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In the Time of the Jackboot Popes


The two popes have a jackboot pedigree. Benedict was a member of the Hitler Youth and Francis faces serious questions over support for the Argentine junta. With an average age of 72 the cardinals in conclave, half of them selected by Benedict, were never going to go for a “modern pontiff”.

As one of the world’s wealthiest organizations, the Catholic church’s boardroom does not do happy clappy, touchy feely. Take away those cardinals tainted by sex abuse scandals, those whose ideology tends towards liberation theolgy, (an ever decreasing circle), the infirm (physicaly and mentally) and those from what was once called the Third World (still viewed with a degree of suspicion in the Vatican) and the choice is rather limited. Francis may be from South America, but the Europeans, still the driving force at the conclave, feel comfortable with him.

But one simple question needs to be addressed. Does Mario Bergoglio, Pope Francis, have blood on his hands?

It is far from clear that he doesn’t.

Walking the streets of Buenos Aires it is not uncommon to come across plaques inlaid into the pavements commemorating a short life. Neighborhood committees have remembered those who fell to the junta (1976-83) in a way that shames the church’s acquiescence to the generals.

Bergoglio twice refused to appear in court to answer questions about his role in the ‘Dirty War’. His replies to questions when he did appear in 2010 were evasive, especially over the issue of stolen babies, a subject which continues to haunt Argentina.

What did the pope know and when did he know it?

The junta grabbed power in March, 1976, but only after its leading figures met members of the church heirarchy for their blessing. At first the church denied the meetings took place but now acknowldege they did.

For the following seven years, the Catholic church in Argentina, and the new pope, were largely silent. Some excpetionally brave priests and nuns took a stand for justice and opposed the junta but these were few in number and shunned by their religious superiors.

Students, trade unionists, journalists were targeted. Their drugged bodies dumped from military planes above the choppy South Atlantic. The women were often raped.

“We have much to be sorry for,” Father Ruben Captianio told the New York Times in 2007. “The attitude of the church was scandalously close to the dictatorship to such an extent that I would say it was of a sinful degree.”

The mothers of the Plaza de Mayo were rarely accompanied by members of the church during their dignfiied and brave protest against the junta.

This was not just a small war in a far-away  country of which most of the world knew little.  As many as 30,000 people were killed or disappeared during this period, and many children and babies were abducted from parents imprisoned in concentration camps or murdered by the regime.

Bergoglio led the Argentine Jesuits from 1973-79. He was a leading member of the church when the militray sought its approval for a coup

The most famous “missing baby” is the congresswoman Victoria Donda. Her parents were killed after her mother, who had been kidnapped, gave birth in military custody in Aug 1977. “It is important to remember that this was not a civil war,” Donda told me when we met in 2009.

“The term implies two roughly equal sides. The ‘Dirty War’ was state terror. The military had a social and economic plan to impose and that’s why they targeted the political opposition.” But Donda said there is no chance of such a regime returning in Argentina. “People are more aware of their rights today than before. But we must teach our children about what happened. It is  important not to forget.”

At the very least, Bergoglio did not bear witness to the suffering of his people. He has a powerful pulpit from which to make amends. But all indications are that he will opt to forget just what occurred in his country in those seven years.

Tom Clifford worked as a freelance journalist in Argentina in 2009 and interviewed many of the surviors of the Dirty War including Victoria Donda.

Tom Clifford is a freelance journalist and can be reached at:

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