Bergoglio & the Dirty War

Virtually everyone in Latin America (and North America as well) had every reason to be thrilled with the election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio, SJ, cardinal archbishop of Buenos Aires, to the papacy. Still, there were some who have raised questions based on their views of what Bergoglio, as Jesuit provincial, did or did not do during Argentina’s guerra sucia. The main sources for Bergoglio’s critics are articles published in the Buenos Aires paper Página 12 by veteran journalist Horacio Verbitsky concerning the abduction of two Jesuit activists, Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics.

The era of the “dirty war” extended from the time of the military coup of 1976 to the junta’s end in 1983. The first years were the worst, and 1976 is remembered as an annus horribilis, beginning with the Videla military coup on March 24. In that one year, Monica Mignone, daughter of famed human rights lawyer Emilio Mignone, was abducted from her family’s home on May 14 and never seen again. Three Pallottine priests and two seminarians were murdered in the rectory of the San Patricio parish on Sunday, July 4. Bishop Enrique Angelleli of La Rioja was killed when his automobile was forced off the road on August 4. That same month American La Salette missionary Fr. James Weeks was arrested and tortured but released through the intervention of the U.S. ambassador. The following month, Irish national Fr. Patrick Rice of the Little Brothers of the Gospel was similarly arrested, tortured, and released through his government’s intercession.

During that period, according to Emilio Mignone’s Witness to the Truth: The Complicity of Church and Dictatorship in Argentina, some sixteen priests were murdered or disappeared, nine of them in 1976 alone. And on May 23, the two Jesuits, Francisco Jalics and Orlando Yorio, residents of the Bajo Flores shantytown, were arrested. Five months later, they showed up, drugged and beaten, in a swamp, apparently deposited there from a helicopter.

Convinced that their superior, Fr. Jorge Mario Bergoglio, had not only not gone to bat for them but may even have facilitated their arrest, Yorio left the Jesuits and incardinated in Argentina’s diocese of Viedma. He has since died. Jalics, a Hungarian, left Argentina to join his fellow Jesuits in Germany. In 2000 he and then-Cardinal Bergoglio met, celebrated Mass together, and proclaimed their reconciliation. In a statement posted to a German Jesuit website on March 20, Jalics said that it is "wrong to claim that our capture was initiated by Fr. Bergoglio." 

It is the brother and sister of the late Fr. Yorio who seem determined to revisit the question of Bergoglio’s alleged complicity in the kidnappings, with Verbitsky as chronicler. The strongest charge is Verbitsky’s curious account of what he takes to be Bergoglio’s “betrayal” of his fellow Jesuits. In his book The Silence, Verbitsky writes, “Bergoglio withdrew his order’s protection of the two men after they refused to quit visiting the slums, which ultimately paved the way for their capture.”

“Visiting the slums” was what Bergoglio himself later became famous for as archbishop, with fellow Argentines coming to dub him their papa villero, their slum pope. The two Jesuits were doing more than just visiting—they were involved in activities that, from the Junta’s point of view, were clearly subversive. Bergoglio says he warned them that they were risking arrest, if not worse, and urged them to be more prudent. According to an AP report, “Bergoglio has said he told the priests to give up their slum work for their own safety, and they refused.” And they were kidnapped—or, if you prefer, extrajudicially arrested.

What now seems clear is that both men were freed after Bergoglio took measures to protect them. On one occasion he persuaded Videla’s personal chaplain to call in sick so Bergoglio could say Mass in the president’s home, where he pleaded for the two priests, most likely saving their lives.

It’s known as well that Bergoglio regularly hid people on church property and once gave his personal ID to a man with similar features, allowing him to slip across the border.

Verbitsky’s telling seems to imagine some great power held by the Jesuits in that country. What has been too little noted in all the furor since Bergoglio’s election as pope is the relative impotence of the religious communities in Argentina during the dirty war, as compared with the vastly superior influence of the country’s ultra-conservative bishops. Mignone’s book names no fewer than twenty-five bishops and two cardinals whom he considers indifferent, if not hostile, to concerns for human rights. There are even bishops he terms "integrist." The "good" bishops he numbers at seven or eight. In that climate, the relatively young Jesuit provincial had his work cut out for him.

And although Mignone doesn’t say so, Bergoglio, Angelleli and other churchmen were fortunate to have as papal nuncio Archbishop Pio Laghi (1974-80), later nuncio to the United States. It was to Laghi’s office, not to that of the archbishop or of the bishops’ conference, that loved ones of the disappeared turned for information and help. (See “Tennis with Tyrants,” Commonweal, May 20, 2011.)

Bergoglio’s essential responsibility as provincial of the Jesuits, given the dramatic context of a murderous regime and bands of hardly nonviolent “subversives,” was to protect his men. When some of them courted confrontation with the regime, we have every reason to believe he did what he could to rein them in. With Jalics and Yorio he tried, failed, but finally succeeded in saving them. 

