The world is still learning much about the life and history of Pope Francis, and now the Vatican finds itself having to directly confront the most troubling story from his early life in Argentina. On Friday, the Catholic Church was forced to deny charges that then-Cardinal Bergoglio was complicit in the state-sponsored terrorism during Argentina's "Dirty War" of the 1970s and early 1980s. The Vatican spokesperson said "There has never been a credible, concrete accusation against him," and the charges "reveal anti-clerical left-wing elements that are used to attack the Church."
Bergoglio was still a young priest when the a military junta took over the country in 1967 and began a vicious campaign of terror and murder in attempts to crush an underground rebellion. The period is called the Dirty War, because rather than battles fought in the open, the military dictatorship relied on kidnappings, terror, and other brutal tactics to clamp down on revolutionaries. (Although there were certainly accusations of atrocities on both sides.) Tens of thousands of Argentine citizens were "disappeared"—kidnapped off the streets or from their homes, and often tortured or thrown in prison, before being killed outright. There were even instances of victims being thrown from moving airplanes into the ocean, while still alive. Simply being suspected of having sympathy for the other side was enough to condemn you.
As the largest societal organization in Argentina, the Catholic Church played a difficult role in the conflict and there has been much debate about its failure to protect the weakest of society. While many priests and nuns were involved in the left-wing movement (and were targeted for reprisals because it), many people have accused the Church's leaders of not only failing to stand up to the junta, but of even being actively complicit in its crimes.
For Bergoglio, the charges are quite personal. Two Jesuit priests who were kidnapped and tortured by the regime in 1976, claim that then-Father Bergoglio—who at the time was the leader of the Jesuit order in Argentina—was complicit in their abduction. According to a book written about the era, Bergoglio "withdrew his order's protection" for them, because they refused to his request to stop visiting the Buenos Aries slums. That loss of the Church's shield allowed for them to be captured by the regime, where they were held for five months.
Those accusations are not new, but obviously resufraced this week after Cardinal Bergoglio became Pope Frances. He has stated on more than one occasion that the charges are not true. Not only that, he claims the he personally pleaded to the priests' release. He also claims that as a young Father he shielded many potential victims of the junta and "did what I could, given my age and my limited contacts, to plead on behalf of those who had been seized." Because of a lawsuit filed several years ago, Bergoglio was called upon to formally testify about these events in 2010.
After becoming Archbishop in 1998, Bergoglio also pushed for reconciliation, issuing apologies for the Church's failings and ordering penance for its members. One of the priests involved in the kidnapping reportedly even reconciled with Bergoglio, shortly before he died.
The problem with any "dirty war" is that the full truth of what happened in those awful days will never fully be known. Even those who lived through it can never escape the distrust and terror that war against your neighbors creates. There are plenty of people both inside and outside of the Church who have defended Bergoglio's record, just as there are some Argentines who will never forgive him or the Church for what happened to them. All we know know is that Father Bergoglio is now Pope Francis, and both he and the Catholic Church will always have to live with their past.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.