Bergoglio’s List: An Unexpected Discovery

The story of the Pope’s actions during Argentina’s Dirty War is as riveting as it is inspiring.

There is so much being written and said about Pope Francis that one is left trying to separate what is real from the hyperbole, the accurate from what is manipulated. It appears the more that is published, the more the man himself becomes an enigma. Nevertheless, a new book from St. Benedict Press, titled Bergoglio’s List: How a Young Francis Defied a Dictatorship and Saved Dozens of Lives, by Italian journalist Nello Scavo, about then-Father Bergoglio and the troubled events of his homeland some four decades ago, tells an impressive tale.

Many of the facts of this story seem to have been largely missed, or ignored, by the mainstream media, while distortions about what took place are readily publicized. The most prominent example of the latter is the allegation that in the 1970s the current Holy Father was somehow implicated in the events of Argentina’s Dirty War. This insinuation, which was floated in the media within days of the election of Pope Francis and which has intermittently come and gone ever since, has rarely been challenged or researched in detail—until now.

The book’s author, Nello Scavo, is a journalist with Avvenire, a Milan-based Catholic newspaper. Shortly after the last papal election, and with the blessing of his editor, he set out to uncover the truth behind the rumors already circulating about the new pope. He did so without an agenda, but aware that he might discover something disturbing. In fact, it would be fair to say he had no idea what he was about to unearth. What he did find was as unexpected as it was remarkable. 

The Dirty War

The book divides into three sections. The first is a brief overview of the Argentine military coup of 1976 and the resultant so-called Dirty War. This “war” consisted of a campaign of violence by that country’s security apparatus waged against left-wing terrorism; however, it also consisted of a “war” on its own people, or rather anyone who dared, or was suspected of daring, to oppose the new regime. That regime was a military junta made up of a triumvirate of commanders from the Army, Navy, and Air Force. These military leaders ruled with an iron fist, and, like most dictatorships, their enemies were deemed to be as widespread as the propaganda that justified their campaign. The terms “leftist,” “guerrilla,” “subversive,” and so on, were liberally bandied around and, as a result, many people suffered. Scavo estimates that as many as 19,000 died and 30,000 disappeared during the conflict, with their families left to grieve and grow bitter. All this was in the name of a “National Reorganization Process,” the slogan for the regime’s actions.

Death squads roamed the streets as military-run “detention centers” were busy in a trade that the author describes vividly as one of blood and disinfectant. Torture was widespread, with physicians turned into butchers—deaf to their maimed subjects’ pleas for mercy. Prisoners were hooded and held in kneeling positions for long periods, very long periods in some cases. Other inmates were suddenly shown their wives and girlfriends before being told that their loved ones would be raped unless they “named names”; by all accounts, many were raped. Children were forcibly removed from their parents and given over to military families for adoption—some estimate at least 500 such cases. The firing squads worked overtime. In addition, flights took off over the Atlantic with their doomed “payload”: bound and gagged prisoners who were subsequently thrown to their deaths in the ocean below. To this day the corpses of those so dispatched are still washing up on the Argentine shoreline.

The young Father Bergoglio

Into this world of violence, brutality, and death stepped a young Jesuit priest: Jorge Bergoglio. When the military coup took place, he was 39 years old and the Jesuit provincial for Argentina. It is in the second part of Scavo’s book that we see Father Bergoglio enter into the dark shadows then cast over his homeland.

This part of the book consists of 12 personal stories. The people involved came from varied walks of life; some were political, some were just in the wrong place at the wrong time, some were religious, but most of them were trying to live as decently as they could. It was to make little difference—the events of the mid-1970s to 1983, when the regime ended, were to turn their lives upside down and in ways that reverberate to this day. The other link for all concerned is that they owe their lives in some part to the actions of Father Bergoglio.

