Pope Francis at the Basílica de Guadalupe in Mexico City on 13 May 2016.

The trial​ of Argentina’s military leaders took place in Buenos Aires between April and September 1985. The court heard evidence against the nine most senior figures in the regime, including three former presidents – Videla, Viola and Galtieri. Sittings began each day in the early afternoon and often went on until after midnight. The first official inquiry into the extent of torture and disappearances in Argentina, called CONADEP, had been set up by Raúl Alfonsín in December 1983 shortly after his election as president. It reported nine months later, identifying three hundred secret detention centres during the reign of the generals and documenting almost nine thousand deaths and disappearances. Its findings were published as a book, Nunca Más.

The coup that brought the military to power in 1976 was led by three men: Jorge Videla from the army, Emilio Massera from the navy and Orlando Ramón Agosti from the air force. Of the three, Massera was the most dangerous and determined. It was believed that if you were arrested by the army or the air force, you had a roughly one in ten chance of being murdered; if you were taken by the navy you had only a one in ten chance of getting out alive. Videla was named president on 29 March 1976, but in reality power was shared between the three. This meant that no one was ever quite sure who was actually in control, or who to appeal to when things went wrong.

So when Edgardo Sajón, a former government press secretary, was arrested in 1977, his wife went to see one of the generals only to be told that the security forces worked independently from one another and he couldn’t help her. Twice she went to see Videla himself, who told her that there was a pact of silence in the military on the disappearances. One official told her that maybe their relationship was the problem and her husband had left her. In the end, as she told the court, she gave up asking questions, since she had her children to think about, and those who talked too much about the disappeared tended to disappear themselves.

Versions of her experience were repeated many times in the course of the trial. The next witness, however, stood apart. He was General Alejandro Lanusse, president of Argentina between 1971 and 1973. His bearing was dignified, and he brought a sense of his own importance to the witness box. Sajón had been his press secretary, and Lanusse had made a ‘vehement and long-lasting attempt to find out what happened’ to him. He told the court that he had had meetings with four of the military leaders on trial. When he was told there was a small group which acted outside official government channels on security matters, he sent the regime a public telegram demanding information.

He spoke with controlled rage, as a man used to having his orders obeyed. He gave an account of having to identify the body of his cousin, the diplomat Elena Holmberg, found in a river in 1978. Holmberg had been summoned back to Buenos Aires from Paris, with her loyalty to the regime under suspicion. It was believed that she was murdered on Massera’s orders. As Lanusse was waiting to see her body, he told the court, he heard a senior officer complain about how long it had taken to find her. A junior officer replied: ‘How can you worry about one body when you have thrown eight thousand into the Río de la Plata?’ The next witness, a former policeman called Carlo Alberto Hours, was able to tell the court how Sajón had died. He gave a graphic description of how they had tied him to a billiard table, wetting his clothes and the surface of the table, before putting electric wires around one of his toes and into his mouth.

The official expectation was that all this explicit and dramatic first-hand evidence would matter, and that the trial would be avidly followed all over Argentina and would establish the enormity of what had transpired before democracy was restored. But everywhere I went in Buenos Aires in those months in 1985 I encountered a similar response. Sometimes it was just a shrug of indifference; at others, it was a firm denial that any of this had ever happened. Some people believed the trial was a waste of resources. Others insisted that I would take a different view had I been in Argentina in 1976 when the generals took over and faced a determined, well-educated and well-funded terrorist group known as the Montoneros, which had emerged as a left-wing splinter from Peronism, with roots in radical Catholic groups. Attending the trial was like being in a bubble. As I began to discover the city, I recognised street names and tram stops from testimony given in court, places where bodies had been dumped or people arrested. Buenos Aires, for me, even still, is the city where the disappearances happened. But this is not what many people felt in 1985.

