The first pope ever to come from Latin America has received much media attention since he was elected in March.
Many Catholics view Pope Francis as a progressive pontiff, leading the papal office away from staunch conservative control. He made headlines when he washed the feet of Muslims, carved his name into plaster busts of pilgrims, called his hometown newspaper in Buenos Aires to cancel his subscription and made a statement about prioritising “a poor church for the poor”.
But the most recent – and possibly most controversial – stories surrounding Pope Francis are accusations dating back to the 1970s and ’80s, when as Father Jorge Bergoglio he was the Jesuit superior and cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church when the military junta of Argentina took control of the country.
The regime embarked on a ‘dirty war’ against its opponents, from left-wing guerrillas to anyone associated with socialist ideas, be they students or journalists or trade unionists, thousands of whom ‘disappeared’. In 1977, at the height of the state terrorism, mothers and grandmothers banded together in the organisation called Madres de Plaza de Mayo to protest the disappearances and search for answers as to what happened to their children.
According to their website, these mothers “live in the memory of their children, in their dreams, do not ask insistently about an enigma, but circumstances, evil acts and murderers of power, involving the military, politicians, bureaucrats unions, employers, the priests – in short, all those who belong to the spectrum that follows the mandates of the establishment.”
The group estimates that some 30,000 people disappeared during the military dictatorship, which finally ended in 1983. Rumors have spread about camps or detention centres where prisoners were tortured and killed. The most disturbing were stories of pregnant women who had gone missing during this time; that the babies they gave birth to in the centres were given to ‘deserving’ couples connected to the junta, while the mothers were killed shortly after.
Most of los niños desaparecidos – the disappeared children – were never found or reunited with their families. With the modern development of DNA, some have discovered their true identities, but for many families the fate of their children remains a mystery.
The new pope is now facing criticism from those who ask why he did not hold a commission of enquiry into the desaparecidos during the dictatorship, though it is doubtful whether the military would have allowed any such investigation to take place. Many also believe that if the then Fr Bergoglio had fought any harder for the people of his country, he would have been assassinated like Oscar Romero, the archbishop from El Salvador, though his critics maintain that his silence equals complicity. It remains to be seen how he will deal with this controversy as his first year in the papacy unfolds.