Like an Argentine Scarlet Pimpernel, the provincial becomes involved in rescuing some of these people, while helping others to evade arrest or providing them with means to flee the country. Perhaps most striking of all, on occasion he is secreted into the palace of one the country’s rulers to confront him about what is happening.

Like Nazi-occupied Rome, which saw the heroic efforts of Father Hugh O’Flaherty, Buenos Aires under dictatorship had a priest similarly engaged, Father Bergoglio. Like the Irish priest some 30 years before, his Argentine counterpart was a man more concerned with action than speech-making. In fact, nowhere does he make political statements, remaining intent on doing what he can to aid others. In these accounts, Bergoglio may be a man of few words, yet one senses the strength of his determination in the face of so pressing a danger. We find him driving those hunted by the regime around the heavily militarized streets of the Argentine capital, and, with police and military circling nearby, telling his passengers to stay calm. They later remarked on how self-possessed their rescuer was throughout it all, regardless of the threat posed. Of course, if the car had been stopped and its occupants discovered, its driver would have found himself at one of the infamous detention centers with a military interrogator demanding answers, possibly accompanied by a solemn-faced surgeon ready to aid any interrogation with a scalpel. 

We do not know for certain how many people he helped; Scavo sets his estimate at more than 100. Pope Francis, over the years, has said as little as possible about what he did. Nevertheless, even if, as one suspects, he continues to maintain his silence, those in the book give witness. His election to the See of Peter affected these witnesses in different ways. Some of those helped by Bergoglio—those whose stories are not in the book—when approached by Scavo told him to “let it lie,” apparently not wanting the publicity or to revisit the pain of those days. Those that did speak to Scavo have mixed views of Bergoglio’s election as pope. For some, he is still Father Bergoglio, the brave priest who saved their lives; for others, his becoming pope is a logical step in the life of a unique and holy man.

A complicated history

Bergoglio’s List is not an exhaustive study of the Dirty War; its brief overview of the conflict focuses on the state’s repressive actions while omitting the leftist terrorism that, to some extent at least, provoked those actions. Nor is it a history of the Argentine Church during that period. It would be fair to say that the book’s brevity—it is just over 200 pages—is in the end a strength, as it is enough to give the reader an appetite to learn more about those turbulent times in Latin America.  

Importantly, it deals—as much as it can in the space allowed—with the disappearances of two Jesuits and their then-provincial’s role in their ordeal. It is in regard to these cases that some in the secular media have alleged that Father Bergoglio did not do enough, perhaps that he was even complicit in the regime’s activities. Scavo argues convincingly that Bergoglio was as active in those two cases as he was in any other when asked for help. Included in this volume are retractions of several negative statements made by some individuals involved in the cases during the heady days of March 2013, shortly after the election of the new pope.

There is a surprise ending, though. As already stated, the first segment of the book deals with historic and political background; the second part is the powerful, personal story of those Bergoglio helped. With that, I imagined that the real drama of the book had ended. This was not the case, however, as what turned up in the final section proved to be the most riveting part of the book yet.

This final part consists of the transcript of the 2010 cross-examination of the then-cardinal archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Bergoglio, about his role in the Dirty War, and about the abduction of his two Jesuit confreres in particular. His questioners include a lawyer for the war’s victims, who is hostile both to the Church and to the witness. His questions are rapid and direct. The archbishop’s responses are calm and equally direct. An intellectual and emotional contest plays out: the more agitated the interrogator becomes the calmer, and more reasonable, his witness becomes.

By the end, what is most noteworthy is the figure who emerges from these last pages: a priest with nothing to hide, who did what he could for others at potentially great personal cost, essentially the same determined and clear-thinking individual who drove a sedan and its dangerous “cargo” through those dark streets of 1970s Buenos Aires.

Bergoglio’s List: How a Young Francis Defied a Dictatorship and Saved Dozens of Lives
by Nello Scavo
Saint Benedict Press, 2014
Paperback, 200 pages

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About K. V. Turley 61 Articles
K.V. Turley writes from London.