The Dark Past Of Pope Francis


The election of Buenos Aires Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio as Pope came as a big surprise in Argentina. While Bergoglio was a favourite in 2005 (some say he was the runner-up to Joseph Ratzinger), at age 76 he was off the radar during this conclave. There was, in fact, another Argentine cardinal with better odds, although Latin America's hopes were with Brazilian priest Odilo Scherer.

Journalists broadcasting from the Vatican were in disbelief and wondered whether they'd understood the Cardinal Protodeacon's Latin announcement properly. Soon, everyone — Catholics and non-Catholics, atheists and theists — reacted. Churches started ringing their bells, drivers beeped their horns, people gathered to celebrate at the Buenos Aires Cathedral, and social networks exploded (less than half an hour after the announcement, the top 10 Twitter trending topics in Argentina were Pope-related).

Reactions were not homogenous, however. As Archbishop of Buenos Aires and head of the Argentine church, Bergoglio has been a high-profile and controversial political character. Many of those who celebrated his appointment yesterday, with a mix of nationalism and religous fervour, praised the traits for which he has already become famous worldwide. His humility, his genuine concern for the poor, his austere lifestyle as member of a church that can be obsenely ostentatious. Argentine journalist Horacio Verbitsky — a stern critic of Bergolio — even acknowledged his "marked social sensitivity".

The focus was also on the fact that he is the first American Pope — while Latin America is the region with the highest number of Catholics, all previous Popes have been European. Many believe that this will raise the profile of the region and that Francis's papacy will bring a renewed message of hope and union to the continent.

However the criticism that Bergoglio received during his years of priesthood in Argentina have begun to resurface.

Although in the Vatican he is considered as a potential reformer, in Argentina he is known for his conservative views. While he is less orthodox than his predecessor Benedict XVI on issues such as contraception — Bergoglio accepts the use of condoms for STD prevention — he has been a vocal opponent to the legalisation of abortion (including cases of rape), euthanasia, and gay marriage. While abortion remains illegal in most cases, gay marriage was debated and legalised in 2010.

Bergoglio and his church led a strong and active campaign against gay marriage, organising protests in front of Congress when the bill was being debated and issuing highly homophobic statements declaring that "[gay marriage]is a move by the devil". In an article from 2005, Verbitsky quotes an unnamed jesuit source as saying that "Bergoglio is responsible for the fact that the Argentine Company of Jesus is reactionary, spiritualistic, conservative, with fundamentalist positions, while elsewhere in the world the jesuits are known for being the opposite". Many fear his papacy could seek to slow down the political progressive trend that has swept across much of Latin America in the last few years.

The Argentine Catholic Church, of which he was head between 1998 and 2011, has also been widely criticised for the protection they have given to priests accused of sexual abuse, failing to defrock them and to do a church-wide purge.

But without a doubt the most controversial aspect of Pope Francis's past has been his alleged links to the brutal military dictatorship that ruled the country between 1976 and 1983. During this time, as many as 30,000 people disappeared, with many more surviving kidnapping and torture. The complicity of the Catholic Church during these years is still the subject of heated debate. As with the sexual abuse scandals, the church has been criticised for not expelling a number of priests who were found guilty of collaborating with the military rulers, as in the high-profile case of former chaplain Christian Von Wernich.

Bergolio himself allegedly handed over a group of Jesuit priests and catechists to the military. While he maintains that he warned the priests to leave the poor neighbourhood where they worked as a raid was imminent, and that his contacts with the military were to release them once they had been kidnapped, those involved have given a different version of the matter. Orlando Yorio, one of the two surviving priests who was kidnapped, tortured, and released after five months, said that "Bergoglio didn't warn us of the danger we were in" and "I also don't have any reason to think he did anything for our freedom, quite the opposite."

According to Angélica Sosa de Mignone, the mother of one of the catechists who was kidnapped together with Yorio, the priests "were freed thanks to the intervention of [her husband]Emilio Mignone and the Vatican and not thanks to Bergoglio, who was the one that turned them in." Emilio Mignone, in his book Church and Dictatorship, talked about the "sinister complicity" between the church and the military, who "did the dirty work of cleaning up the inside of the Church, with the acquiesce of the priests".

Bergoglio has also been called to testify on cases where children were misappropriated. Hundreds of children born during their mothers' captivities were illegally handed to adoptive families, mainly of military personnel. He was accused by the victims' families of being aware that these practices were being carried out.

After Benedict XVI's conservative papacy, there is widespread hope that Francis, an outsider to the Vatican, could be a breath of fresh air for the Catholic Church. However many of those who have known Jorge Bergoglio during his years of priesthood in Argentina strongly doubt his reformist credentials.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.