Of all those who gave evidence, one figure really stands out. Christian von Wernich was a priest and police chaplain. Later, in 2006, he would be charged with murder and kidnapping as part of the military repression, and in 2007 he would be sentenced to life imprisonment. But appearing before the court in 1985, he was a tall, confident, plausible, well-groomed figure in his forties. He explained that as a police chaplain he had come across a number of young people in detention and had offered them what he called ‘my spiritual services’. They had doubts, they had problems, they had fears, he said with the utmost gravity. When asked about their physical state, he said that he had only considered their spiritual state. He said it with such seriousness that, for a moment, it even sounded true. There was no torture, he said, his voice becoming angry; in all his years as a police chaplain he had never heard of a prisoner being tortured. He would never have tolerated it.

The incredulous laughter began when von Wernich said that, having found out that eight of these young people were going to leave the country, he had counselled them on the perils of living abroad. He spoke to them, he said, about what they might miss if they went to Uruguay or Brazil. It was clear to everyone present that the young people in question were dead. All eight had been named in court. They were last seen in November 1977, having been arrested a year earlier.

During the trial, many odd details emerged about the system the generals oversaw. Evidence was given that the security forces stole from every house they raided. One woman testified that every single object in her apartment was taken, including the light bulbs. The wife of a torturer called Colores couldn’t work out how to use a sewing machine taken from a detained woman, so Colores had to appeal to the detainee for advice. Since one prisoner was an electrician, the guards brought him goods to repair, including the cattle prods that they used for torture. After he was released, Julián Alega, who had been badly tortured by both Colores and a man called Julián El Turco, met Colores on the street. He told the court that Colores asked him how he was doing, as though they were old friends, and gave him a telephone number in case he was ever in trouble. He also met El Turco, who proposed that they might go into business together.

The group befriended by von Wernich had been tortured at the beginning of their incarceration, the court was told, but were later held in better conditions than other detainees. When two of the women gave birth, the babies were handed over to the grandparents. This was unusual: most children born in prison were quietly adopted by military families. Towards the end of 1977, the young prisoners who had come to von Wernich’s attention were given to believe that they were going to be allowed to leave the country. They asked their parents for money and passports and copies of their degrees. Their parents gave all this material to von Wernich. When time went by and there was no word from the detainees, they appealed to von Wernich, who told them not to give up hope.

In court, von Wernich had a curious way of responding to the most ordinary questions. When asked about a man called Astiz, a notorious torturer, he began to talk about what a wonderful name Assisi was and what resonance it had for Catholics. He was asked when precisely the prisoners had departed; he replied that it was in November, because November is the month of the Virgin, and he went on to describe the importance of the Virgin in his own life and the life of the church. In the end, he testified that all eight detainees had left the country, some by air, some by land. He saw them all off, he said, but couldn’t remember the name of a single person who had come with them to the airport, though he agreed that there had been a driver and several members of the security forces. No, he couldn’t remember what these people looked like or what sort of car it was. There is no record of any of the prisoners leaving Argentina or entering any other country. And there is no record of anyone seeing them after November 1977.

On the day after von Wernich gave evidence, I went through the newspapers looking for some comment from the Catholic Church on what he had said. But there was nothing. The church had been mentioned in the trial only because there were chaplains in the detention centres. When I began to ask people where the church was during what became known as the Dirty War, no one had much to tell me.

Twenty-eight years later, in 2013, when Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who had been in Buenos Aires through the reign of the generals, was elected pope, I wondered what his response to the disappearances had been. What was he doing, what was he saying, between 1976 and 1982?

