What Did Pope Francis Really Do In Argentina In The 1970s?

As discussed in the Academy Award-nominated Netflix movie The Two Popes, a military dictatorship seized control of Argentina during the mid-1970s. A "Dirty War" raged between rival political factions, with Argentinians struggling to survive amid the chaos and violence that characterized daily life.

The Dirty War began when the military, backed by the United States, ousted Isabel Peron, widow of former President Juan Peron, in 1976. Called the Process of National Organization, or El Proceso, the military dictatorship targeted leftist politicians and suspected sympathizers among the citizenry. During the Dirty War, between 10,000 and 30,000 individuals were slain or "disappeared." These actions took place amid strict censorship and repression that hindered responses from the international community.

While the Dirty War raged from 1976-1983, the Catholic Church in Argentina watched on. Some personnel supported El Proceso, while others became increasingly troubled by its actions. Jesuit priest Jorge Mario Bergoglio - the future Pope Francis - served as a provincial superior within the Society of Jesus for much of the Dirty War.

Given Bergoglio's leadership position during that time - and his subsequent ascension to the Holy See - his responses and reactions have been heavily analyzed, criticized, and questioned. Opinions vary about what Pope Francis did and did not do in Argentina. According to observers, participants, and Pope Francis himself, here's what happened.

  • Some Accuse Him Of Directly Aiding The Military In Its Hunt To Find Left-Leaning Priests

    Graciela Yorio, sister of Father Orlando Yorio, believes Father Jorge Mario Bergoglio knowingly sacrificed her brother during the Dirty War. From her perspective, Bergoglio left priests vulnerable to militants.

    In the late 1970s, Father Yorio and his associate, Father Francisco Jalics, administered aid to individuals living in poverty-stricken parts of Buenos Aires. Based at the Barrio Rivadavia and believed to be leftists, their actions were highly suspect. As a result, Yorio and Jalics were kidnapped, imprisoned, and tortured for five months in 1976.

    Upon release, Father Yorio claimed Bergoglio played a role in his abduction, having reported on him and Jalics to military authorities. According to Yorio, Bergoglio told officials he'd not given them permission to be in the Buenos Aires slums. Yorio also insisted Bergoglio expelled them from the Jesuits just prior to their abduction, having already urged them to leave the order.

    In 1999, Yorio told a reporter, "I have no reason to believe [Bergoglio] did anything to free us, in fact just the opposite." Father Jalics, for his part, has stated that he and Yorio had permission to be in the slums. "The two of us in the slum had no contact with the junta or the guerrillas," he said. "Due to the lack of information and targeted misinformation at that point in time, our position was open to misinterpretation within the church."

    Father Yorio passed in 2000 but his sister still blames then-Father Bergoglio for her brother's plight. In 2013, however, Father Jalics went on record to dispute claims of Bergoglio's culpability:

    I myself was once inclined to believe that we were the victims of a denunciation... [But] at the end of the '90s, after numerous conversations, it became clear to me that this suspicion was unfounded. It is therefore wrong to assert that our capture took place at the initiative of Father Bergoglio.

  • Others Say He Was Quietly Saving Lives Throughout The Period
    Photo: Aibdescalzo / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

    Others Say He Was Quietly Saving Lives Throughout The Period

    Supporters of Bergoglio point out some of the more passive steps the Jesuit took to protect priests and citizens during the Dirty War. Named provincial superior in 1973, Bergoglio was chosen for the role because of his "solid roots in spirituality that would allow him to keep a balance" between "too much promotion of social justice... [and] the religious dimension." True to form, he deterred instructors from teaching liberal topics, keeping potentially problematic content out of the hands of instructors and students alike.

    Bergoglio shielded three seminary students who had worked with Bishop Enrique Angelelli, a critic of the dictatorship. Angelelli was the target of a hit in August 1976 and was later beatified by the Catholic Church. One of Angelelli's associates, Father Miguel La Civita, has been vocal about the help Bergoglio gave him during the Dirty War:

    This is not something someone told me. I saw it and lived it. The Jesuits had an organization to help people leave the country. Bergoglio acted like a father to us to fill the space that had been left by the demise of Angelelli.

    Alicia Oliveira - an activist, lawyer, and friend of Bergoglio - recalled him inviting her to dine with people hidden by the Jesuits. She also said Bergoglio "bought a clergyman's suit and dog collar for a man and gave him his own ID papers... and the man fled to Brazil disguised as a priest." The man looked enough like Bergoglio to pull off the ruse.

    Both of these stories have been affirmed by Bergoglio himself in Pope Francis: Conversations with Jorge Bergoglio: His Life in His Own Words, by Francesca Ambrogetti and Sergio Rubin.

