Finally getting some answers.

Photographer: Filippo Monteforte/AFP/Getty Images

Pope Francis vs. 'Dirty War' Rumors

Mac Margolis writes about Latin America for Bloomberg View. He was a reporter for Newsweek and is the author of “The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.”
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Pope Francis continues to surprise. He recently slammed wage inequality between men and women as "a pure scandal," called climate change man's "slap in the face of nature" and beckoned the homeless to tour the Sistine Chapel.

Then there was his self-effacing quip about his compatriots' famous egos, saying that many Argentines were surprised he took the name Francis and not "Jesus II."

But the pontiff's fellow Argentinians may find his latest strike to be his brassiest yet: He has asked the Vatican to open its archives on the Argentine Dirty War, papal adviser Guillermo Karcher told Radio America this week.

This is a big deal for at least a couple of reasons. First, as many as 30,000 people -- no one knows for sure -- died or disappeared during one of Latin America's most infamous dictatorships, which lasted from 1976 to 1983.

Catholics and communists, insurgents and innocents, old men and pregnant women -- the junta's victims were as varied as the methods it employed to dispatch them. And yet, despite a truth and reconciliation process in Argentina, which has sent many torturers to jail, the grisly detail of the guerra sucia remains largely walled by secrecy, and the Church has been complicit in the silence.

The second reason is Francis himself. When the generals ruled, he was Jorge Mario Bergoglio, a ranking Jesuit priest trying to navigate the dictatorship's hyper-charged politics. As a ranking member of the Jesuit order Society of Jesus, he presided over a divided clergy, and some militant Catholics accused him of doing the junta's bidding.

Some Argentines faulted Bergoglio for looking the other way over the scandal of "chicos apropiados," the children of political prisoners abducted by torturers and then put up for adoption.

Those charges were never substantiated, and the Vatican has flatly denied them, but suspicions resurfaced with the white smoke issuing from Saint Peter's Basilica on March 13, 2013, when Bergoglio became Francis, and persist to this day.

Leading the j'accuse has been investigative journalist Horacio Verbitsky, who reported that padre Bergoglio neglected to intervene when two young Jesuit priests (whispered to be in league with Marxist guerrillas) were abducted and tortured for several weeks in a military dungeon.

Many prominent Argentines came to Bergoglio's defense, including Nobel Peace Prize laureate Adolfo Perez Esquivel. Shortly before he became pope, the then-archbishop of Buenos Aires issued a public apology on behalf of the nation's bishops for "not doing enough" to protect priests targeted by the junta.  

And this was no 11th-hour gesture of contrition. Bergoglio had long owned up to the church's failings during Argentina's "years of lead."

"What did the church do back then? It acted as an organization with saints and sinners," he told his good friend, Argentine rabbi Abraham Skorka, in one of a series of dialogues later published as "On Heaven and Earth."

"There were Christians on both sides. Christians who died in guerrilla warfare and Christians who tried to save people, and Christians who became repressors, on the belief they were saving the country."

What the church has yet to do is go public with what it knew about those dark days. “A large segment of the Church, not exactly Bergoglio, was complicit in the dictatorship,” Graciela Lois, a member of a group of the dictatorship's victims' relatives pressing the church to open its archives, told El Pais this week. "And we hope that opening up the archives will help us know the truth."

Now the world's most surprising religious leader has the chance to shed light on one of Latin America's darkest moments and put the lingering suspicions against him to rest. That's hardly the maneuver of a man trying to cover his tracks.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Mac Margolis at mmargolis14@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net