In 1973, at the age of 36, Bergoglio became the youngest provincial in the history of the Jesuits, responsible for both Argentina and Uruguay. At the time of his appointment, the Jesuits were going through a crisis that included a radical drop in the number of novices. In the religious split among Catholics in Latin America, Bergoglio’s position was clear: he opposed liberation theology. In Argentina he supported the Iron Guard, a right-wing Peronist group, and was, for a time, spiritual adviser to them. As a novice master, Bergoglio had been a strict disciplinarian. Now he set about imposing discipline on the Jesuits under his control. ‘He brought in conservative lay professors to replace teachers he considered too progressive,’ Paul Vallely writes in Pope Francis: Untying the Knots (2013). ‘He tried to make us more like a religious order,’ one of Bergoglio’s students recalled, ‘wearing surplices and singing the office … Bergoglio brought in an arch-conservative, the military chaplain from Moreno Air Base, to teach. He seemed unaware of any of the teachings of Vatican II. It was all St Thomas Aquinas and the old Church Fathers. We didn’t study a single book by Gutiérrez, Boff or Paulo Freire’ (the main theorists of liberation theology). In his first interview as pope, Bergoglio spoke of these years: ‘I had to deal with difficult situations, and I made my decisions abruptly and by myself. My authoritarian and quick manner of making decisions led me to have serious problems and to be accused of being ultra-conservative.’ A Jesuit who lived under Bergoglio’s rule is quoted by Jimmy Burns in Francis: Pope of Good Promise (2015): ‘He exercised his authority with an iron fist as if he was the sole interpreter of St Ignatius Loyola.’

When Jesuit priests visited poor areas, Bergoglio encouraged them to talk about religion rather than social conditions and to have nothing to do with unions or co-operatives. Under orders from his superiors in Rome, Bergoglio had to sell the Universidad del Salvador, one of Argentina’s Jesuit universities. He gave it to the Iron Guard. The Iron Guard, Vallely writes, were ‘an odd bunch … who liked to think of themselves as a secret order characterised by obedience, intellectual rigour and ascetic discipline’. This decision to hand the university over to them, according to Guillermo Marcó, who was Bergoglio’s spokesman for eight years, ‘is something for which many Jesuits have never forgiven him’.

Bergoglio, whose father had emigrated from Italy in 1929, was from a lower class than the normal run of Jesuits and, as Marcantonio Colonna writes in The Dictator Pope: The Inside Story of the Francis Papacy (2017), ‘in the class-conscious society that is Argentina’s legacy from its oligarchic past this was always a visible handicap.’ (Colonna is the pen name of a Catholic writer called Henry Sire.) Before entering the Jesuits, Bergoglio trained as a lab technician. He wouldn’t have been fired up by the seminal texts that gave rise to liberation theology.

When the coup​ took place in 1976, the Jesuits were divided. As the Jesuit historian Jeffrey Klaiber has written, ‘during these years, the Argentinian province did not march in unison with the rest of the Society of Jesus in Latin America.’ In The Catholic Church and Argentina’s Dirty War (2015), Gustavo Morello, another Jesuit, writes: ‘In contrast to the situations in Chile, Brazil, Guatemala, Peru, Ecuador and El Salvador, in Argentina none of the most important dioceses, nor the Argentine Bishops’ Conference as a group, created any framework to protect victims or to document the alleged abuses. Scholars have been perplexed by the public silence of the Argentine hierarchy in those years.’ Two months after the coup, the bishops issued a statement which, Vallely writes, ‘called for understanding towards the military government. The document said it was wrong to expect the security agencies to act “with the chemical purity” they would in peacetime … The moment required, the bishops said, that a measure of freedom be sacrificed.’

In 2012, the year before his death, the ex-president Videla gave an interview about his regime’s dealings with the church: ‘My relationship with the church was excellent. It was very cordial, frank and open.’ During the dictatorship, Admiral Massera played tennis with the papal nuncio, Pio Laghi, once a fortnight. It was arranged for Massera to have an audience with Pope Paul VI on a visit to Rome in 1977. In the same year, he was invited to give a speech and receive an honorary doctorate from the Universidad del Salvador, no longer owned by the Jesuits but still seen as a Jesuit institution. Bergoglio did not attend. Instead, the Jesuits were represented by the rector of the Jesuit seminary in Buenos Aires.