    Additional statements by Gonzalo Mosca, a leftist activist from Uruguay, and priest Jose Caravias also attest to Bergoglio's efforts to help them. Bergoglio helped Mosca escape to Brazil and warned Caravias that a paramilitary group called Triple A planned to take him out.

  • For Many, Bergoglio's Biggest Offense Was His Silence

    Contingents within Argentina view Bergoglio's passivity about the violence as tantamount to complicity. Critics of the Jesuit Order and the Catholic Church cite silence among churchmen as an endorsement of the dictatorship.

    For Estela de la Cuadra, Bergoglio could have done more to help her sister Elena. When Elena, pregnant at the time, disappeared in 1978, the girls' father went to Bergoglio for help. According to Estela, "He gave my dad a handwritten note with the name of a bishop who could give us information on our missing relatives." Their father was told by the bishop that "his granddaughter was 'now with a good family,'" a statement attesting to accusations of "stolen babies" throughout the period.

    In later statements, Bergoglio denied knowing anything about these activities but, from Estela's perspective, "With his silence, he supported the military." 

    Members of the Grandmothers of the Plazo de Mayo group, women who continue to search for answers about their abducted grandchildren, have also spoken out against Bergoglio. Activist and organization leader Estela de Carlotta criticized Bergoglio for never speaking "of the problem of people who had disappeared under dictatorial rule," and called on the Vatican for help in 2013.

    She later met with the pontiff and was told, "You can count on me. You can count on us."

  • Much Of The Controversy Surrounds Bergoglio's Actions With Regard To Two Priests
    Photo: The Two Popes / Netflix

    Much Of The Controversy Surrounds Bergoglio's Actions With Regard To Two Priests

    Accusations against Pope Francis I, then known as Father Bergoglio, largely focus on the abductions of Fathers Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics. Accounts differ as to Jalics and Yorio's positions in the barrios of Buenos Aires. Similarly, there are different interpretations of how Bergoglio treated the priests, leading to speculation about exactly what role, if any, he played in their disappearance and mistreatment.

    In the decades since the Dirty War, Yorio remained insistent that Bergoglio did nothing to help him and Jalics. In 1999, Yorio implied Bergoglio may have gone so far as to deprive them of the protection usually provided to churchmen in the midst of conflict. If nothing else, Bergoglio was aware of the aggression and chaos inflicted by the Process for National Reorganization and failed to act.

    Jalics has slowly changed his mind about Bergoglio. He initially seemed to agree with Yorio, indicating that he believed Bergoglio denounced them to the military. In 2000, Jalics stated that he could "not make a comment on the role played by Father Bergoglio in these events."

    By 2013, as Father Bergoglio began his pontificate, Jalics changed his stance entirely: "The fact is: Orlando Yorio and I were not denounced by Father Bergoglio."

  • Yorio And Jalics May Have Left The Protection Of The Jesuits Willingly
    Photo: The Two Popes / Netflix

    Yorio And Jalics May Have Left The Protection Of The Jesuits Willingly

    There's no evidence that Bergoglio committed any offenses or failed to carry out his duties effectively in the midst of the Dirty War. While Father Orlando Yorio claimed Bergoglio removed him from the Jesuit Order, the assertion remains unsubstantiated.

    According to author Austen Ivereigh, Bergoglio contemplated relocating Yorio and his colleague, Father Francisco Jalics, but he supported their work with the poor. Bergoglio was aware that the two had attracted the attention of the militants and hoped to avoid a confrontation.

    Bergoglio visited Rome for guidance. He was told by the superior general of the Society of Jesus, Pedro Arrupe, to remove Yorio and Jalics from their community within the Buenos Aires slums. Both men were supposed to be transferred, an order Bergoglio supposedly acknowledged was "tantamount to expelling" Yorio and Jalics "from the Society, but that the general's mind was firm in the matter."

    At that point, from Ivereigh's telling, the Jesuit priests left the Society of Jesus. Whether or not they were given any other choice - ordered to leave their position in the barrio or the Society - remains murky. Regardless, they were taken captive just a few days later.

  • Bergoglio Reportedly Urged His Priests To Remove Themselves From Danger

    After being made aware of the suspicion that had fallen upon Jesuits in the barrios of Buenos Aires, then-Father Bergoglio encouraged them to "take care."

    According to Father Orlando Yorio, in December 1975, "The forces of the extreme right... had machine-gunned one priest, and they had abducted, tortured, and left for dead another one." Yorio also indicated that his colleague, Father Francisco Jalics, met with Bergoglio, who said he would "speak with people in the armed forces to tell them" the priests were innocent.

    Even after Yorio and Jalics - along with a third priest, Father Luis Dourron - remained in the barrios of Buenos Aires, deterred from doing so by their superiors, Bergoglio implored them to find safety.

    As civil rights activist and lawyer Alicia Oliveira recalls, Bergoglio "told them to leave, that it was very risky... but they wouldn't budge. They wanted to stay."