News Column

Argentine Secrets May Haunt Pope Francis

March 14, 2013

Veronica Sardon, dpa

Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio now stands at the top of the Roman Catholic Church, but events from four decades ago could continue to haunt him as Pope Francis.

His witness statements before Argentinian courts in 2010 and 2011 have raised questions about how much he knew about substantial human rights violations committed by the 1976-83 military regime. That government is believed to be responsible for the deaths of 30,000 people.

The same questions can be raised about a major portion of the Argentinian church and of Argentinian society at the time. However, many believe Bergoglio should have done more, and there is talk of sins of omission.

"I did what I could do," Bergoglio told Francesca Ambrogetti and Sergio Rubin, the authors of his authorized biography, The Jesuit. He stressed that he was young and had little influence.

"There were bishops who were complicit with the dictatorship, but not Bergoglio," Nobel Peace Prize laureate Adolfo Perez Esquivel told the BBC Thursday.

"There are no ties that bind him with the dictatorship," said Perez Esquivel, a Catholic grassroots activist during the dictatorship who suffered torture.

The question of where people were during the dictatorship and what they did to stop its killings and torture has come up for every public official in the South American country who was old enough at the time, from President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and her husband and predecessor Nestor Kirchner to members of the business leadership.

When the new pope was appointed Wednesday, the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo posted on their Twitter account a series of links to Bergoglio's court statements.

Bergoglio - who was provincial head of the Jesuit order during the period in question - told a court in 2011, for example, that he only became aware after the return of democracy of the systematic appropriation of babies born to illegally detained women.

However, the Grandmothers referred to the case of Elena de la Cuadra, who was pregnant when she was detained in 1977, and "whose family turned to him, in vain, for help." Bergoglio met with her father on two occasions and referred him to the archbishop of La Plata, the Grandmothers said.

Although this human rights organization is actively looking for such children, now adults, and has found scores, De la Cuadra's daughter - believed to have been called Ana Libertad by her mother - is not one of them.

In 2010, Bergoglio testified in a case that involved an acquaintance of his, Esther Ballestrino, a founder of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo who had worked with Bergoglio when he was a young chemist.

Ballestrino was abducted in late 1977 with 12 other human rights activists, including two other founders of the Mothers and two French nuns. Ballestrino and some of the others were kidnapped at the central Buenos Aires church where they used to meet.

Bergoglio told the court that he heard of the abduction in the media in 1977 and that it pained him greatly.

"I turned to well-connected people for them to get moving to find out her whereabouts, ... people who might have access to the authorities of the time. I also talked to officials at the archdiocese," he told the court.

Bergoglio said he could not find out anything about Ballestrino's fate. She has never been seen since the abduction and is presumed to have been killed along with the rest of the group, likely thrown alive from a plane to her death in the Rio de la Plata.

Bergoglio also testified in connection with the case of two Jesuit priests who were detained for several months in 1976.

"At the time, any priest who worked with the poorest sectors was a target for suspicion or accusations," the cardinal told the court in 2010.

Bergoglio said he met twice with one of the leaders of the regime, the head of the Navy, Emilio Massera, to tell him the priests "were not involved in anything strange."

Brutal repression in Argentina and other Latin American countries resulted in the virtual disappearance from the church hierarchy of relatively leftist elements who wanted the institution to be closer to the poor.

"The official church is oppressive, but the Third World church is liberating. We continue to have ties only with Third World priests," Mothers founder Hebe de Bonafini said Thursday in Italy.

"About this pope who was appointed yesterday, we have only one thing to say: amen."

Source: Copyright 2013 dpa Deutsche Presse-Agentur GmbH

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