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When Pope Francis Testified About the Dirty War

In a closed hearing, he disputed accusations of complicity with the junta

L'Osservatore Romano/Getty Images News

While the world has generally welcomed the Catholic Church's selection of the Argentine Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio as pope, one large and dark question hangs over his ascension: As the head of the Jesuit order during Argentina’s last dictatorship, was he complicit with the military regime that kidnapped, tortured, and murdered thousands of its citizens?

Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, has rarely spoken about his own role in what's known as the "Dirty War," during which at least 9,000 people were forcibly disappeared. But in 2010, he appeared as a witness in the criminal trial of eighteen officers who had worked at the notorious Naval Mechanics School, where the country's military junta detained political prisoners—including a pair of Jesuit priests who'd been kidnapped shortly after the regime took power in a 1976 coup. Bergoglio, who was not a defendant in the case, insisted on clerical testimonial privilege and did not testify in open court; proceedings were held in his office. As part of my research into that trial, I obtained access to a transcript from the hearing, during which prosecutors and human rights lawyers grilled him for more than four hours over his alleged complicity in the kidnappings. The transcript has not been widely circulated, though it recently appeared in Spanish on the website of an Argentine human rights NGO. It offers a unique insight into the steps Bergoglio took and did not take to save the desaparecidos.

By the time he testified, Bergoglio had been facing criticism about the kidnapping for years. His critics allege that he withdrew Church protection from the priests, Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics, who worked with the poor in the Bajo Flores slum of Buenos Aires. According to this theory, Bergoglio had warned the priests that they should abandon the slum because sectors of the military and church saw their activity as "subversive." When the priests refused, he allegedly told them they'd have to leave the Compañia de Jesus, their local order, if they wanted to keep working there—effectively giving the green light to the military junta to detain them. In a 1999 interview, conducted shortly before he died, Yorio said that he faulted Bergoglio for his kidnapping. Bergoglio denied complicity. After the interview was published in a book in 2005, a local human rights lawyer filed a criminal complaint against Bergoglio over the incident. The courts, however, have not taken any steps to indict Bergoglio, according to the lawyer, Marcelo Parrilli. But the interview appeared just as Bergoglio was being mentioned as a possible successor to Pope John Paul II. 

Bergoglio's 2010 testimony offers his take on events. Prior to the coup, he said he had given Yorio and Jalics permission to work in the Bajo Flores slum. The two priests, who practiced liberation theology, saw their life mission as alleviating the plight of the poor. Bergoglio testified at trial that "every priest that worked with the poor was a target for suspicion and accusation from some sectors," but as a "Jesuit brother" of the priests, he wanted to do what he could to help them "continue working." Bergolgio testified that Yorio and Jalics told him several times that they thought they were in danger. He also recalled that he was pressured from inside the church to dissolve the religious community where Yorio and Jalics worked and transfer the priests elsewhere in the church, though he claimed it was for organizational reasons, not ideological ones. Bergoglio was also questioned about allegations that Yorio's ministerial license had been revoked several days before the kidnapping, another alleged signal to the military that the priests were fair game. He disputed this account, saying, "I don't believe that their licenses were suspended." As evidence, Bergoglio said that the priests continued to work in the slum, which they would not have been permitted to do "if their licenses had been formally suspended."

Bergoglio also insisted that he was helping Yorio and Jalics. Before the coup, the two had renounced their affiliation with the Jesuit order, and were in a period of "transition," as Bergoglio called it, looking for a Bishop to sponsor them.  During this period, Bergoglio told the priests that "that they could celebrate mass." Whether Bergoglio had authority to allow them to do so he left “to their interpretation," implying that their work might not be officially sanctioned, but that he would not disapprove. 

Furthermore, when asked if the priests were exposed to slander during this period of transition between leaving the Jesuit order and finding a Bishop's sponsorship, Bergoglio said the priests were only "relatively exposed” because “they knew that they had access to the provincial priesthood of the Jesuits … and that they were in dialogue with the Church." Bergolgio recalled that "I offered them the chance to come live at the provincial priesthood" at the time rumors of an imminent coup began to circulate. Bergoglio said that Yorio and Jalics, in fact, lived there after the coup, in the days before they were kidnapped.

In May of 1976, security forces kidnapped the priests, along with several other activists. The military officers involved in the raid were dressed in army camouflage, but they were probably agents from the navy, and did not display identification. After being taken to the Naval Mechanics School, Argentina's largest and most notorious secret prison, Yorio and Jalics were blindfolded, shackled, drugged, and threatened with electrocution. At some point during their captivity, they were transferred to a house outside Buenos Aires, where they were kept in a dark room in shackles and blindfolds, and scarcely fed. They were freed five months later, in late October 1976, after being drugged and abandoned in an open field.

