As Pope Francis visits Brazil this week, he’s being praised as a humble pontiff for the poor, just the person, the Vatican hopes, who can reinvigorate a Roman Catholic Church beset by scandals and secrecy in a land where the number of practicing Catholics has plummeted in recent years.
But next door in his native Argentina, not all are impressed with the stories of his rejecting the stately Vatican quarters the pope traditionally has occupied, or the plush papal finery and luxury cars.
“He is a good actor,” said Estela de la Cuadra, who’s 77. The image the Vatican is constructing “makes me indignant,” she said over the weekend.
When her sister Elena was kidnapped while five months pregnant in 1977 by Argentina’s military dictatorship, her family appealed to the pope, who was known then by his real name, Father Jorge Bergoglio, the head of Argentina’s Jesuits. After meeting her father, he wrote a letter on their behalf but did nothing more. Elena de la Cuadra was never seen again, and the whereabouts of the baby she was carrying aren’t known.
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When he was forced to testify in a human rights trial in Buenos Aires in 2010, then-Cardinal Bergoglio said he hadn’t become aware that babies were being taken from prisoners until the late 1990s. And he gave his testimony in private rather than in court, invoking a privilege that men of the cloth have.
“This is the humility of Bergoglio?” De la Cuadra asks, the bitter sarcasm evident in her voice.
Four months after Bergoglio became the first pope from the New World, questions largely have faded from the news about what role he played during Argentina’s brutal “dirty war,” when thousands of leftists were rounded up by the military dictatorship and then disappeared, many thrown into the sea from Argentine military aircraft.
Instead, coverage of the pope has focused on initial efforts he’s made to rein in the Vatican bureaucracy, clean up the corrupt Vatican Bank and instill more accountability for child sexual abuse. He’s made many symbolic gestures, most noticeably his decisions to live in the Vatican’s Casa Santa Marta guesthouse rather than the more luxurious papal apartment and to be driven in a Ford Focus rather than the BMW that Pope Benedict XVI used to get around.
He unblocked the canonization process for Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was assassinated in 1980 after criticizing the country’s military for human rights abuses, and he’s won praise from Brazilians Jose Oscar Beozzo and Leonardo Boff, two proponents of “liberation theology,” which says the church’s role must be fighting for the poor. Boff told the Brazilian newspaper Valor Economico that Pope Francis has “basic liberation theology intuitions.” While the pope is in Brazil, his plans include a visit to a slum and a prison.
Yet the praise isn’t echoed among many in his homeland, who say the pope has yet to come clean on what the church knows about the dirty war, when 10,000 to 30,000 people disappeared during the 1976-1983 reign of the military.
In April, Estela de Carlotto, the president of a group known as the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, who are searching for grandchildren who they think were born while their “disappeared” children were in military custody, delivered a letter to the pope in which she asked him to take “the necessary measures to help us in the search of almost 400 grandchildren who today still have not recovered their true identity.”
She asked that the Vatican open its archives and the Argentine church open its records so they may be searched for any evidence of what became of the children, many of whom are thought to have been given to military families who raised them as their own.
“We pray your Holiness that you explain to members of the Church and their followers that it is a Christian duty to offer information about the location of disappeared children in Argentina,” the letter asked. It also asked the pope to “warn them that it is a sin to hide crimes categorized by the international community as crimes against humanity like kidnappings, assassinations and baby thefts perpetrated by state terrorism.”
There has been no response from the pope, and no records from the church.
Vatican spokesmen didn’t respond to McClatchy’s requests for comment.
The church “knew what was happening,” said Robert Cox, a former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald who documented many of the stories about disappeared people during the dictatorship and ultimately was forced to flee Argentina.
“At least they could have insisted on a return to the rule of law, but they did not,” he said. “It would have had an effect.”
The faith that the church has information that would help people find missing children such as Elena de la Cuadra’s is testament to the role of the Catholic Church in Argentina. Priests were close to the generals and often made lists of dissidents who became targets, and shared what they knew about them. Victims and their families also were religious. So when their family members went missing, their local churches were often the first places they turned for help.
Pope Francis has never been charged with complicity in the dirty war and he’s testified that his intervention saved the lives of several people whom the military otherwise might have killed.
That claim, however, hasn’t persuaded Rodolfo Yorio, whose brother, Orlando, was a Jesuit priest working in the Buenos Aires slums under Bergoglio’s supervision when soldiers detained him.
“Pope Francis is a marketing phenomenon,” Rodolfo Yorio said.
Orlando Yorio and another Jesuit, Father Francisco Jalics, eventually were released, and Jalics said, in a letter made public shortly after the pope’s installation, that he didn’t blame the pope for his detention and abuse at the hands of the military.
But Rodolfo Yorio, whose brother refused offers to re-enter the Jesuit order and has since died, said he was unwilling to forgive.
“Bergoglio wanted to be on good terms with the dictatorship,” he said. “I think that Bergoglio was involved.”
Another friend of Orlando Yorio’s, Washington Uranga, an Argentine journalist, said the priest “never told me that he felt delivered or betrayed by Bergoglio.” But the priest did say “he thought he never received sufficient protection or support” before the military bundled him into a car.
Many human rights advocates think Bergoglio came up short primarily in providing information – and that the situation hasn’t improved since he became pope. In the 2010 testimony, Bergoglio pledged to search for and provide documents to support his answers. But a lawyer who’s involved in the case said neither the pope not the church had provided any of the documents. The lawyer asked that his name be withheld because of the sensitivity of the subject.
“The Vatican could come out with an enormous amount of information,” said Cox, the former Buenos Aires editor who was forced to leave the country because of his reporting. “I wish it would. It would be a wonderful thing for the church, much more important than the sympathetic things the pope is doing.”
Until then, the questions will linger, though many Argentines have shown a willingness to let them slide.
“There is a nationalistic and patriotic reaction that has surged,” said Uranga, the journalist, whose reporting specialty is religion. “It is a curious thing.”