BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — A Jesuit priest whose kidnapping by the Argentine military in 1976 has raised the issue of what role newly named Pope Francis played in that country’s so-called “dirty war” said Friday that he was “reconciled to the events” and wished the pope well, but he did not explicitly absolve the pope of involvement in his detention.
In a statement posted on a website in Germany, where the Rev. Francisco Jalics now lives, Jalics recounted the details of his detention, saying he was held for five months, blindfolded and shackled. At the time, the pope, then the Rev. Jorge Mario Bergoglio, was Jalics’ Jesuit superior.
“I’m unable to comment on the role of Father Bergoglio in this matter,” the statement said.
Jalics’ comments were posted on the same day the Vatican angrily denounced news coverage linking Pope Francis to the dirty war, calling the reports a campaign that “is well-known and dates back to many years ago.”
The Vatican said the campaign is being pushed “by a publication that carries out sometimes slanderous and defamatory campaigns,” an apparent reference to Pagina 12, an Argentine newspaper whose editor, Horacio Verbitsky, has written critically of Pope Francis’ role in the dirty war.
Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said there “was never a concrete or credible accusation” against Bergoglio, noting he “was questioned by an Argentinian court as someone aware of the situation but never as a defendant.”
On the contrary, “there have been many declarations demonstrating how much Bergoglio did to protect many persons at the time of the military dictatorship,” Lombardi said.
Jalics’ statement, however, seemed likely only to fuel speculation about Pope Francis and the dirty war, when as many as 30,000 people, most suspected leftists, disappeared into military custody, many never to be seen again. Argentines remain divided, with many, such as Nobel Peace Prize laureate Adolfo Perez Esquivel defending the pope, while others say he was an accomplice.
Estela de Carlotto, the 82-year-old head of the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo, who for years has led the search for babies stolen from pregnant mothers in detention sites, said Friday that Bergoglio "knew what was happening but didn’t do anything."
"We don’t think he’s a criminal," Carlotto said, "but he’s complicit by omission."
Perez Esquivel, whose Nobel in 1980 came for his work defending human rights, adamantly defended Bergoglio in an interview with the BBC. Although some in the church were “complicit with the dictatorship, Bergoglio wasn’t one of them,” he said.
Efforts to reach Jalics were unsuccessful. German broadcaster Bayerischer Rundfunk reported that he was on a multi-month tour of Hungary and would not return to Germany until May.
Jalics’ fellow Jesuit, the Rev. Orlando Yorio, who died in 2000, reportedly held Bergoglio personally responsible for their kidnapping. Verbitsky took the accusation further, accusing Bergoglio in a 2005 book of failing to protect the Jesuit priests who worked in the slums.
According to Verbitsky, Bergoglio, who was the head of the Jesuit order in the country at the time, ordered Jalics and Yorio to stop their social work in the slums after the military junta took power. When they refused, Bergoglio allegedly let the military know they were no longer under the protection of the Jesuits, essentially giving a carte blanche for their kidnapping, according to Verbitsky.
Bergoglio has said he pleaded with the military rulers to release the priests. His supporters insist that their release demonstrated that his lobbying efforts were successful, particularly since the two were held at the Navy Mechanics School, a notorious clandestine prison and torture site.
In his statement, Jalics, a native of Hungary who moved to Argentina in 1957, said he had obtained Bergoglio’s permission, as head of Argentina’s Jesuits, to move to “a slum . . . together with a fellow brother” in 1974, two years before the military overthrew the government of Isabel Peron.
“The two of us in the slum had no contact with the junta or the guerrillas,” Jalics said. Nevertheless, “due to the lack of information and targeted misinformation at that point in time our position was open to misinterpretation within the church.”
When one of their acquaintances from the slum who’d joined the guerrillas was captured, soldiers “learned that he had been in contact with us. We were then arrested on the assumption that we were also associated with the guerrillas.”
Jalics wrote that he and Yorio expected to be released after five days of interrogation. “The officer who was in charge of the questioning released us with the words, ‘Padres, you were not guilty. I will see to it that you can return to the slum,’” Jalics said. Instead, “inexplicably to us, we were detained, blindfolded and shackled for five months after that. I’m unable to comment on the role of Father Bergoglio in this matter.”
Jalics does not say precisely when he and Bergoglio next met, though the statement implies that more than 22 years had passed; Bergoglio was named archbishop of Buenos Aires in 1998.
“After we were set free, I left Argentina,” Jalics wrote. “It was only years later that we had the opportunity to discuss the events with Father Bergoglio who in the meantime had been appointed archbishop of Buenos Aires. Following that, we celebrated Mass publicly together and hugged solemnly. I am reconciled with the events and on my part, consider the matter to be closed.”
His statement concluded, “I wish Pope Francis God’s rich blessings for his office.”
Bergoglio’s ascension to the papacy has triggered renewed debate in Argentina over the dirty war, illustrating the many unanswered questions that still surround one of the bloodiest periods in Argentine history.
Grandmothers of the Plaza leader Carlotto told a news conference Friday that the pope has shown himself unwilling to explore what took place during the dirty war, even after restored civilian governments began to try military leaders.
"As an institution, we have a complaint, and it’s that he never, even when he was the most powerful man in the church, talked about the disappeared," Carlotto said. "He never called us to see what we needed."
Another member of the group, Estela de la Cuadra, who continues searching for her missing niece, insisted Bergoglio knew babies were being stolen, noting her father had gone to ask for his help to locate his grandson after his pregnant daughter was detained in 1977, at the height of the dictatorship.
She complained that while Bergoglio has testified twice in human rights cases, he has refused to do so in open court. Once, he insisted his testimony be written, and the other time, he agreed to testify, but only if questioned in his own office.
"He’s arrogant," she said.
The issue becomes even more confused when put in the current political context. Although Verbitsky was widely lauded for investigations that uncovered corruption during the 1990s, he has been a fervent ally of President Cristina Fernandez and her late husband and predecessor, Nestor Kirchner.
Bergoglio had a tense relationship with the Kirchners almost from the time Nestor Kirchner became president in 2003. And some see Verbitsky’s insistence on pinning human rights violations on the man as a way to diminish his political clout.
Late last year, the Argentine church said it would investigate the role of the church in the dictatorship after former junta leader Jorge Rafael Videla told journalist Ceferino Reato in an interview that his government enjoyed a close relationship with the clerical hierarchy.
On Friday, Reato told McClatchy that at that time, “Bergoglio did not have any kind of political weight.”
“The Jesuits as a whole did not carry a lot of weight,” Reato said.
But the allegation of church complicity with the dirty war still resonates, Reato said, because many sectors of society have yet to take responsibility for their actions during the dictatorship.
“It isn’t just the church that has lacked this self-critique, it’s also the business leaders and unions,” Reato said. “There’s still a fear of discussing the past.”
Politi is a McClatchy special correspondent. McClatchy special correspondent Claudia Himmelreich contributed from Berlin.