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Survivors: Pope Francis saved many in dirty wars

Thursday - 3/13/2014, 10:00pm  ET

In this Nov. 29, 2013 photo, Jesuit priest and theologian Juan Carlos Scannone poses for a portrait at the Colegio Maximo in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Scannone taught Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, Greek and literature. Scannone says he was targeted by the Military Junta because he promoted a non-Marxist “theology of the people” and worked with slum-dwellers in the city’s “misery villages.” He said Bergoglio not only defended him against criticism within the church, but personally delivered his writings for publication even when military was trying to find him. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

DEBORA REY
Associated Press

SAN MIGUEL, Argentina (AP) -- Gonzalo Mosca was a radical on the run. Hunted by Uruguay's dictators, he fled to Argentina, where he narrowly escaped a military raid on his hideout. "I thought that they would kill me at any moment," Mosca says.

With nowhere else to turn, he called his brother, a Jesuit priest, who put him in touch with the man he credits with saving his life: Jorge Mario Bergoglio.

It was 1976, South America's dictatorship era, and the future Pope Francis was a 30-something leader of Argentina's Jesuit order. At the time, the country's church hierarchy openly sided with the military junta as it kidnapped, tortured and killed thousands of leftists like Mosca.

Critics have argued that Bergoglio's public silence in the face of that repression made him complicit, too, and they warn against what they see as historical revisionism designed to burnish the reputation of a now-popular pope.

But the chilling accounts of survivors who credit Bergoglio with saving their lives are hard to deny. They say he conspired right under the soldiers' noses at the theological seminary he directed, providing refuge and safe passage to dozens of priests, seminarians and political dissidents marked for elimination by the 1976-1983 military regime.

Mosca was 27 then, a member of a leftist political movement banned by the military government in his home country of Uruguay. Bergoglio answered his call, and rode with him for nearly 20 miles (30 kilometers) to the Colegio Maximo in suburban San Miguel.

"He gave me instructions: 'If they stop us, tell them you're going to a spiritual retreat,' and 'Try to keep yourself a bit hidden,'" Mosca recalled in an interview with The Associated Press.

Mosca said he could hardly breathe until they had passed through the seminary's heavy iron doors, but Bergoglio was very calm.

"He made me wonder if he really understood the trouble he was getting into. If they grabbed us together, they would have marched us both off," said Mosca, who stayed hidden in the seminary for days, until Bergoglio got him an airplane ticket to Brazil.

Soldiers prowled inside the walled gardens, sniffing for fugitives. But a full raid on the spiritual center was out of the question since Argentina's dictators had cloaked themselves in the mantle of Roman Catholic nationalism. And a constant flow of people masked Bergoglio's scheming from an air force outpost next door.

Several new books assert that Bergoglio's public silence enabled him to save more people.

"Bergoglio's List," by Vatican reporter Nello Scavo, is already being developed into a movie, its title playing on the "Schindler's List" film about the Nazi businessman whose subterfuge saved hundreds of Jewish prisoners during the Holocaust.

Marcelo Larraquy, author of "Pray for Him," told the AP that Bergoglio saved "20 or 30" people. Scavo said about 100 owe him their lives. Both authors say the full number will likely never be known, largely because Bergoglio remains so circumspect.

Like many Argentines, Bergoglio "remained silent in the face of atrocity," but he was determined to thwart the death squads when he could, said Larraquy, who runs investigations for the Argentine newspaper Clarin. "He used back channels, did not complain in public and, meanwhile, he was saving people who sought refuge in the Colegio."

"He locked them up in the compound, gave them help and food, and set up a logistical network to get them out of the country," Larraquy added. "But his condition for giving them refuge was that they had to give up all political activism."

New ways of thinking were running through the lower ranks of Latin America's Catholic Church in the 1970s, influenced by Vatican II reforms announced in 1965. Many lay workers and clergy embraced "liberation theology," which promoted social justice for the poor.

Many were politically active and some were Marxist, but others were simply committed social workers. The right-wing military made few distinctions. Priests as well as Catholic lay workers began to disappear at the hands of death squads.

Sitting in a seminary garden whose tranquility was broken only by the gurgling of a fountain and leaves rustling in the breeze, theologian Juan Carlos Scannone quietly told the AP of the terror he felt decades ago.

Scannone said he was targeted because he promoted a non-Marxist "theology of the people" and worked with slum-dwellers in the city's "misery villages." He said Bergoglio not only defended him against criticism within the church, but personally delivered his writings for publication even when the military was trying to find him.

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