There is no evidence that Bergoglio socialised with anyone much at all in the years of the dictatorship, least of all the leaders of the regime. He knew them, however, and kept avenues of communication with them open. But he spent more energy on keeping recalcitrant Jesuits in line. In 2010 he said: ‘I knew that something serious was happening and that there were a lot of prisoners, but I realised that it was much more than that only later on. Society as a whole only became fully aware of events during the trial of the military commanders … In truth I found it hard to see what was happening until they started to bring people to me.’ Part of the justification for not openly denouncing the regime was that it allowed the church to intercede for those detained, but, as Austen Ivereigh, a writer highly sympathetic to Bergoglio, writes in The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope (2014), ‘the results were meagre.’

The most serious allegation against Bergoglio during the Dirty War was given some attention during the 2005 papal conclave, when he was the main contender against Joseph Ratzinger after the death of John Paul II. It centred on the arrest and torture of two Jesuit priests, Oswaldo Yorio and Franz Jalics. Bergoglio had known both of them since the early 1960s – they had been his teachers. By the time Bergoglio took over as provincial of Argentina and Uruguay, both men were aligned with what Ivereigh calls ‘post-conciliar Jesuit chaos’, lodging not in a Jesuit house but in a poor area of the city in a community that was, Ivereigh writes, ‘an avant-garde experiment in non-hierarchical, politically engagé living’. In February 1976, Bergoglio told them they would have to dissolve the communities they had established and move to a Jesuit residence. They decided to stay, putting themselves at considerable risk of being treated by the regime as political activists. In May, four women catechists who worked with them were abducted and never seen again. The bishop of the diocese withdrew their licences to say mass. When they appealed to Bergoglio, he said they could say mass in private. A week later, both men were abducted, it was believed by the navy.

They were kept in custody for five months, blindfolded and handcuffed. A judicial inquiry in 2010 concluded that their release was ‘a consequence of steps taken by the religious order to which the victims belonged and the interest taken in them by leading members of the Catholic church’. This included two meetings that Bergoglio had with Massera. The second of these meetings, Bergoglio said, was brief and ugly, ending with Bergoglio saying flatly that he wanted the priests released. He also had two meetings with Videla, the second one occurring only because he asked the priest saying mass for the general to report in sick so that Bergoglio could attend in his place. Videla was more cordial and responsive than Massera.

After the pair were released, Yorio especially began to ask questions about Bergoglio’s involvement, claiming that the future pope had visited the building where he and Jalics were being detained. This claim, Jimmy Burns writes, ‘was never substantiated’. Speaking to his authorised biographers in 2013, Bergoglio merely said: ‘Fortunately, sometime later they were released, firstly because they [the regime] couldn’t find anything to substantiate their allegations, and second because on the very night I heard they had been arrested, I started seeing what I could do on their behalf.’ The interesting phrase here is ‘they couldn’t find anything to substantiate their allegations,’ as though the navy under Massera ever sifted evidence or operated judicially. Yorio claimed, as Ivereigh writes, that Bergoglio ‘had actually put his name on a list that he gave to his torturers’, but again there is no evidence for this. ‘It is absolutely wrong to say that Jorge Bergoglio delivered these priests,’ one of the judges insisted at the end of the inquiry in 2010. ‘We’ve heard this version, analysed the evidence presented and concluded that his actions had no legal involvement in this case.’

In 1979, Bergoglio was replaced as Jesuit provincial, becoming rector of the seminary. In these years, the Jesuits in Argentina were divided between the Peronists and anti-Peronists, with Bergoglio in the former camp, believing in the need to be close to the people while keeping away from political theory and, in a sort of sanctified Peronism, encouraging the worship of images and devotion to the Virgin. Bergoglio’s interest in devotional images was antithetical to Jesuit culture, as one of his colleagues pointed out: ‘You can’t believe it, he introduced Argentine Jesuits to popular religiosity.’ He encouraged students to go ‘to the chapel at night and touch images! This was something the poor did, the people of the pueblo, something that the Society of Jesus worldwide doesn’t do.’ Bergoglio also supported Argentinian nationalism. In October 2009, while blessing relatives of soldiers killed in the Falklands War, he told them to ‘kiss that land which is ours and which seems so far away’. Three years later he spoke of the dead soldiers ‘as sons of the fatherland who went out … to claim what belonged to the fatherland’.

