New Pope Faces Old Accusations in Argentina's Dirty War

The controversy has dogged Pope Francis throughout his entire career.

March 16, 2013, 12:58 PM

BUENOS AIRES, March 16, 2013— -- The photographs in the battered leather suitcase are all Estela del la Cuadra has left. Gingerly, she lifts them from the suitcase and lays them face-up like playing cards, atop a faded hand-written letter.

Stabbing a finger at pictures on her kitchen table she says, "The junta abducted seven of my family members, you see six pictures here, but my sister Elena was five months pregnant at the time. They came into the house, took all of my possessions, my washing machine, even my son's bike."

Beneath the pictures, the letter in faded blue ink, features the remarkably neat script of Pope Francis, then Father Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who was head of the Jesuit order of Argentina.

The letter is one of several documents that de la Cuadra and other human rights activists say shows that Bergoglio, as head of the Jesuits, may have turned a blind eye to some atrocities, then later denied knowing about those atrocities despite his own testimony to the contrary and that ultimately as head of the catholic church in Argentina, he did little to open the church's archives to reveal the truth about its complicity.

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The testimony of Argentine war criminals in tribunals showed that catholic priests and chaplains played a central role in the torture and murder of dissidents by blessing torture chambers and absolving troops of their sins after they had thrown dozens of bound and drugged dissidents from a plane into the 50-mile-wide Rio de la Plata.

De La Cuadra's family were among thousands that were wiped out. The military junta that ruled this country from 1976 to 1983 allegedly "disappeared" up to 30,000 accused leftist dissidents. Many were tortured and then dropped from airplanes into the Rio de la Plata.

Desperate, the de la Cuadras had been told that the Jesuit order's leader in Buenos Aires might help them. Estela's sister, Elena, was five months pregnant when she, along with her husband were abducted in 1976. The man they were told to see was Father Jorge Mario Bergoglio.

When Estela's father went to Bergoglio, the future pope allegedly told them all he could do was write a reference letter to anther priest: "Excuse the disturbance but I am writing to you because I would like to introduce Mr. Roberto Luis de la Cuadra, with whom I've had a conversation. ... He will explain to you what this is about. I appreciate anything you are able to do."

That priest was known to have close ties to the junta.

Ana was one of hundreds of infants born to mothers abducted and shackled to beds. A few more than 100 of those children have been reconnected with their families. Most of the mothers, like Elena, were "disappeared."

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There were also allegations that Father Bergoglio knew where two of his Jesuit priests were held and tortured for five months by the junta, but did little to help them.

On Friday, Vatican Spokesman Father Federico Lombardi rejected those charges, calling them "slander," and saying that instead "there have been many declarations of how much he did for many people to protect them from the military dictatorship."

Pope Francis has never been implicated directly in any actions, but many in Argentina who support him, including 1980 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Adolfo Perez Esquivel, said that "he was not complicit in the dictatorship but he lacked courage to accompany us in our struggle."

The controversy has dogged Pope Francis throughout his entire career, and dominated the headlines of Argentine newspapers Saturday. One of the country's biggest dailies called it "Vati-denial" with a nod to the recent "Vati-leaks," controversy.

As late as 2010, in a case brought against the church, he was grilled by attorney Myriam Bregman about what he knew about the eradication of almost the entire de la Cuarda family, and baby Ana's unlawful adoption.

Another human-rights attorney, Luis Zamora, questioned then Cardinal Bergoglio about the existence of church records that among aspects could potentially help reunite missing children with their actual families.

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"Zamoro; Does any archive exist in the CEA (Episcopal Conference of Argentina)Bergoglio: I suppose yes, but I don't knowZamoro: is that archive under your jurisdictionBergoglio: The Central Archive of the CEA is under the jurisdiction of the CEAZamoro: And who presides over the CEA?Bergoglio: I do"

Bergoglio said he would possibly look into the records, but the Catholic Church has yet to hand over any documents about their role in the Dirty War.

In his testimony, later posted on an Argentine human rights website, Bergoglio said that when he learned of the kidnappings he "acted immediately," contacting the police and the armed forces in an effort to help the two priests. It was, he said, "a moment of desperation."

Thirty-five years later, de la Cuadra is asked whether she is angry at the new pope?

"Angry? I am indignant!" she said.

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She said her family only wanted the truth and that because of the Church's complicity, Argentines deserve the truth. She has demanded that Bergoglio open the church archives. She says that as the most powerful catholic in the land, he had the authority and the power to do so. But Bergoglio has said he would not open the archives.

Having told her story, Estela de la Cuadra seemed exhausted. The past two days had taken a toll. Her parents, who had championed the family's cause, had died years ago. She was tired, dark circles ringing her eyes. The family tragedy belonged to her alone now.

She began to carefully pack the documents and mementos back into that battered leather suitcase. We accompanied De La Cuadra, to a press conference in Buenos Aires, where she would tell her story yet again, hoping it would lead to the truth.

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