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New pope tied up in Argentina's 'dirty war' debate

Thursday - 3/14/2013, 5:55pm  ET

A group of Argentine newspapers, from left top row, Buenos Aires Herald , Clarin, La Nacion, below row from left, Pagina 12, Ole and Tiempo Argentino, show front page photos and headlines of the newly elected Pope, Pope Francis, as the newspapers are published Thursday, March 14, 2013. Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the archbishop of Buenos Aires who has spent nearly his entire career in Argentina, was a fast and fitting choice for the most unpredictable papal succession - start to finish - in at least six centuries. He is the first pope from the Americas, the first Jesuit and the first named Francis, after St. Francis of Assisi, the humble friar who dedicated his life to helping the poor. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)
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MICHAEL WARREN
Associated Press

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) -- It's beyond dispute that Jorge Mario Bergoglio, like most other Argentines, failed to openly confront the 1976-1983 military junta as it kidnapped and killed thousands of people in a "dirty war" to eliminate leftist opponents.

But human rights activists differ on how much responsibility Pope Francis personally deserves for the Argentine church's dark history of supporting the murderous dictatorship.

The new pope's authorized biographer, Sergio Rubin, argues that this was a failure of the Roman Catholic Church in general, and that it's unfair to label Bergoglio, then a thirtysomething leader of Argentina's Jesuits, with the collective guilt that many Argentines of his generation still wrestle with.

"In some way many of us Argentines ended up being accomplices," at a time when anyone who spoke out could be targeted, Rubin recalled in an interview with The Associated Press just before the papal conclave.

Some leading Argentine human rights activists agree that Bergoglio, now 76, doesn't deserve to be lumped together with other church figures who were closely aligned with the dictatorship.

"Perhaps he didn't have the courage of other priests, but he never collaborated with the dictatorship," Adolfo Perez Esquivel, who won the 1980 Nobel Peace Prize for documenting the junta's atrocities, said Thursday. "Bergoglio was no accomplice of the dictatorship. He can't be accused of that," Perez Esquivel told Radio de la Red in Buenos Aires.

But others say Bergoglio's rise through the Argentine church since then has put him in many positions of power where he could have done more to atone for the sins of Catholic officials who did actively conspire with the dictators. Some priests even worked inside torture centers, and blessed those doing the killing.

And now that Argentina is actively putting former dictatorship figures on trial for human rights violations, they say he's been more concerned about preserving the church's image than providing evidence that could lead to convictions.

"There's hypocrisy here when it comes to the church's conduct, and with Bergoglio in particular," said Estela de la Cuadra, whose family lost five members during the junta years and whose mother co-founded the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo activist group to search for missing people. "There are trials of all kinds now, and Bergoglio systematically refuses to support them."

Bergoglio twice invoked his right under Argentine law to refuse to appear in open court in trials involving torture and murder inside the feared Navy Mechanics School and the theft of babies from detainees. When he eventually did testify in 2010, his answers were evasive, human rights attorney Myriam Bregman told the AP.

Bergoglio's own statements proved church officials knew from early on that the junta was torturing and killing its citizens even as the church publicly endorsed the dictators, she said. "The dictatorship could not have operated this way without this key support," she said.

Rubin, a religious affairs writer for the Argentine newspaper Clarin, said Bergoglio actually took major risks to save so-called "subversives" during the dictatorship, but never spoke about it publicly before his 2010 biography, "The Jesuit."

In the book, Bergoglio said he didn't want to stoop to his critics' level -- and then shared some of his stories. Bergoglio said he once passed his Argentine identity papers to a wanted man with a similar appearance, enabling him to escape over the border to Brazil. Various times, he said he sheltered people inside church properties before they were safely delivered into exile.

The most damning accusation against Bergoglio is that as the military junta took over in 1976, he withdrew his support for two slum priests whose activist colleagues in the liberation theology movement were disappearing. The priests were then kidnapped and tortured at the Navy Mechanics School, which the junta used as a clandestine prison.

Bergoglio said he had told the priests -- Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics -- to give up their slum work for their own safety, and they refused.

"I warned them to be very careful," Bergoglio told Rubin. "They were too exposed to the paranoia of the witch hunt. Because they stayed in the barrio, Yorio and Jalics were kidnapped."

Yorio later accused Bergoglio of effectively delivering them to the death squads by declining to publicly endorse their work. Yorio is now dead, and Jalics has refused to discuss those events since moving into a German monastery.

Both priests were eventually dropped off blindfolded in a field after a harrowing helicopter ride, two of the few detainees to have survived that prison.

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