Pope Francis’ Junta Past: Argentine Journalist on New Pontiff’s Ties to Abduction of Jesuit Priests


While praised for his work with the poor, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio — now Pope Francis — has long been dogged by accusations of his role during Argentina’s military dictatorship. We speak to Horacio Verbitsky, a leading Argentine journalist who exposed Francis’ connection to the abduction of two Jesuit priests. Verbitsky is an investigative journalist for the newspaper Página/12, or Page/12, and head of the Center for Legal and Social Studies, an Argentine human rights organization.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: For more on the new pope, we turn now to one of Argentina’s leading investigative journalists, Horacio Verbitsky, who has written extensively about the career of Cardinal Bergoglio and his actions during the military dictatorship that ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983. During that time, up to 30,000 people were kidnapped and killed. A 2005 lawsuit accused Jorge Bergoglio of being connected to the 1976 kidnappings of two Jesuit priests, Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics. The lawsuit was filed after the publication of Verbitsky’s book, The Silence: From Paul VI to Bergoglio: The Secret Relations Between the Church and the ESMA. ESMA refers to the former navy school that was turned into a detention center where people were tortured by the military dictatorship. The new pope has denied the charges. He twice invoked his right under Argentine law to refuse to appear in open court to testify about the allegations. When he eventually did testify in 2010, human rights activists characterized his answers as evasive.

AMY GOODMAN: Horacio Verbitsky joins us on the phone now from his home in Buenos Aires, an investigative journalist for the newspaper Página/12Page/12, it’s called in English. He is also head of the Center for Legal and Social Studies, an Argentine human rights organization.

We welcome you to Democracy Now! I wanted to just begin by you laying out for us what you believe is important to understand about the new pope, Pope Francis.

HORACIO VERBITSKY: The main thing to understand about Francis I is that he’s a conservative populist, in the same style that John Paul II was. He’s a man of strong conservative positions in doctrine questions, but with a touch for popular taste. He preaches in rail stations, in the streets. He goes to the quarters, the poor quarters of the city to pray. He doesn’t wait the people going into the church; he goes for them. But his message is absolutely conservative. He was opposed to abortion, to the egalitarian matrimony law. He launched a crusade against the evil when Congress was passing this law, and in the very same style that John Paul II. This is what I consider the main feature on the new pope.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, now, Horacio Verbitsky, that would be true of many of the cardinals elevated during the period of John Paul and now also of Benedict XVI, this basic conservatism. But in the case of Bergoglio, there’s also the issue, as you have documented and many—and several other journalists in Argentina, of his particular role or accusations about his involvement in the dirty wars in Argentina. Could you talk about that and some of the things that—because you’ve been a leading investigative reporter uncovering the relations between the church and the government in terms of the dirty wars?

HORACIO VERBITSKY: Of course. He was accused by two Jesuit priests of having surrendered them to the military. They were a group of Jesuits that were under Bergoglio’s direction. He was the provincial superior of the order in Argentina, being very, very young. He was the younger provincial Jesuit in history; at 36 years, he was provincial. During a period of great political activity in the Jesuits’ company, he stimulated the social work of the Jesuits. But when the military coup overthrow the Isabel Perón government, he was in touch with the military that ousted this government and asked the Jesuits to stop their social work. And when they refused to do it, he stopped protecting them, and he let the military know that they were not more inside the protection of the Jesuits’ company, and they were kidnapped. And they accuse him for this deed. He denies this. He said to me that he tried to get them free, that he talked with the former dictator, Videla, and with former dictator Massera to have them freed.

And during a long period, I heard two versions: the version of the two kidnapped priests that were released after six months of torture and captivity, and the version of Bergoglio. This was an issue divisive in the human rights movement to which I belong, because the president founding of CELS, Center for Legal and Social Studies, Emilio Mignone, said that Bergoglio was a accomplice of the military, and a lawyer of the CELS, Alicia Oliveira, that was a friend of Bergoglio, tell the other part of the story, that Bergoglio helped them. This was the two—the two versions.

