You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Pope Francis and the "Dirty War": The Video Testimony

Watch him talk about Argentina's controversial past

Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images News

Since he became Pope Francis last week, questions have swirled about Jorge Bergoglio’s relationship with Argentina’s junta during the country’s "Dirty War," a period of military rule between 1976 and 1983. During this time, the government forcibly “disappeared” upwards of 9,000 people. Journalist Horacio Verbitsky has accused Pope Francis, then father Jorge Bergolgio, of spreading rumors that two liberation theology priests within his Jesuit order, Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics, were leftists, effectively signaling to the military that the priests did not have Church protection. Bergoglio has denied these allegations, saying that he in fact tried to protect the priests: Firstly, by encouraging them stop their work in the slums, which was putting them in danger; secondly, by housing them after the coup to provide protection; and thirdly, by using back channels to try to save them after their kidnappings.  

In 2010, Bergoglio was called as a witness in a criminal investigation of eighteen officers at the Naval Mechanics School, the secret prison where Yorio and Jalics were held. He faced questioning from several human rights lawyers and three judges. His four-and-a-half hour testimony covered subjects such as his long relationship to the priests, the steps he claims to have taken to protect the priests, and the meetings he had with high government officials to secure their release. The hearing also briefly covered Pope Francis's relationship with Esther Ballestrino de Careaga, one of the founding members of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a group of women who protested the disappearance of their children at the height of the dictatorship. Here, we present four important clips (in Spanish) from his testimony.

In this clip, Bergoglio describes the steps he took to secure the release of his friend Esther Ballestrino de Careaga, a human rights activists and founder of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo who was disappeared in December 1977  along with eleven other human rights activists. Her remains were identified in 2005 after they had long been buried in a pauper's grave in 1977 when her body washed up on shore; the bones showed signs consistent with a forceful impact from a fall, such as being thrown out of an airplane. In the exchange, Bergoglio begins by explaining the "great friendship" he had with Ballestrino de Careaga dating back to the 1950s. Attorney Luis Zamora asks Bergoglio what he did when he discovered that Ballestrino de Careaga had disappeared. Bergoglio says it "hurt me a lot," and that he tried to get in touch with the family, who were "sort of hidden" because Ballestrino de Careaga's daughter Ana Maria had already been secretly kidnapped . He testifies that he also tried to contact others who might have information on Ballestrino de Careaga's whereabouts. Asked if he contacted the authorities, Bergoglio says that he did not, because judicial relations were handled by the Archbishopric, where he did not work. (At the time, he was head of the Jesuit order in Argentina, a position outside of the institutional Church hierarchy.) Zamora closes the encounter by asking if, given their friendship, Bergoglio should have done more for Ballestrino de Careaga. Bergoglio responds, "I did what I could."

Bergoglio’s critics allege that he was on an ideological campaign to expunge left-wing priests like Yorio and Jalics from the Church. Bergoglio explains that "every priest that worked with the poor was a target for suspicion and accusation from some sectors," and says he rejected the rumors circulating within the Jesuit order before and after the coup about ‘zurdos ,’ a derogatory term for a leftist. He adds that he travelled to La Rioja in 1973 to "intervene in the case of two Jesuits that worked there with the poor" and were also "objects of these nasty remarks." Pressed by Zamora for information on the source of the rumors, Bergoglio states that it came from segments of the order "opposed to this type of pastoral work." 

"Do they have a name and last name?" Zamora asks.

Bergoglio responds: "No, just sectors."  

Zamora continues to press Bergoglio for specific names—"you don't remember any concrete information: a bishop, a cardinal?"—and Bergoglio does not offer any. He also says that he didn’t give the rumors “much importance.” They only came up in routine conversations as one topic amongst many, Bergoglio recalls. When Zamora points out that Carlos Mugica, a radical priest, had been described in similar terms before being gunned down in May 1974, Bergoglio backtracks. He states that he didn’t accept the rumors as true—in fact, they were "grave slander" and "sin," he says—but he could do little to address them because “It was already accepted as fact.”

