The 115 voting members of the College of Cardinals moved with great alacrity to send a signal that they meant to shake up the church. In a two-day conclave, a speedy election voted in Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, Archbishop of Buenos Aires, to succeed Pope Benedict XVI. And, at least for appearances sake, he became the first South American ever to grace the papal throne. In fact, he’s the first pope since 741 A.D. not to come from a European country.
But it doesn’t end there. Unlike past popes, Bergoglio hails from the Jesuit order of priests, regarded as the intellectual backbone of the church’s academic institutions and known as rebellious despite its members’ vow of obedience to the pope. What’s more, Bergoglio choose a name never before used by a pope: Francis. While we don’t yet know his reasons for choosing that name, it calls to mind the beloved Francis of Assisi, whose mission was to the poor, with reverence for animals, and rendered him an honored figure even to those outside of the Catholic faith.
Yet, despite his Latin American origins, the election of Bergoglio does not break the tradition of the papal chair as a white man’s throne; the new pope’s parents were Italian immigrants to Argentina.
It’s no secret that the Vatican likes its mystery and drama; a conclusion brought home as watchers of the Roman Catholic Church awaited the big reveal of the new pope. As white smoke spilled out of the chimney of the Sistine Chapel, it signaled that the assembled Cardinals inside the chapel had chosen the man to lead the world’s largest Christian denomination.
After making the media, as well as the faithful assembled in St. Peter’s Square wait for 40 minutes (the star always comes late), the hordes were given what they craved: the appearance of the new pope on the balcony of the famous basilica. He was dressed in white from papal skullcap to white-shoed toes.
Another pope turns a blind eye
Perhaps it was apt that the princes of the church should choose to elect their new boss on the very day that the Archdiocese of Los Angeles agreed to pay $10 million to four victims of a priest who abused them as children, another chapter in the church’s worldwide child sexual abuse scandal.
When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected to the papal throne in 2005, hopes were high that the former Vatican enforcer would crack down on the many archbishops, like L.A.’s Cardinal Roger Mahony, who moved abusive priests from parish to parish without reporting their crimes to authorities. Instead, the man who became Pope Benedict turned a blind eye as the scandal continued to unfold.
And then there was the VatiLeaks scandal, in which the pope’s butler was charged with leaking the pope’s private correspondence to an Italian journalist, who revealed a curia (like a presidential administration) torn with internecine battles and backbiting, as well as corruption at the Vatican Bank.
Meanwhile, Benedict had his henchmen crack down on U.S. nuns for their ostensibly “radical feminism.” The fact that those nuns are champions of the poor was not lost on American Catholics, throngs of whom supported the sisters with street demonstrations last year.
American Catholics also favor the ordination of women, and see their church as “out of touch,” according to a recent New York Times/CBS News poll.
So when Benedict announced his nearly unprecedented abdication, many in the church breathed a sigh of relief, fingers crossed that the conclave of 2013 would yield a pontiff who could bring the church back into the good graces of the world.
Bergoglio’s ties to the dark side
It turns out, though, that the new pope, Francis, isn’t a Hitler Youth or former German soldier, who cast aside his uniform as the allies were approaching so as not to be discovered, but Bergoglio has his own troubled history.
Francis I and with the whole Argentine Catholic Church have faced criticism for their silence or complicity during the post-1976 military dictatorship, a grim failure for which the Church apologized in 2012.
Known as the Dirty War, this period saw a brutal battle between the ruling military elite and leftist guerrilla fighters, in which up to 30,000 Argentines were “disappeared” and others were raped or killed. Forgive me, father, for I have sinner.
Verbitsky recounts how the Argentine navy with the connivance of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, now the Jesuit Archbishop of Buenos Aires, hid from a visiting delegation of the Inter-American Human Rights Commission the dictatorship’s political prisoners.
Bergoglio was hiding them in nothing less than his holiday home on an island called El Silencio in the River Plate. The most shaming thing for the church is that in such circumstances Bergoglio’s name was allowed to go forward in the ballot to choose the successor of Benedict XVI. What scandal would not have ensued if the first pope ever to be elected from the continent of America had been revealed as an accessory to murder and false imprisonment? Che schifezza, as they say.
Bergoglio claimed to writer Sergio Rubin that he hid these people to keep them from the violent military junta, not the Human Rights Commission—even as his Jesuit order and church leaders publicly endorsed the dictatorship.
He later said the endorsement was one of political pragmatism, which is understandable in the face of certain death, if not exactly righteous, according to the AP.
Bergoglio also faced criticism from human rights lawyer Myriam Bregman, who tried to bring the Catholic leader to court for allegedly turning over two priests to Argentine death squads—charges which others have denied.
In any case Bregman sees evidence in Bergoglio’s statements that he knew of the dictatorship’s crimes. ”The dictatorship could not have operated this way without this key support,” she said, according to the AP.
Certainly the waters here are a bit muddied. The history has many sides, as it often does when it’s so far removed from such shocking tragedy and conflict. But it shouldn’t be forgotten, even as the present is filled with white smoke, cheering crowds and hopeful hearts of Catholics everywhere for an end to the Vatican’s inglorious peccadilloes.
Jerry Mazza is a freelance writer and life-long resident of New York City. An EBook version of his book of poems “State Of Shock,” on 9/11 and its after effects is now available at Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com. He has also written hundreds of articles on politics and government as Associate Editor of Intrepid Report (formerly Online Journal). Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.