ROME — The news from Argentina on what Pope Francis did, or didn't do during the years of the dirty war has shadowed the early days of his papacy, prompting the Vatican to denounce reporting to that effect.
Could it be, on this one, that the Vatican may be right?
How to square the image of a cleric accused by some of assisting fascist generals — the men guilty of kidnappings, torture, abduction of newborns whose mothers were murdered — with the pope of gentle demeanor who blessed a seeing-eye dog as he charmed the media at an audience on Saturday?
At issue are Father Jorge Mario Bergoglio's years in the byzantine society of Argentina when it hit moral rock bottom.
His family carried its own nightmare of Italy's descent into political madness.
"My father escaped from Italy because of fascism," the pope's sister, Maria Elena Bergoglio, has told Paolo Mastrolilli of La Stampa / Vatican Insider in Buenos Aires. "Do you think it is possible that my brother could be an accomplice of a military dictatorship? It would have been like betraying his memory."
That's a real question for the American media to consider.
Another is whether he had much choice in meeting with Boston's disgraced Cardinal Bernard Law when he went to Santa Maria Maggiore, where Law has lived for nine years, most of that time as arch-priest, or pastor. To visit the oldest basilica in Rome and toss out the scandal-stained prelate would have been a shot across the bow to the rest of the Curia, and a sure-fire international headline in the global media.
He chose not to take it, though the abuse crisis is sure to have minefields ahead. We know nothing about how he handled predators in Buenos Aires, in a legal system quite different from Western countries with a base in British common law.
As information from Argentina fills out stories of his past, Francis is sure to take more hits in the coverage. Yet the real story is how, or whether, he grew and changed. For now, what we don't know fills the space of a thousand libraries.
As the coverage continues on Bergoglio's complex dealings in a divided Jesuit community during the dirty war years, what Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese writes in National Catholic Reporter is worth quoting at length:
"Other rumors circulating say that as archbishop, Bergoglio allowed the military to hide prisoners in an archdiocesan retreat house so that they would not be seen by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights visiting the ESMA prison. Fact: Bergoglio was not archbishop when this took place. Horacio Verbitsky, an Argentine investigative journalist, says that Bergoglio helped him investigate the case.
"It is also said that there is written evidence in the Argentine foreign ministry files that Bergoglio gave information on [two] Jesuits to the military. The alleged conversation took place when Bergoglio was trying to get the passport of one of the Jesuits extended. Not only did this take place after they were arrested and after they were released, it was after they were safely out of the country. Nothing he could say would endanger them, nor was he telling the government anything it did not already know. He was simply trying to convince a bureaucrat that it was a good idea to extend the passport of this man so he could stay in Germany and not have to return to Argentina.
"More recently, Cardinal Bergoglio was involved in getting the Argentine bishops to ask forgiveness for not having done enough during the dirty war, as it was called in Argentina.
"In the face of tyranny, there are those who take a prophetic stance and die martyrs. There are those who collaborate with the regime. And there are others who do what they can while keeping their heads low. When admirers tried to claim that John Paul worked in the underground against Nazism, he set them straight and said he was no hero."
Bergoglio's role in Argentina's nightmare is shaping up as a story fraught with gray area and moral complexity; to say that is not to absolve him of what he may have done, rather to underscore that the press coverage has not provided a clear convincing picture of the scope of his actions over four decades as a priest, auxiliary bishop, archbishop and then cardinal. This is a huge international story coming out scattershot.
Reading his sister's words makes one wonder whether Francis has gotten a fair shake in the early reporting that has centered on a society carrying deep wounds of memory and a certain schizophrenia in its politics.