In this clip, Bergoglio testifies about the moment he heard that the priests Yorio and Jalics had been kidnapped. He explains that he heard about the incident after a phone call from one of the priest's neighbors. He says he was told "there was a round up and that they had taken the priests prisoners, as well as many lay people." He says that he immediately acted to try to figure out where the priests had been taken. Eventually, he says he heard that the Navy had taken them, information he passed on to "all of the members of the Society of Jesus [the Jesuit order],” the Archbishopric, and the Vatican ambassador. 

Asked how he discovered it was the Navy, Bergoglio says it was "vox populi." In response to a question from the presiding judge, Daniel Obligado, Bergoglio describes his two meetings with Emilio Massera, the head of the Navy. During the first meeting, he says he went to inform Massera that the priests had been detained and wanted to assure the Admiral that the priests weren't involved in anything "raro" (rare). By the time of the second meeting, he says he was "almost certain" that the Navy had kidnapped the priests, based on conversations he had with unspecified people, and he describes an "ugly" meeting. He told Massera: "I want them to appear," and then he "got up and left." In one of the more tense exchanges during the testimony Zamora presses Bergoglio for information on how he discovered that the priests were taken by the Navy—information that was closely guarded and would not have been available to the public. Bergoglio insists it was a general rumor that was going around. 

Zamora: Maybe you can tell us what was going around as vox populi, because publicly people couldn’t know this.

Bergoglio: The people that one asked said it was the Navy, it was navy infantry.

Zamora: Whom did you ask?

Bergoglio: The people that had influence, the people that you could consult, that had connections with judges, with some military guy, with a policeman, with the interior ministry. Everything pointed to the Navy.

Zamora: Do you remember any name from these people who so easily accessed power?

Bergoglio: No.

Zamora: Were they ecclesiastical superiors?  The Cardinal?

Bergoglio: It was everyone that one could go to in a moment of desperation, you know? They were friends, acquaintances, “I have an acquaintance I’m going to find out.” These type of things.

Zamora: That they were kidnapped by the Navy is a very important piece of information. Let’s see if you can try hard Mr. Bergoglio. This is a very important piece of information that you are giving us that can help understand the origin, to identify those that you talked about, that you believe were trustworthy, as you indicated to Massera, that it was a serious source, not just anyone, yeah?

Bergoglio: It was said as “vox populi.” The whole world agreed. It was not that one person said it. Everyone said, “It was the Navy infantry.” I don’t remember well if they identified the agents that participated in the operation as naval infantry, I think they also identified themselves as a task force from the Navy.

This final exchange between Bergoglio and Judge Herman Castelli concerns Bergoglio's encounters with Yorio and Jalics after their release. "Do you know, based on your conversations with Jalics and Yorio, what they think about your behavior in regards to their kidnapping?" Castelli asks. Bergoglio says he spoke with Jalics on several occasions when he visited Argentina from Germany, where he took up residence after he was freed. He says Jalics was "understanding" and didn't want to relive what happened because he "suffered a lot." Bergoglio adds that neither Yorio nor Jalics "told me I could have done more" and they "didn't blame me." When Judge Castelli asks if he ever heard criticism from anyone other than the priests, Bergoglio says he thought Yorio had said "that maybe I had left them unprotected a bit, that I had not done enough. I don't remember if this is exactly what it was, but it was I had not protected them enough, and not protecting them I had left them unprotected, not the word "entregado " [literally "given up," with connotations of "snitched" or "ratted out"] at least I never heard this word, he didn't say it, but it was close to this." Later [not here on video], Bergoglio says Yorio had been "conditioned by the suffering that he had to go through."

Sam Ferguson is a visiting fellow at the Schell Center for International Human Rights at Yale Law School and a former Fulbright Scholar. He is writing a book, Remnants of a Dirty War, about human rights trials in Argentina.