Pope Francis and the Argentina’s military junta

By Betty Clermont | 30 December 2023
The Open Tabernacle

(Photo: Catholic Church England and Wales / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The Dirty War (1976-1983) shocked the conscience of the world. In the aftermath of a military coup, the junta was “brutal, sadistic, and rapacious,” wrote Marguerite Feitlowitz in her book, A Lexicon of Terror: Argentina and the Legacies of Torture. “Tanks roaring over farmlands, pregnant women tortured, 30,000 individuals ‘disappeared.’”

There was a “vast scale of atrocities committed … child murders, random abductions, concentration camps, mass executions, and a harrowing array of other daily war crimes,” stated Feitlowitz.

“The targets were social workers, social work students, militants, trade unionists, writers, journalists, artists and anyone suspected to be a left-wing activist,” wrote Nigel Hall, Human Rights Commissioner for the International Federation of Social Workers. “Many people, both opponents of the government as well as innocent people, were ‘disappeared’ in the middle of the night. They were taken to secret government detention centers where they were tortured and eventually killed.”

The Catholic Church was complicit with the junta. “On the eve of the March 24, 1976, coup, military leaders Jorge Videla and Ramón Agosti visited with the Archbishop of Paraná, Adolfo Tortolo, and Monsignor Victorio Bonamín. Tortolo reported, ‘General Videla adheres to the principles and morals of Christian conduct. As a military leader he is first class, as a Catholic he is extraordinarily sincere and loyal to his faith.’ Tortolo also said that when confronting subversion, the military should take on ‘hard and violent measures,’” reported Horacio Verbitsky in his book, El Silencio: De Paulo VI a Bergoglio. Las Relaciones Secretas De La Iglesia Con La Esma (The Silence: From Paul VI to Bergoglio: The Secret Relations Between the Church and the ESMA).

Marine captain Adolfo Scilingo, who led the ‘vuelos de muerte’ or death flights, was sentenced to 645 years in prison by a Spanish court. He told Verbitsky that “the Catholic hierarchy approved drugging dissidents and dropping them from planes into the Atlantic Ocean as a Christian form of death. When Scilingo felt anguished after directing these death flights, he would seek counseling from military chaplains at the ESMA.”

ESMA was the acronym for Escuela Superior de Mecánica de la Armada (Navy Petty-Officers School of Mechanics). Raúl David Vilarino, a junior Navy officer, described what he saw in ESMA, located in the heart of Buenos Aires, the largest of Argentina’s more than 520 clandestine detention centers. “The torture chamber had electric prods, the iron wirework of a bed connected to an outlet of 220 volts, an electrode of 0 to 70 volts, chairs, presses, pointed or cutting instruments, bicycle tires filled with sand that could be used to give blows without leaving a mark and everything imaginable that could be used for torture…With pregnant women they introduced a small spoon or some other metal instrument until it touched the fetus. Then they gave the woman an electric shock of 220 volts. In a word, they electrocuted the fetus…Women especially [sufferd] burning with cigarette stubs, pulling or pinching the skin, beatings. Every kind of sexual abuse and torture, rapes, and the technique especially designed for pregnant women described above….”

Vilarino assigned the greatest responsibility to Admiral Emilio Massera, commander-in-chief of the Navy.

A compliant man

While Fr. Jorge Mario Bergoglio was the Jesuit provincial of Argentina – ordained in 1969 and provincial from 1973 to 1979 – the Jesuit Universidad del Salvador in Buenos Aires awarded an honorary doctorate to Massera on November 25, 1977. It was “inexcusable” for Bergoglio to honor Massera, head of ESMA, “where thousands of young Argentines were tortured and murdered in a reproduction of Auschwitz,” Roberto Pizarro, Dean of the Faculty of Economics of the University of Chile wrote. For Bergoglio to have “cultivated a relationship” with Massera is a “stain” on his record for which “Argentines, the Jesuits and the two hundred billion Catholic in the world deserve an explanation,” stated Pizarro.

“Around 1974, ’75, ’76, many Jesuits and other kinds of priests started abandoning the great congregations to go live in the poor neighborhoods called misery villas,” explained Fr. Eduardo de la Serna, coordinator of Priests for the Option for the Poor. “Bergoglio was adamantly opposed to that. He became the main detractor of that movement of priests,” said de la Serna.

The part Bergoglio played in the abduction of his Jesuit priests, Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalic, from a “misery villa” was first described by Emilio Mignone, “the most prestigious Catholic human rights advocate,” in his book, Iglesia y dictadura (Church and the Dictatorship 1986). The military “did the dirty work of cleaning up the inside of the Church” wrote Mignone. “Priests, nuns and other workers considered to be ‘leftist’ because they ‘denounced the junta’ or just by working with the poor – thereby considered as troublemakers and undesirable by their bishops – were ‘disappeared.’”