Bergoglio recounted during his testimony the steps he took to ensure Yorio and Jalics' releases. He testified that he "began to move immediately" when he was alerted of their arrests, which he called a "moment of desperation." He said he began to "speak with priests that I assumed had access to the police and the armed forces," to find out which service branch kidnapped the priests. He met twice with Jorge Rafael Videla, the Army dictator. He also met twice with Emilio Massera, the junta's navy representative. In the first meeting with Massera, he said he "went to find out, because I didn't know [where they were]. I gave my testimony that these priests were not involved in anything raro ['rare']." But after the meeting Bergoglio said he discovered through back channels that the navy had, in fact, kidnapped the priests. (He did not specify who gave him this information, only that it was "vox populi.") After this discovery, the second meeting with Massera was "ugly" and brief. He remembered saying, "look Massera, I want them to appear." Then, he testified, "I got up, and I left."

When Yorio and Jalics were eventually freed (unlike thousands of other victims who were murdered by incineration, or thrown alive from military airplanes), Bergoglio told the court that he helped ensure the priests' physical safety and arranged for them to leave the country. Bergoglio admitted that he did not file any judicial charges, nor did he make any public statements about Yorio and Jalics. But when asked by one of the three presiding judges if Yorio or Jalics ever told him what they thought about his behavior during their kidnapping, he replied that, in personal conversations, "neither one of them asked me what more I could have done. … They didn't blame me."

But Yorio's assertion that he blamed Bergoglio had, in fact, been on the record for several years. "I don't have any reason to think that [Bergoglio] did anything for our freedom," he told journalist Horacio Verbitsky in a 1999 interview for the book El Silencio. Yorio accused Bergoglio of lobbying Argentina's bishops to stay away from him and Jalics. He also said he thought Bergoglio talked with Massera, the commander in chief of the navy, who had informed him that Yorio and Jalics were guerilla leaders. This, according to Yorio, allowed Bergoglio to "wash his hands" of concern for the priests. "He didn't wait for me to come out alive," Yorio said. (Jalics lives in Germany and does not talk about his experience as a victim of Argentina's repression. He did not respond to an email request for comment.)

Asked at the trial about Yorio's accusations, Bergoglio testified that Yorio probably thought he had not done enough because Yorio was "conditioned by the suffering that he had to go through." Bergoglio also insisted that he never thought Yorio and Jalics were extremists.

Some prominent human rights activists have come to Bergoglio's defense. Argentine Nobel Peace Prize winner Adolfo Perez Esquivel, who was jailed and tortured by the dictatorship, told the BBC's Spanish-language service that Bergoglio "was not an accomplice of the dictatorship. … There were bishops who were accomplices of the Argentine dictatorship, but not Bergoglio." 

"It was a difficult time for the Church," recalls Robert Cox, the editor of the Buenos Aires Herald. Cox was forced to go into exile in 1979 after he received threats for publishing news stories on the disappeared. "The Church was worried that if they split, the country would split, and there would be a civil war. This was always their excuse for not taking a firmer stance." He speculates that Bergoglio did "as much as he could, behind the scenes," but has not done enough to publicly explain the incident, or the role of the Catholic Church and the dictatorship more broadly.

Luis Zamora, a human rights lawyer who did the majority of the examination, at one point asked Bergolgio, "In these thirty-four years what was the reason that you never approached the courts to give all of the information that you knew and that you are now giving us?" The court did not allow the question, and Bergoglio did not answer. 

After the hearing, Zamora described Bergoglio as "reticent," adding, "when someone is reticent they are lying, they are hiding part of the truth." Reached for comment, Zamora added that Bergoglio has "completely failed" in his explanation of the past. He added that those who say Bergoglio was an insignificant figure in the Church at the time are mistaken, as evidenced by his ability to arrange meetings with Videla and Massera, the country's two most powerful military men. In his testimony, Bergoglio said he did not remember the names of those who helped him make contact with the military. When asked about records of his conversations with Videla and Massera, he said that he didn't have any because the time pressures were so great that he had to move quickly and he did not have time to write anything down. 

In an interview published with Perfil in 2010, Bergoglio said publicly for the first time that he had helped save several others from the dictatorship, some after he hid them in his seminary, another after he loaned him priest's clothing and his identification to cross the border into Brazil. Asked why he never spoke about this before, Bergoglio said that "if I didn't speak at the time, it was so that I didn't do what other people wanted, not because I had something to hide." At trial he added, "I have spoken a lot about this with those who asked. I have given everything I know: Obviously the injustice of what they suffered, all of this, my position is clear. I don't give journalistic interviews as a matter of course. But, at one time I gave one journalist (Verbitsky) an interview, so that he could know my point of view. Those that know me know that I always have spoken in the tone that I have spoke here today."

Sam Ferguson is a visiting fellow at the Schell Center for International Human Rights at Yale Law School and a former Fulbright Scholar. He is writing a book, Remnants of a Dirty War, about human rights trials in Argentina.

Correction: An earlier version of the article suggested it was contradictory for Bergoglio to believe the priests' had never had their licenses revoked while also acknowledging that he permitted them to "celebrate mass" during their moment of "transition." In fact, these actions were consistent: His granting of permission was based on his belief that both Yorio and Jalics still had their licenses. 

The earlier version also failed to mention that Bergoglio called the priests "relatively exposed" during this period of transition, but failed to clarify that this was in response to the Chief judge's question if they would be exposed to "slander."