“He didn’t care who we were or where we were from,” Cortez said. “That’s what was special about him.”
Bergoglio was born in Buenos Aires on Dec. 17, 1936, to an Italian father and an Argentine mother. The eldest of five children, he “was just a regular kid,” said his sister, María Elena. He liked to listen to their father’s Italian opera and tango records, and play soccer with friends.
The Bergoglios were regular churchgoers, and their father made his children recite the Rosary everyday when he got home from his accounting job. But if Sundays were sacred, it was because that was the day that the San Lorenzo soccer club played.
Even so, Bergoglio joined the priesthood at 21, shortly after receiving a degree as a chemical technician. It was around the same time that doctors removed one of his lungs after finding a cyst, María Elena said.
After studying in Chile and Spain, and being ordained in 1969, he returned to Argentina in 1972 and was appointed leader of his Jesuit community the following year. It was a dark time in Argentina. From 1976 to 1983, the country was ruled by a military dictatorship that sparked the infamous “Dirty War.” As many as 30,000 people are thought to have died during that period, as the military hauled off “subversives.” The Catholic Church is accused of turning a blind eye to the abuses.
In May 1976, the military detained two Jesuit priests, Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics, amid suspicions they were collaborating with guerrillas. The two men were interrogated for five days and then held blindfolded and shackled for five months before being released, Jalics has said.
Horacio Verbitsky, an author and ally of President Kirchner, maintains that Bergoglio “handed over” the two priests. Others say Bergoglio left them exposed when their mission was shut down two months before their kidnapping.
In 2011, Bergoglio was questioned for four hours behind closed doors about the case. On Saturday, El Clarín newspaper released extracts from that testimony. In it, Bergoglio said he warned the two men that their lives were in danger and that they needed to leave the neighborhood. Once they were detained, he said he met with the military twice to win their release.
Luís Zamora, a human rights lawyer, was among those who questioned Bergoglio at the time. Zamora said Bergoglio’s answers were “evasive and not convincing at all. And he had 20 years to prepare for this.”
“Bergoglio may not have had the power to save lives or keep people from being tortured,” Zamora said, “but he also can’t say that he didn’t know what was happening … I am certain that Bergoglio lied.”
Yorio died in 2000, but on Friday, Jalics, who lives in Germany, released a statement saying that he had no knowledge of Bergoglio’s role at the time but did discuss the issue with him years later. “I am reconciled with the events and, on my part, consider the matter to be closed,” he said.
Others say Bergoglio’s sin is his silence. Estela de Carlotto, 82, is the head of the iconic Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo, which has demanded an accounting of what happened to babies stolen from pregnant mothers at military detention sites. She said Bergoglio has refused to open church records that might help shine a light on Dirty War atrocities and perhaps even find missing children.