Is CNN pushing the “Dirty War” story?

Suggestions that Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio was morally complicit in the crimes of the Argentine junta during the 1970s “dirty war” have made the rounds of the press following his election last week as pope. However, the American and French newspapers have diverged in their coverage of the story with the French reporting the accusations but giving them little credence.

GetReligion reader Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz argues some American outlets have been pushing the story.

CNN decides to keep up the appearance that there’s something wrong with Pope Francis after the Vatican has very forcefully denied any wrongdoing on his part during the Argentine Dirty War.

Given the denials put out by the Vatican and the lack of evidence to substantiate the charge’s Mr. Szyszkiewicz notes:

This is simply keeping the story alive after it should be killed. Kinda like Pius XII.

In support of his argument the sites this piece in CNN entitled “Vatican denies claim that Pope Francis failed to protect Argentina priests”.  The article begins:

Vatican City (CNN) — The Vatican pushed back Friday against claims that Pope Francis failed to protect two fellow Jesuit priests who were kidnapped during Argentina’s military dictatorship. The accusations have resurfaced since the Argentine cardinal’s unexpected election to the papacy two days ago.

As pope the A book by investigative reporter Horacio Verbitsky accuses Francis, who was then Jorge Mario Bergoglio and was head of the country’s Jesuit order, of deliberately failing to protect the two priests, Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics, when they were seized by the navy. They were found alive five months later. But the Rev. Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman, dismissed the claims — which date back to Argentina’s so-called Dirty War from 1976 to 1983 — as false and defamatory.

The CNN story then moves to quotes from Fr Lombardi and other church spokesman rejecting the accusations made by Horacio Verbitsky. (As an aside, context as to who was making the accusations might be helpful. Verbitsky is a supporter of Pres. Cristina Fernandez Kirchner and late husband Pres. Nestor Kirchner. Pope Francis as cardinal archbishop of Buenos Aires has been a vociferous critic of the Kirchners that has led the fight against gay marriage, abortion, and governmental corruption and incompetence.)

Mr. Szyszkiewicz cites this transition in the CNN story as evidence of editorial bias trumping news reporting.

Nonetheless, the incident led to rumors and allegations that Francis was complicit in the dictatorship’s appalling atrocity — that he didn’t do enough to expose it and perhaps was even partly responsible for the priests’ prolonged detention, said Jim Nicholson, a former U.S. ambassador to the Holy See.

Although the allegations against Francis have never been proved, they continue to haunt him, so much so that the human rights group Center for Legal and Social Studies in Argentina opposes Francis’ selection as pope. During the years of military dictatorship, up to 30,000 students, labor leaders, intellectuals and leftists disappeared or were held in secret jails and torture centers.

The claims against the new pope have cast a shadow over what has otherwise been widely viewed as a positive start for the new pontiff, who has embraced humility and simplicity. As pope, he will have other tough questions to deal with. He takes the helm of a Roman Catholic Church that has been rocked in recent years by sex abuse by priests, and claims of corruption and infighting among the church hierarchy.


CNN’s editorial insertion, that this casts a shadow on his papacy, is unsubstantiated. How does CNN know these allegations haunt Francis? Appearances are not against Francis but CNN. They have let their imaginations and desire for a great story drive their reporting – not a sober analysis of the facts.

The CNN piece is written in the sort of tone found in opinion journals. The New Republic, for example, published a story online entitled “When Pope Francis Testified About the Dirty War” that made the same allegations as CNN but in greater detail. It works from the transcript taken from court testimony where Francis testified as a witness and concluded Francis was not being truthful as to what he knew. It argued he did not do enough to fight the regime and acted inappropriately as superior of the Argentine province of Society of Jesus when two of its members were arrested.

The New Republic story, however, suffers from bad timing as one of the Jesuits arrested in the 70s released a statement exonerating Francis. It also is a could of, should of, kind of, may be story — long on suggestion but short of credible facts to substantiate the allegations.

I would contrast CNN’s articles with those found in the three main Parisian dailies: Le Monde, Le Figaro, and Liberation.  The French papers all reported the accusations made by Mr. Verbitsky as well as the denials by the Vatican but framed the stories so as to give Francis the benefit of the doubt. The French papers provided the context as well as the facts allowing readers to decide whom they want to believe. CNN believes Mr. Verbitsky and wants you to also. That may be appropriate for an opinion magazine like the New Republic. But is there enough information out there from CNN to do this? I don’t think so.

Addendum: For further background on this issue I recommend this item in the Wall Street Journal.

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About geoconger
  • FW Ken

    http://www.catholicnews.com/data/stories/cns/1301209.htm

    For some information about the complexities of the situation, I recommend this Catholic source. As to the pope, he want actually a bishop at the time, but superior of the Jesuit province. Also, I can’t find the link right now, but Amnesty International is also said to have investigated and cleared him.

    • geoconger

      No, he was not a bishop at the time. And please focus comments on the reporting — not on the issue.

  • John M.

    I believe the late President of Argentina is named “Nestor Kirchner”, without the preposition.