On May 14, 1976, seven youths who were doing social work in a “misery villa” or shantytown were kidnapped by Navy commandos. One of those kidnapped was Monica Maria Candelaria Mignone, Emilio Mignone’s daughter. All were taken to ESMA. None of the seven were ever seen again. Mignone’s book is based on ten years of an all-consuming investigation into his daughter’s disappearance.

The kidnapped youths had been working along with the Jesuit priests Orlando Yorio and Francsco Jalics. A week later, Yorio, Jalics and more social workers were abducted. Mignone wrote that Bergoglio, as Jesuit provincial, had criticized Yorio and Jalics. “These attacks served in part as a basis, according to Mignone, for the arrest, imprisonment and torture of the Jesuit priests between May and October 1976, when they were released.” reported Miguel Angel Villena.

Verbitsky agreed. “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,” he wrote in The Silence: From Paul VI to Bergoglio: The Secret Links Between the Church and the Navy Mechanics School.

After being taken to ESMA, “Yorio and Jalics were blindfolded, shackled, drugged, and threatened with electrocution …. They were freed five months later, in late October 1976, after being drugged and abandoned in an open field,” reported Sam Ferguson, a visiting fellow at the Schell Center for International Human Rights at Yale Law School and a former Fulbright Scholar.

“Mignone refers to the lukewarm or complicit attitude of prelates like Bergoglio when he wrote: ‘What will history say of these shepherds who delivered their sheep to the enemy without defending them or rescuing them,’” Ferguson wrote.

Jorge Mario Bergoglio, born in 1936 and after graduating college as a chemical technician, entered the novitiate of the Society of Jesus. He made his perpetual vows in 1973 and was appointed provincial, or superior, of all Argentine Jesuits that same year, a remarkable achievement. “The previous provincial had moved swiftly to initiate Vatican II-inspired [liberal] reforms, and some vocal discontented Jesuits succeeded in having him removed.”

While Bergoglio was provincial, the Jesuit publications were “full of articles  against liberation theology.”

The superior general of the Jesuits, Fr. Pedro Arrupe, issued a decree in 1975 which “redefined the work of the Jesuits as supporting social justice.” “Arrupe was very conscious of the fact that this decree would cause endless grief to Jesuits working in Latin America at this time when fascist dictatorships prevailed in the Southern cone and in Central America … This [decree] led the Jesuits, especially in Latin America, to work in practical ways with the poor.” “As a result, more Jesuits were persecuted, tortured and forcibly disappeared in Latin America in the 1970s than priests from any other order.”

Michael Campbell-Johnston, provincial of the British Jesuits, had spent many years in El Salvador. He was assigned to make a critical visit to Argentina where there were internal Jesuit tensions about how to respond to the Dirty War. Campbell-Johnston recounts how he met with Fr. Bergoglio in 1977. “At the time,” Fr. Campbell-Johnston said, “there were an estimated 6,000 political prisoners in Argentina and another 20,000 desaparecidos, people who had been ‘disappeared.’ In some countries, the Jesuit social institutes were forced to act underground and in secrecy,” he wrote. But “our institute in Buenos Aires was able to function freely because it never criticized or opposed the government. As a result, there were justice issues it could not address or even mention.”

“This was the topic I remembered discussing at length with Fr. Bergoglio. He naturally defended the existing situation, though I tried to show him how it was out of step with our other social institutes on the continent. Our discussion was lengthy [but] we never reached an agreement,” Campbell-Johnston wrote.

Arrupe removed Bergoglio as provincial in 1979. When Arrupe suffered a debilitating stroke in 1981 (some attributed this to Wojtyla’s persecution of the Jesuits), he was forced to resign. “The purge of the Society of Jesus fairly converged with the elevation by John Paul II of Opus Dei to the rank of a ‘personal prelature,’” wrote Tad Szulc in his book, Pope John Paul II.

Pope John Paul II’s 1982 decree created a “personal prelature” as an official structure of the Church for Opus Dei alone. An entirely new creation, its members no longer had to be obedient to any bishop. To this day, Opus Dei is the only organization ever granted such an exemption in the history of the Church.

The thirteen years after his dismissal as provincial is “a vacuum in Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s biography,” wrote Vatican reporter Andrea Gagliarducci. “The Province of the Company of Jesus exiled him to Germany. Arrupe was one of the strongest adversaries of Bergoglio within the Jesuits,” Gagliarducci stated. “His [later] exile in the peripheral Jesuit residence of Córdoba as a simple spiritual director” was part of his “subsequent marginalization” noted another veteran Vatican reporter, Sandro Magister.

Continue reading here.

Reprinted with permission from the author.

Betty Clermont is author of The Neo-Catholics: Implementing Christian Nationalism in America (Clarity Press, 2009).

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