The conclave to elect the new Pope was an opportunity for the Catholic Church’s all-male college of cardinals to choose someone who would lead the Church into the 21st century. Again, they flubbed the opportunity, as they did when they elevated Joseph Ratzinger to his role as Pope Benedict XVI eight years ago.
The new Pope, formerly Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, is, many say, an unreconstructed bigot when it comes to homosexuality. Gay marriage is, he thinks, a work of the devil, and he even opposes adoption of children by gays as against God’s law. Equally medieval is his opposition to contraception, a position highlighted by his celebrated clash with Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner when she distributed free contraceptives to poor communities. Tough luck for poor Catholic families who want to practice family planning and for the campaign against HIV-AIDS.
What about his stand on predatory priests who abuse children? According to a Washington Post report, the U.S.-based Bishop Accountability group revealed that a convicted pedophile Fr. Julio Cesar Grassi remains free, “thanks partly to a court filing on his behalf by the Argentine church, which was headed by Bergoglio as archbishop of Buenos Aires.”
While he was not involved in a cover-up of sex offenders in the clergy, neither did he take the initiative in fighting clerical pedophilia. Again the Post:
“During most of the 14 years that Bergoglio served as archbishop of Buenos Aires, rights advocates say, he did not take decisive action to protect children or act swiftly when molestation charges surfaced; nor did he extend apologies to the victims of abusive priests after their misconduct came to light…’ He has been totally silent,’ said Ernesto Moreau, a member of Argentina’s UN-affiliated Permanent Assembly for Human Rights and a lawyer who has represented victims in a clergy sexual-abuse case. Victims asked to meet with Bergoglio but were turned down, Moreau said. ‘In that regard, Bergoglio was no different from most of the other bishops in Argentina, or the Vatican itself.’”
But perhaps the most glaring evidence that calls into question Bergoglio’s qualifications to be Pope is his record on human rights during the notorious “Dirty War” that the Argentine military junta waged against the political dissenters from 1976-81. The case that many say speaks volumes about Bergoglio’s character centers on two Jesuits who worked with poor communities: Orlando Yorio and Francsco Jalics. According to reports, the two were kidnapped and tortured after being expelled from the order by Bergoglio, then local head of the Jesuits.
A poignant account of how the two were sacrificed to the military was provided by Graciela Yorio, sister of Orlando in an interview that appeared in The Real News Network:
“My brother was kidnapped along with Francisco Jalics on May 23, 1976. He was then a Jesuit working on a very poor settlement–we call those emergency villas. His regional leader, who is now the Pope, had authorized that work. At some point after the work was underway, Bergoglio tells them to stop working, because dictatorship was approaching and any work with the poor was seen as ‘subversive.’ He expels them from the congregation, asking them to leave, and suggests them to go to other congregations to find shelter and maybe work as priests there. At the same time, he writes bad reports about them and he sends them to the bishops. So while he tells my brother and Francisco Jalics to go look for shelter at those convents, he asks the bishops not to receive them. That is why we say (Bergoglio) did not protect them. It was precisely at that time that they were kidnapped by the armed forces. They are then taken to the Army School of Mechanics, a place of torture, kidnap, and death. There they were interrogated, naked, with their heads covered and chained all the time.”
Some accounts claim that Bergoglio actively denounced the two priests to the military. Others deny this. But all seem to agree on one point: the two priests were left unprotected by Bergoglio.
Some Argentine bishops supported and connived with the dictatorship of Gen. Jorge Rafael Videla, whose crimes included throwing suspected leftists from airplanes into the South Atlantic, trafficking the babies of executed dissidents, and murdering some 30,000 people. I was in Washington, DC, at that time, working in cooperation with various human rights groups, and the reports we heard coming out of Argentina were much worse than the already awful atrocities perpetrated by Augusto Pinochet in Chile, Ferdinand Marcos, and Park Chung-Hee in Korea. Bergoglio is not accused of actively supporting that bloody regime. But, like most in the Argentine hierarchy, he was silent and did not move to protect people from their tormentors, as in the case of the two Jesuits. Perhaps the most judicious view of Bergoglio’s stance during that dark period is expressed by Argentine Nobel Prize laureate Adolfo Perez Esquivel: “Bergoglio was not part of the crimes, but he did not have the courage to fight with us.” Silence in the face of evil is complicity.
As some have observed, the silence of the Argentine Catholic hierarchy over atrocities that Bergoglio and others knew about recalls the silence of Pope Pius XII and the Vatican while the Holocaust was taking place in Europe during the Second World War. Unlike the Church in Chile and the Philippines during the Pinochet and Marcos regimes, Bergoglio and Pope Pius XII were tested, and they failed, miserably.
Moral failure is understandable. It may even be forgiven, as former Jesuit Francisco Jalics has forgiven Bergoglio. But to pick to head the Church someone who failed to respond to the cries of the tortured and the repressed, who failed to stand up when it mattered, is a major lapse in judgment. At a time that the Church needs someone with undoubted integrity and the vision to lead the Church into the 21st century, Cardinal Bergoglio is, to say the least, a very questionable choice.
One can only hope that as Pope, Francis will make a clean break with his tainted past and, indeed, prove to be a reformist leader. I seriously doubt it though.
INQUIRER.net columnist Walden Bello represents Akbayan (Citizens’ Action Party) in the House of Representatives.