“Reacting with unusual swiftness,” The New York Times reported, two days day after the present Holy Father’s election, “the Vatican on Friday rejected any suggestion that Pope Francis … was implicated in his country’s so-called Dirty War during the 1970s”.
“On a day,” the paper continued, “when Francis delivered a warm address to his cardinals and continued to project (my italics) humility” (for all the world as though the new Pope were performing some kind of PR operation), “the Vatican seemed intent on quickly putting to rest questions about the Pope’s past, dismissing them as opportunistic defamations from anticlerical Leftists. The swift response contrasted with past public relations challenges during the papacy of Pope Benedict XVI, when the Vatican often allowed criticisms to linger without rebuttal.”
“There has never been a credible accusation against him,” said Fr Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, adding that such charges “must be rejected decisively.” On the contrary, he said, “there have been many declarations of how much he did for many people to protect them from the military dictatorship.”
All undeniably true: but Archbishop Bergoglio did continue to talk to the dictator, and there is an embarrassing photo of the two men smiling together: but all that means is that he continued to be a pastor to powerful sinners as well as to the virtuous poor. But this, clearly, is going to be a most profitable line of attack, just as Pope Benedict’s incorrectly alleged failure to confront paedophile scandals continued to be the main line of attack during his pontificate. We’ve been here before, of course, from the “Hitler’s Pope” allegations through St Josemaría Escrivá’s alleged support for the Franco regime. What is never speculated about is what might have been said behind closed doors: you never, for instance, hear the story of St Josemaría entering Franco’s office and announcing that he has come to talk to Generalissimo Franco about what the Caudillo will say to God on the day of judgment. There are perfectly good and valid answers to accusations of complicity in the case of the then Archbishop Bergoglio, and before that of Fr Bergoglio during his time as Jesuit provincial: the trouble is that they cannot in the nature of things be proved.
And the attacks are only to be expected: he’s not vulnerable over paedophilia, so they needed some other issue. In the words of the admirable Laura Ingraham, radio talk show host and Fox News contributor (herself a convert): “I would have been stunned if the secular progressives had come out just lauding this man for his career of service and his humility and his charity, [but] that just wasn’t gonna happen right? It’s just not gonna happen. He’s not here to be loved by the secular progressives.”
I ought to have expected all this, but didn’t. Indeed, as the cardinals were preparing to be locked in, I somewhat naively wrote an article headlined, you may remember, “Now the conclave is about to begin, we can look forward with relief, not only to having a pope again, but to the secular media’s sudden loss of interest”.
How wrong can you be? “Argentina ‘Dirty War’ accusations haunt Pope Francis,” announced the BBC website (with barely disguised satisfaction) two days after his election as Pope. “I see a lot of joy and celebration for Pope Francis, but I’m living his election with a lot of pain”: thus, the BBC reported the words of Graciela Yorio, the sister of Orlando Yorio – a priest who was kidnapped in May 1976 and tortured for five months during Argentina’s last military government. Ms Yorio accuses the then-Fr Jorge Mario Bergoglio of effectively delivering her brother and fellow priest Francisco Jalics into the hands of the military authorities by declining to endorse publicly their social work in the slums of Buenos Aires, which infuriated the junta at the time.
“Their kidnapping took place,” continued the BBC report, “during a period of massive state repression of Left-wing activists, union leaders and social activists which became known as the ‘Dirty War’. Orlando Yorio has since died. But, in a statement, Fr Jalics said on Friday he was “reconciled with the events and, for my part, consider them finished”.
The BBC concedes that “There is no evidence (my italics) that he was in collusion with the regime”: but then it goes on to say that “the actions of the Roman Catholic Church during the Dirty War are still being called into question”, whatever that means. The point about the BBC, whether online or on air, is that it makes a great display of impartiality; but it’s how the story is told that counts. Thus, the “pain” of Graciela Orio is emphasised near the top of the BBC piece: only near the end (when most readers’ attention has flagged or switched off entirely), are we told of the views of the Argentine Nobel Peace prize winner, Adolfo Perez Esquivel, who was a human rights activist at the time, was arrested by the military in 1977, suffered 14 months of clandestine detention and was tortured severely, and who told the BBC World Service Spanish language service that “There were some bishops who were in collusion with the military, but Bergoglio is not one of them.” Mr Perez Esquivel strongly supports Pope Francis. “He is being accused of not doing enough to get the two priests out of prison, but I know personally that there were many bishops who asked the military junta for the release of certain prisoners and were also refused. There is no link” he insists, “between [the Pope] and the dictatorship.” But the BBC described him as “a religious person himself”: in other words, he would say that, wouldn’t he?
It will be interesting to follow this story over the months ahead. The secular media now has a new bone between its teeth; it is unlikely they will let it go before they have extracted the maximum journalistic satisfaction from it and done the maximum damage to the Church by it. “Cardinal Bergoglio” concedes the BBC “was never investigated as there has been no strong evidence that links him in any way (my italics) to one of the darkest chapters of Argentine history”. But does anyone really believe they will leave it at that?
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