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Papal election stirs Argentina’s ‘dirty war’ past

BUENOS AIRES — Pope Francis is known for his humility, his reluctance to talk about himself. The self-effacement, admirers say, is why he has hardly ever denied one of the harshest allegations against him: That he was among church leaders who failed to confront Argentina’s murderous dictatorship.

It’s without dispute that Jorge Mario Bergoglio, like most other Argentines, did not challenge the 1976-1983 military junta while it was kidnapping and killing thousands of people in a ‘‘dirty war’’ to eliminate leftist opponents.

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But the new pope’s authorized biographer, Sergio Rubin, asserts that this was a failure of the Roman Catholic Church in general, and that it’s unfair to label Bergoglio with the collective guilt that many Argentines of his generation still deal with.

‘‘In some way many of us ­Argentines ended up being ­accomplices,’’ at a time when anyone who spoke out could be targeted, Rubin recalled.

Some leading Argentine human rights activists agree that Bergoglio doesn’t deserve to be lumped together with other church figures who were closely aligned with the dictatorship.

‘‘Perhaps he didn’t have the courage of other priests, but he never collaborated with the dictatorship,’’ said Adolfo Perez Esquivel, who won the 1980 Nobel Peace Prize for documenting the junta’s atrocities. ‘‘Bergoglio was no accomplice of the dictatorship,’’ he told Radio de la Red in Buenos Aires.

Other activists are angry over the positions Bergoglio, 76, has taken in recent years, as Argentina pursues investigations aimed at exposing those responsible for killing as many as 30,000 people, and finding traces of their victims.

Some say he has been more concerned about preserving the church’s image.

‘‘There’s hypocrisy here when it comes to the church’s conduct, and with Bergoglio in particular,’’ said Estela de la Cuadra, whose mother cofounded the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo activist group to search for missing relatives. ‘‘There are trials of all kinds now, and Bergoglio systematically refuses to support them.’’

Bergoglio twice invoked his right to refuse to appear in open court in trials involving torture and murder inside the Navy Mechanics School and the theft of babies from detainees. When he did testify in 2010, his answers were evasive, human rights attorney Myriam Bregman said.

Bergoglio’s own statements proved church officials knew from early on that the junta was torturing and killing its citizens even as the church publicly endorsed the dictators, she said.

Rubin, a religious affairs writer for the Argentine newspaper Clarin, said Bergoglio took major risks to save ‘‘subversives’’ during the 1976-1983 dictatorship, but never spoke about it publicly before his 2010 biography, ‘‘The Jesuit.’’

In the book, Bergoglio wrote that he didn’t want to stoop to his critics’ level — and then shared some of his stories. He said he once passed his Argentine identity papers to a wanted man with a similar appearance, enabling him to escape to Brazil, and added that many times he sheltered people inside church properties before they were safely delivered into exile.

The most damning accusation against Bergoglio is that as the young leader of Argentina’s Jesuit order, he withdrew his support for two slum priests whose activist colleagues were disappearing. The priests were kidnapped and tortured at the Navy Mechanics School.

Bergoglio said he had told the priests — Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics — to give up their slum work for their own safety, and they refused.

But Yorio later accused Bergoglio of effectively delivering them to the death squads by declining to publicly endorse their work. Yorio is now dead, and Jalics has refused to discuss these events since moving into a German monastery.

Both priests were eventually dropped off blindfolded in a field, two of the few detainees to have survived that prison.

Rubin said Bergoglio only reluctantly told him the rest of the story: that he had gone to great lengths to save them.

Then in his 30s, he persuaded the family priest of feared dictator Jorge Videla to call in sick so that he could say Mass instead. Once inside Videla’s home, Bergoglio privately appealed for mercy, Rubin wrote.

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