But during the research for one of my books, I found documents in the archive of the foreign relations minister in Argentina, which, from my understanding, gave an end to the debate and show the double standard that Bergoglio used. The first document is a note in which Bergoglio asked the ministry to—the renewal of the passport of one of these two Jesuits that, after his releasing, was living in Germany, asking that the passport was renewed without necessity of this priest coming back to Argentina. The second document is a note from the officer that received the petition recommending to his superior, the minister, the refusal of the renewal of the passport. And the third document is a note from the same officer telling that these priests have links with subversion—that was the name that the military gave to all the people involved in opposition to the government, political or armed opposition to the military—and that he was jailed in the mechanics school of the navy, and saying that this information was provided to the officer by Father Jorge Mario Bergoglio, provincial superior of the Jesuit company. This means, to my understanding, a double standard. He asked the passport given to the priest in a formal note with his signature, but under the table he said the opposite and repeated the accusations that produced the kidnapping of these priests.

AMY GOODMAN: And these priests—can you explain, Horacio, what happened to these two priests, Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics?

HORACIO VERBITSKY: Yes. Orlando, after his releasing, went to Rome.

AMY GOODMAN: How were they found?

HORACIO VERBITSKY: Sorry?

AMY GOODMAN: How were they found? In what condition were they? What had happened to them?

HORACIO VERBITSKY: Well, he was released—both of them were released, drugged, confused, transported by helicopter to—in the outskirts of Buenos Aires, were abandoned, asleep by drugs, in very bad condition. They were tortured. They were interrogated. One of the interrogators had externally knowings about theological questions, that induced one of them, Orlando Yorio, to think that their own provincial, Bergoglio, had been involved in this interrogatory.

AMY GOODMAN: He said that—he said that Bergoglio himself had been part of the—his own interrogation, this Jesuit priest?

HORACIO VERBITSKY: He told me that he had the impression their own provincial, Bergoglio, was present during the interrogatory, which one of the interrogators had externally knowledge of theological questions. And when released, he went to Rome. He lived seven years in Rome, then come back to Argentina. And when coming back to Argentina, he was incardinated in the Quilmes diocesis in Great Buenos Aires, where the bishop was one of the leaders of the progressive branch of the Argentine church opposite to that of Bergoglio. And Orlando Yorio denounced Bergoglio. I received his testimony when Bergoglio was elected to the archbishop of Buenos Aires. And Bergoglio—I interviewed Bergoglio also, and he denied the charges, and he told me that he had defended them.

And Orlando Yorio got me in touch with Francisco Jalics, that was living in Germany. I talked with him, and he confirmed the story, but he didn’t want to be mentioned in my piece, because he told me that he preferred to not remember this sad part of his life and to pardon. And he was for oblivion and pardon. That he was, during a lot of years, very resented against Bergoglio, but that he had decided to forgot and forget. And when I released the book with the story, one Argentine journalist working for a national agency, [inaudible], who has been a disciple of Jalics, talked with him and asked him for the story. And Jalics told him that he would not affirm, not deny the story.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Horacio—Horacio Verbitsky, I’d like to ask you about another priest who was involved in the dirty wars, Christian von Wernich, who was a former chaplain of the police department in Argentina and also later was convicted of being involved—

HORACIO VERBITSKY: He was convicted—he was convicted, and he’s in jail, in a common jail, but the Argentine church, during the tenure of Bergoglio, hasn’t punished him, in canonical terms. He was convicted by the human justice, but by the church standards, he’s always a priest. And this tells something about Bergoglio and the Argentine church also.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And von Wernich was involved in murders, tortures and kidnappings. Could you detail some of the crimes that he was convicted of committing?

HORACIO VERBITSKY: Bergoglio involved in the crimes of von Wernich?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: No, no, von Wernich. Von Wernich, I said.

