the dictators, she said. "The dictatorship could not have operated this way without this key support," she said.