    -John

  • http://www.authenticbioethics.blogspot.com AuthenticBioethics

    It is not only “kinda like Pius XII” but also kinda like Benedict XVI and the whole Hitler Youth thing. Any mistake Francis may have done from the time he was born would be “haunting” him now, if the press could get a hold of it.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    It’s that addendum that’s particularly galling. Besides O’Grady, no one — and I mean no one — in the U.S. is paying attention to who this guy Horacio Verbitsky is. Why should anyone believe a guy who’s in bed (figuratively speaking) with the president of the country? Yet his association with the government is completely ignored.

    There is also a video of O’Grady saying that she thinks the Argentine left simply can’t forgive Cardinal Bergoglio for being anti-communist (http://live.wsj.com/?category=opinion#!B942577A-53F4-4B77-9B69-CF19A35B6AAD), in which there may also be some truth. Doubtless, there are some priests — including Jesuits — there as well who can’t forgive him for opposing liberation theology.

    • asshur

      Even more surprising (as it is in all the spanish press, at least) is the failure to mention that Verbinsky is not only ‘his Master’s Voice’, but that during that years (68-77 acording to his own testimony) was a member of the FAP and Montoneros terrorist groups (a mix of radical Peronists and Comunists)
      Might be only of marginal interest -i don’t really have enough information about the person- but should cast -at least- a shadow of reasonable skepsis about his testimony of that era

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  • Julia

    RE: please focus comments on the reporting — not on the issue.

    The Amnesty International investigation is part of the reporting that wasn’t done. A big hole.

  • Wayne

    You seem to be arguing that the press should not be reporting on what is a very large issue. There are lots of documents about Archbishop Bergoglio’s relatinship with various members of the junta that are now coming to light, to say nothing of a lot of material in Argentina that has not received sufficient attention. The role of the press is not to declare that everything is known because the Vatican issues a statement saying that.

    • geoconger

      Yes, the press should question — but this is not what was done here.

  • FW Ken

    That’s what I thought, Julia, but it’s not my blog, so there you go. And I am going to risk annoying Fr. Conger more because I think this article is an important complement to the main article. It’s linked in the middle of the main article, in fact.

    http://edition.cnn.com/2013/03/14/world/americas/argentina-pope-profile/index.html

    The key issue is stated clearly:

    Pope Francis is being painted as a humble and simple man, but his past is tinged with controversy surrounding topics as sensitive as gay marriage and political atrocities.

    The rest of the article is a trope on that pairing of issues, and I think that pairing will inform a lot of reporting we’ll be reading.

    • Jay

      Agreed. Good reporting is supposed to appropriately convey the issue at hand which really wasn’t done by the CNN article due to their desire for an eye catching story… The information you’ve provided does appropriately compliment the critiques that Geoconger has already made.

  • Martha

    What’s interesting is that today (at least according to the Irish radio news) President Cristina Kirchner, after her visit to the Vatican, is trying to rope him in to intervene in the ongoing tussle with Britain over the Falkland Islands.

    I’ll be interested to see how the media covers this; should or shouldn’t a pope get involved in politics? What about a politician who made at least part of her platform about standing against the archbishop when liberalising Argentine society, now asking for that same man to intervene in a political dispute? What about a politician who is part of the new regime after the junta still prosecuting the policies regarding the Falklands/Malvinas that the junta started with their invasion?

    • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

      Or what about the fact that then-Cardinal Bergoglio himself said at a memorial service for Argentine soldiers who died in the conflict, “We come to pray for those who have fallen, sons of the homeland who set out to defend his mother, the homeland, to claim the country that is theirs and they were usurped”? So how does a pope, who’s already made a comment on this conflict in favor of his homeland, step into a situation involving his homeland and another country?

  • Joan Dawson

    It is sad to realize that this wonderful choice for pope is being persecuted by lies already uncovered. There are those who hate an intelligent and pious voice of reason…one who truly walks the talk. Like Francis of Assissi, Pope Franscis will be remembered for what he accomplishes in this world for the poor and how he fights for the truths of the Catholic Church in the midst of calls for social reforms. Bravo and God bless you, Francis!

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    The eminent American canon lawyer Ed Peters commented on this in a post entitled: “When nothing else will work, accuse a Catholic prelate of NSO” (http://canonlawblog.wordpress.com/2013/03/15/when-nothing-else-will-work-accuse-a-catholic-prelate-of-nso/) with NSO meaning “not speaking out.” This is essentially what CNN is doing with the “Nevertheless” transition.

    • mollie

      Yes, a correspondent was telling me he thought it was cute that the media expect a priest to take on a violent army when his own priest can’t get the worship team to stop playing horrible music.

      It’s an easy charge to level, of course, but it would be more helpful if it were backed up with evidence and had some particulars that should have been done.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    The ubiquitous Father Thomas Reese, SJ, has written an article clarifying then-Father Brogoglio’s role in the Dirty War: http://ncronline.org/blogs/ncr-today/francis-jesuits-and-dirty-war. One wonders if the fawning press who seek him out as the only Catholic voice worth listening to will listen to him now. I have my doubts.

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