Just after Bergoglio was elected pope, the superior general of the Jesuits wrote a letter to the members of the order worldwide in which he said that this was a time ‘not to allow ourselves to be swept away by distractions of the past’. The superior general knew, Ivereigh writes, ‘that there were Jesuits of a certain vintage – both inside Argentina and elsewhere – who mistrusted Bergoglio, saw him as a retrograde, divisive figure, and he knew that this toxicity could damage the Jesuits’ relationship with the new pope’. The doubts had started early. In 1977, an English Jesuit, Michael Campbell-Johnston, sent to Argentina to report on the order there, wrote that he was appalled that ‘our institute in Buenos Aires was able to function freely because it never criticised or opposed the government,’ and, according to Ivereigh, ‘he berated Bergoglio … for being “out of step with our other social institutes in the continent”.’ Between 1988 and 1990, tensions grew within the Argentine Jesuits. Despite the fact that he said little, ‘Bergoglio was increasingly blamed for stirring this up,’ Ivereigh writes. In April 1990, Bergoglio was removed from his teaching job and asked to hand over his room key. Those who appeared to be closest to him were sent abroad. He himself was transferred to Córdoba, Argentina’s second city, where he spent two years. The new provincial of the Jesuits had been one of his harshest critics. This was a time, Bergoglio later said, ‘of great interior crisis’. It is where his story as a Catholic leader might easily have ended.

In notes​ he wrote during this exile, there are oblique justifications for what he had done during the Dirty War. He believed that some crises had no human solutions, and that ‘visceral impotence’ imposed ‘the grace of silence’. In a section called ‘God’s War’, he observed that there were often times when, in Ivereigh’s paraphrase, ‘God went into battle with the enemy of humankind, and it was a mistake to get involved.’ In order to return to power, Bergoglio hitched his wagon to the star of Antonio Quarracino, who was appointed archbishop of Buenos Aires in 1990. Quarracino, like Bergoglio a Peronist, disliked the government of Alfonsín, who, as Jimmy Burns writes, was ‘the first democratically elected Argentine president seriously to challenge the Peronist political dominance and power of the military since 1930’. Quarracino opposed moves to liberalise the divorce laws, and in 1994 declared on television that lesbians and gay men should be ‘locked up in a ghetto’ – homosexuality was ‘a deviation of human nature, like bestiality’. Burns writes that ‘there is no record of Bergoglio having said a word against him. As his auxiliary bishop, Bergoglio professed total loyalty to Quarracino.’

By becoming an auxiliary bishop under Quarracino, in 1992, Bergoglio was moving further away from the Jesuits. His vow of obedience to his Jesuit superiors no longer applied. On visits to Rome, he never once stayed in the Jesuit house on Borgo Santo Spirito but found his own lodgings. Once elected pope, Bergoglio wanted the world to know that he was, or had been, sinful. ‘I don’t want to mislead anyone – the truth is that I’m a sinner,’ he told interviewers. ‘From a young age, life pushed me into leadership roles – as soon as I was ordained as a priest, I was designated as a master of novices, and two and a half years later, leader of the province – and I had to learn from my errors along the way, because, to tell the truth, I made hundreds of errors. Errors and sins.’

There is no evidence that Bergoglio, as one of the six auxiliary bishops, was ‘pushed’ into any role. He remained close to Quarracino, who was immensely loquacious and liked luxury, by remaining silent and himself eschewing the trappings associated with a prince of the church. ‘After a short time as a bishop Bergoglio began to distinguish himself from the rest,’ Guillermo Marcó, the priest who became his public relations officer, noted. ‘He didn’t use a chauffeur-driven car, he walked and travelled on public transport … He would go and visit individual priests.’