HORACIO VERBITSKY: Oh, von Wernich was part—was active part in torture and killings, and he was convicted not as an accomplice, but as a participant in the crimes. He was present during the torture sessions, von Wernich. And there is not the just one chaplain; there are some others that are under trial in this moment. Chaplain Regueiro is under house arrest because he’s an older man. A Chaplain Zitelli in Santa Fe province, for being present during torture sessions. So, there are a lot of them that were part of the dirty war.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to read, Horacio, a part of a State Department cable released by WikiLeaks that references, well, the Roman Catholic priest Christian von Wernich, who you were just talking about, convicted in 2007 of being an accomplice in several cases of murder, torture and illegal imprisonment in Argentina during the military dictatorship. It notes the conviction came, quote, "at a time when some observers consider Roman Catholic primate Cardinal Bergoglio to be a leader of the opposition to the Kirchner administration because of his comments about social issues, the Von Wernich case could also have the effect, some believe, of undermining the Church’s (and, by extension, Cardinal Bergoglio’s) moral authority or capacity to comment on political, social or economic questions," unquote. That was a State Department cable that was released by WikiLeaks. Horacio, could you respond?

HORACIO VERBITSKY: We can go attack this paper by parts. First of all, the State Department considered that Bergoglio was the chief of the position to the Kirchner government. And I agree with this statement. The State Department tells also that the conviction of Father von Wernich can be directed to undermine Bergoglio’s position. This is not true, to my understanding. The conviction of Father von Wernich is a consequence of a trial that started much before the Kirchners arriving to power and has its own judicial logic and not a political timetable.

AMY GOODMAN: Horacio, are you still there?

HORACIO VERBITSKY: Sorry?

AMY GOODMAN: Ah, let me ask you a question. We thought we lost you for a minute. We’re talking to Horacio Verbitsky, a leading Argentine investigative journalist, well known for his human rights investigations. I wanted to ask you about this issue of hiding political prisoners when a human rights delegation came to Argentina. Can you tell us when this was, what are the allegations, and what was the role, if any, of Bergoglio, now Pope Francis?

HORACIO VERBITSKY: No, in this episode, Bergoglio has no intervention. The intervention was from the cardinal that in that time was the chief of the church in Buenos Aires. That is the position that Bergoglio has in the present. But in that time, he was not archbishop of Buenos Aires. When the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights came into Argentina to investigate allegations of human rights violations, the navy took 60 prisoners out of ESMA and got them to a village that was used by the Cardinal Aramburu to his weekends. And in this weekend property were also the celebration each year of the new seminarians that ended their studies. In this villa in the outskirts of Buenos Aires were the prisoners during the visit of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. And when the commission visited ESMA, they did not find the prisoners that were supposed to be there, because they were—

AMY GOODMAN: ESMA being—ESMA being the naval barracks were so many thousands of Argentines were held. So where were they?

HORACIO VERBITSKY: Yes, but Bergoglio has no intervention in this—in this fact. Indeed, he helped me to investigate a case. He gave me the precise information about in which tribunal was the document demonstrating that this villa was owned by the church.

AMY GOODMAN: He said that they were hidden in a villa that was owned by the Catholic Church?

HORACIO VERBITSKY: Yes. And the prisoners were held in a weekend house that was the weekend house of the cardinal archbishop of Buenos Aires in that time. And Bergoglio gave me the precise information about the tribunal in which were the documents affirming this relationship between this property and the archbishop of Buenos Aires.

AMY GOODMAN: We have to break, and then we’re going to come back to Horacio Verbitsky, as well as our guest in studio named Ernesto Semán, who is a historian at New York University, former reporter for the Argentine newspaper, both the same as Horacio’s newspaper, Página/12, andClarín, where he reported on politics and human rights, as well as, well, Father Bergoglio, now Pope Francis. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute. 

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