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Argentina’s bishops’ conference publishes report on the Catholic church’s role during the military dictatorship

Pope Francis is pictured with Argentina's President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner during a private audience at the Vatican June 7, 2015. Pope Francis is playing a key role in Argentina's bishops asking for forgiveness for what the church did, and did not do, during the dictatorship that ruled the country between 1976-1983 and claimed 10,000 to 30,000 lives. Pope Francis was a Jesuit provincial at the time of the military rule and in early 2000 started a process that led to the three-part report now being published by his native church. (OSV News photo/Angelo Carconi, pool via Reuters)

BUENOS AIRES — Argentina’s Catholic Church is going through a process of soul-searching as the country gets ready for general elections in October, four decades after the end of the last military dictatorship.

Argentina’s bishops’ conference in 2023 began publishing a sweeping report on its role during the military government between 1976 and 1983. The three-volume report, “The Truth Will Set You Free,” marks the first time a national church has publicly reviewed its actions during an authoritarian regime and made the findings public. It also is the first time the Argentine bishops’ conference has asked for forgiveness for what it did, and did not do, during the dictatorship.

“They have asked forgiveness of the victims and the Argentine people because they did not rise to the occasion. This is what happened and it is important because no institution in Argentina has asked for forgiveness or conducted self-criticism,” Father Carlos Galli, dean of the Theology School at the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina and lead author of the report, told OSV News.

“There are some coincidences with the publication of this work in a year polarized by the impoverishment of Argentines, the ongoing political debate around the elections, and the 40th anniversary of return to democracy,” he said.

The work has gained widespread national coverage, with more than 200 articles published, in addition to radio and television interviews, but international attention came from an unexpected source — Pope Francis — an Argentine who was Jesuit provincial during the military government and later cardinal of Buenos Aires, the capital.

Pope Francis, or Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, archbishop of Buenos Aires prior to his election as pope, met with Hungarian Jesuits during his late April visit to the country. There, he discussed the six-month kidnapping and torture in 1976 of two Jesuits, Hungarian-born Father Ferenc Jálics and Uruguayan Father Orland Yorio. The transcript of the conversation has been published by Italian Jesuit journal Civiltà Cattolica, which is a customary procedure after such meetings.

These two Jesuits were among an estimated 10,000 to 30,000 victims of forced disappearance, kidnapping, murder and torture during the 1976-83 military rule. Their case is included in the report. Both priests are now deceased, with Father Yorio dying in 2000 and Father Jálics in 2021.

Responding to a question about Father Jálics, the pope told the Hungarian Jesuits he did “what I felt I had to do to defend them. It was a very painful affair.” What got attention back home in Argentina, however, was his remark that there were politicians who wanted “to cut my head off” by attempting to link him to the military and, in particular, claiming he may have been complicit in the kidnappings of the two Jesuits. The pope did not mention who wanted his head.

The remarks added to the already turbulent economic and political context as inflation annualized through April was 109% and as the country gets ready to elect a new president in October. President Alberto Fernández has opted against running for a second term.

Father Galli, who went through more than 200,000 documents with his team, said the evidence not only exonerates the pope, but that Francis was critical in getting the report done.

“Pope Francis did three things to make this happen. First, as president of the episcopal conference (2005 to 2011), he had the files here organized. Second, he had the files concerning Argentina in the Holy See digitized. Third, he declassified the Vatican files for us,” Father Galli said.

The study covers the church as a whole in volume one and focuses exclusively on the bishops’ conference in volume two. The two volumes total 1,772 pages. Volume three will include an interdisciplinary look on the issues. It will be released at the end of this year.

Early in the century, when the pope was still Cardinal Bergoglio, he asked for an investigation into the death of Bishop Enrique Angelelli of La Rioja, who died in 1976. The military government claimed he died in a car accident, but the investigation confirmed that he had been murdered by the generals of the military junta. He was beatified as a martyr in 2019.

The investigation into Blessed Angelelli’s death turned up archives in the bishops’ conference that were filed under “human rights.” They contained letters from families to priests and bishops asking for help to find out what happened to their loved ones who had disappeared, kidnapped by the military. There were thousands of letters, as well as responses and correspondence reaching the ecclesial chain up to the papal nuncio and Rome.

Cardinal Bergoglio had the files in Argentina systematized and digitized. After being chosen pope, he did the same thing with the Vatican archives concerning Argentina’s military rule. Father Galli and three other theologians were chosen in 2017 to write the report. In an unprecedented move, the Vatican opened its archives on Argentina to Father Galli and the report’s co-authors.

“We were selected to search for the truth without ideological or corporate interests. We needed to understand a difficult history using a critical method and without hiding anything. We had to avoid a sugar-coated version of history,” Father Galli told OSV News.

The three volumes and the presentations to bishops and Argentine society, in general, have been faithful to the original idea, and Father Galli acknowledged it does not try to hide the lingering pain caused by the military government. He told OSV News about the human wickedness he was experiencing in his research and how reading the files was, in some way, a descent into hell. He personally had friends and family disappear.

“You can see the demonic spiral of violence that culminated in state terror, showing the limits of human cruelty with the disappearance of people at the hands of the state,” he said.

He added that the report and the decision by the bishops’ conference to ask for forgiveness is helping Argentina heal more than 40 years after the dirty war.

In the prologue to the report, the bishops not only asked for forgiveness for “many decisions, actions and omissions” during the military rule, but said the research would help them in a new stage of work for justice and harmony among Argentines.

Unlike the bishops in Chile, who set up the Solidarity Vicariate under the military government of General Augusto Pinochet that ruled the country 1973-1990, Argentina’s Catholic bishops did not create a churchwide system to assist victims or their families during military rule. While some individual bishops did provide assistance, the church as a whole remained on the sidelines.

“I think this is a liberating moment for the bishops. None of the bishops today came after 1983, but they are still carrying this cross. We agree that the church should have done more but reject the narrative that the church acted as an accomplice to state violence. It was not prophetic in the face of the tragedy, but it was not complicit as an institution,” Father Galli said.

The pope recommended to the Hungarian Jesuits at the end of the meeting that they read the Argentine’s church report, “The Truth Will Set You Free”: “There you will be able to find the truth about this case.”