Guest opinion: Pinochet, the Pope and good priests

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By Fernando Andrés Torres

I still remember when I was removed from solitary confinement into the general inmate population of Tres Alamos -- one of the infamous concentration camps of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet -– and the special welcome given to us 30 or so freshly arrived detainees by the commander of the camp, Conrado Pacheco.

He was dressed in his best military attire. I will never forget the clattering of his black shiny boots, his watery eyes, his mouth salivating like a predator before a feast. The bloody military rule was in full swing. It was the end of 1975, a time when one of the fiercest repressions was unleashed against the left, the supporters of the ousted Salvador Allende's government -- and the progressive wing of the Catholic church, lead mostly by Jesuit priests.

There were workers, teachers, artists and students. Like my father, I was an agnostic just finishing high school and very much involved with the underground resistance movement when I was taken at gunpoint from the school.

Next to me was a tall dirty man with a somber yet authoritative look behind his glasses. A bold lawyer who later became president of Amnesty International, Jose Zalaquett's unclenched look made Conrado Pacheco uneasy. The curas buenos -- the good priests Patricio Gajardo and US citizen Daniel Panchot --  were also standing in the line in a cold sweat.

The welcoming was special because among the prisoners, these roughed up lawyers and priests from the Comité Pro Paz, stood out.
Created a few months after the military coup of 1973 the Comité Pro Paz, Committee for Peace, was the only organization that under the protection of a sector of the Catholic Church was defending and giving sanctuary to the thousands of victims of human rights violations. It was closed down by Pinochet himself in November of 1975. But three months later Cardinal Silva Henríquez created a similar organization named Vicarship of the Solidarity.

Beside the insults, the welcoming speech of the commander waxed Nazi-like verbose about nationalism, order, communist evil, Che Guevara, and sarcastic references about God. “Mister lawyer here,” I remember him saying while looking at Zalaquett, “since he should be outside and not inside ... I'm not sure what he can do to defend you all.” And pointing at the priests, the scoundrel said, “since we have two distinguished representatives of God, you all now know where to go in case you have some pending debts with the Lord, you all fucking sinners!”

All these memories flooded back to me when I learned about the ascent of Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Pope Francis I, and the stories dripping out of Argentina about his collusion with the military during the guerra sucia, dirty war, his pending trials and his alleged complicit silence.

There is nothing new here: During those harsh years, the church was divided amongst those priests who stood up to defend Christ's children and those who retreated to silence. Every military garrison had its chaplain, every piece of military equipment was baptized, and there were priests who were victims of torture and even killed (Miguel Woodward in Chile) as well as priests who were in concomitance with the torturers (Christian Federico von Wernich, now serving a life sentence in Argentina).

Horacio Verbinsky, an Argentinean investigative journalist who has written extensively about the church and the military, wrote in his 1995 book, The Silence, that Bergoglio gave information to the Argentinean secret police, known as the death squads, about the activities of the Jesuits priests Francisco Jalics and Orlando Yorio, after they refused to stop working with the poor in Buenos Aires' shanty towns. Bergoglio dropped their protection, a sort of immunity offered to the Jesuit society by the military, which eventually lead to their arrest. Both were brutally tortured and dumped drugged and naked on a wasteland. A lawsuit filed in 2005 accused Bergoglio in the abductions.

Bergoglio also befriended General Emilio Massera, a member of the Argentinean military junta, who was later accused of crimes against humanity and of stealing the babies of disappeared political prisoners to be raised by military families.

As columnist Cristian Joel Sánchez recently wrote from Chile, Bergoglio is “morally accused for his complicit silence in the abduction of babies … as in the case of the founder of the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo, Alice de la Cuadra's granddaughter … But in the end, many of the leaders of the Latin American     churches have their history and the responsibility of which, according to their beliefs, must be answered to their God.”

Jalics, Yorio, and those two fathers I befriended in prison, Gajardo and Panchot, were among those priests who followed to the letter the teachings of Christ to protect the helpless, to feed and be with the needy and did not capitulate in silence.

The Vatican has recognized that Bergoglio was indeed “questioned by an Argentinian court as someone aware of the situation but never as a defendant,” and that he promoted “a request for forgiveness of the Church in Argentina for not having done enough at the time of the dictatorship ...” But the statement, read by Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi March 15, falls short in answering the abundant details of Bergoglio’s behavior and actions during the dirty war.

The Sumo Pontífice, the Pope Francis l, the one who will lead more than 1.1 billion people, must come clean and respond to all the testimony that is fogging his character. He must side with truth and justice; the only door that can lead us to reconciliation. After all, forgiveness, after the truth comes out, has always been an option in the Catholic Church.