About the Author

Tom Quigley is a former policy advisor on Latin American, Asian, and Caribbean issues to the U.S. Catholic bishops.



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Each article adds something or fills in more detail, for which I am grateful.

"It is the brother and sister of the late Fr. Yorio who seem determined to revisit the question of Bergoglio’s alleged complicity in the kidnappings, with Verbitsky as chronicler." An update on Horatio Verbitsky, a former member of the Montonero guerilla group, in today's Wall St. Journal:





Argentine president Kirchner’s “government is now pressuring merchants, under threat of reprisals, not to buy advertising in newspapers. The only newspapers that aren't on track to be financially ruined by this intimidation are those that the government controls and finances through official advertising, like Mr. Verbitsky's Pagina 12. Argentines refer to the paper as "the official gazette" because it so reliably prints the government's line."

More on Bergoglio's record from credible sources:


"Intellectually honest observers with firsthand knowledge of Argentina under military rule (1976-1983) are telling a much different story than the one pushed by Mr. Verbitsky and his ilk. One of those observers is Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, winner of the 1980 Nobel Peace Prize. Last week he told BBC Mundo that "there were bishops that were complicit with the dictatorship, but Bergoglio, no." As to the charge that the priest didn't do enough to free junta prisoners, Mr. Pérez Esquivel said: "I know personally that many bishops who asked the military government for the liberation of prisoners and priests and it was not granted."

Former Judge Alicia Oliveira, who was herself fired by the military government and forced into hiding to avoid arrest, told the Argentine newspaper Perfil last week that during those dark days she knew Father Bergoglio well and that "he helped many people get out of the country." In one case, she says there was a young man on the run who happened to look like the Jesuit. "He gave him his identification card and his [clergy attire] so that he could escape."

Ms. Oliveira also told Perfil that when she was in hiding at the home of the current minister of security, Nilda Garré, the two of them "ate with Bergoglio." As Ms. Oliveira pointed out, Ms. Garré "therefore knows all that he did."

Graciela Fernández Meijide, a human-rights activist and former member of the national commission on the disappearance of persons, told the Argentine press last week that "of all the testimony I received, never did I receive any testimony that Bergoglio was connected to the dictatorship."



Bill, My years in social justice work in Latin American (Nicaragua and Guatemala) and in Haiti since 2004, has made clear the real role of Catholic Church leaders.  Not just the collusion of the Church as in the Duvalier years.  Not just the specific criminal activity of notorious churchmen.  But I'm talking about the conservative approach to social justice with the result that the murderous atrocities of the dictatorships happened with relative impunity.  People like Brother Bergoglio may not have been complicit with atrocities, and he may well have clandestinely supported saving lives of those targeted.  However, with the conservativism of Brothers Wojtala and Ratzinger that wasn't just advisory but a total wipeout of "liberation theology", the valid work of supporting the poor in helping themselves was done in. You know the horrors wrought by the School of Americas.  Instead of Brother Bergoglio trying to "protect" his two Jesuits by removing them from their work, he could just as well have supported them and that would have had a salvific effect in itself.  But if he had gone further to "be with the poor" by promoting programs--non-violent--for equalizing the income gap, he would have protected the poor even more.  Sure he might have been "martyred" early on.  Brother Reese's excuse for Brother Bergoglio's avoiding assassination because not everyone is called to be a martyr doesn't seem to fit the picture of his sanctity rep for Franciscan poverty.  It seems clear he was convinced of his conservative views not to challenge the "authorities" as Brother Wojtala ordered Brother Romero to do.  

If you focus on the poor, that's one thing.  But if you are helping them to fight inequality, threatening the wealthy, then you are really being with the poor.  Sure, the extreme right will yell Marxism/Communism, death to them!  But couldn't he have been just as vociferous about the non-violence of his priests and other "liberation" folks as he has been about the evil of gay people?   I found his "war" against gay marriage, using extreme rightist slogans against President Fernandez de Kirchner like "demagogue" right in line with a conservative mentality.  So he is entitled to his own approach to ridding the world of poverty, but, please give us room for other approaches rather than excommunicating all of us.

OOPS!  I mistakenly thought this article was by Bill Quigley, long time fighter for justice through the School of Americas Watch (SOAW) and everywhere else.  Sorry, Bill.  I don't know Tom Quigley.

I appreciate this article very much. I have excerpted and added it as an update to a running blog post I have on the story.



See my related comments on the Commonweal editorial "After Benedict” at

Your further attention is called to Daniel Henninger’s March 21, 2013, opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal.  See “Francis, Man of the World,” at

Noteworthy is Henninger's closing paragraph, "The new pope, famously humble, radiates human warmth. Note well, however, that what Karol Wojtyla and Jorge Bergoglio held in common before the papacy was experience with hostile governments. Give Francis space to get his bearings. The world in time will discover an astute political participant."

Check out this article that points out that the accuser, Verbitsky was at least complicit himself in the dirty war.

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