Quarracino had many enemies in the church, not least the future archbishop of La Plata, who had powerful friends in the Vatican. But Quarracino had his own associate in the Vatican, a former papal nuncio who was close to John Paul II. A battle began to choose who would replace Quarracino as archbishop and cardinal, with Bergoglio supported by Quarracino alone. According to one version of what happened – a version supported by both Vallely and Ivereigh – the Curia in the Vatican refused to support Bergoglio’s appointment, and blocked Quarracino’s access to the pope to make the case for him. ‘But the wily old cardinal,’ Vallely writes, ‘who had been born in Italy, was not defeated. He then wrote a letter of appointment for the pope to sign and went to see the Argentinian ambassador to the Holy See, Francisco Eduardo Trusso, who was an old friend.’ Trusso, in his next audience, it is alleged, handed the letter to the pope, who duly signed it. Whatever the story, Bergoglio wouldn’t have become archbishop of Buenos Aires on Quarracino’s death in 1998 had he not had his predecessor’s full support (and, possibly, that of Carlos Menem, Argentina’s president between 1989 and 1999, to whom Quarracino had made himself an ally).

Bergoglio didn’t move into the archbishop’s palace, choosing to live in more spartan quarters. On his first Maundy Thursday, instead of going to the cathedral for the washing of the feet, he went to a hospital and washed the feet of Aids patients. A year later, he caught a bus to wash the feet of prisoners. He allowed these annual foot-washing ceremonies to be photographed. Having kept a low public profile until now, he began to meet an increasing number of journalists – he even invited them for Christmas drinks. In October 1999, at a ceremony to mark the reinterment of a priest murdered for his left-wing views, Bergoglio apologised for the church’s position during the dictatorship: ‘Let us pray for Fr. Carlos’s assassins, and the ideologues who lay behind it, but also for the complicit silence of most of society and of the church.’

This use of apology and aura of humility that he carried with him to Rome was not something noted previously in Bergoglio, whose meekness, Vallely writes, ‘was not some natural modesty, bashfulness or self-effacement’. It was, rather, an act of will in the spirit of Jesuit self-discipline. ‘In Pope Francis humility is an intellectual stance and a religious decision. It is a virtue which his will must seek to impose on a personality which has its share of pride and a propensity to dogmatic and domineering behaviour.’ Slowly, the man who had remained silent during the dictatorship began to ‘speak out’, as Burns writes, ‘and act in defence of the common good … Bergoglio’s political as well as spiritual manifesto became that of the Beatitudes, with the poor in spirit, the merciful, those who thirst after justice, the pure in conscience and the peacemakers deserving of blessing or conversion.’ On Argentina’s national day in 1998, Bergoglio preached in the presence of Carlos Menem and his government. ‘A few are sitting at the table and enriching themselves, the social fabric is being destroyed, the social divide is increasing, and everyone is suffering,’ he said. ‘As a result our society is on the road to confrontation.’ Two months later, he said in another sermon: ‘The church can’t just sit sucking its finger when faced with a frivolous, cold and calculating market economy.’

Bergoglio’s real confrontation with the Argentinian government began with the election of Néstor Kirchner, in office between 2003 and 2007, and continued after the election of Kirchner’s wife, Cristina Fernández, who held power between 2007 and 2015. ‘The people are not taken in by dishonest and mediocre strategies,’ Bergoglio said in his first sermon in the presence of the Kirchners. ‘They have hopes, but they won’t be deceived by magical solutions emanating from obscure deals and vested political interests.’ Soon, the Kirchners gave up attending his sermons. Néstor called him ‘the spiritual leader of the opposition’. Quarracino used to take his guitar to the presidential residence and, Burns writes, would ‘stay up late drinking and socialising with the hedonistic Menem and his entourage’. But Bergoglio refused even to visit Néstor Kirchner in Casa Rosada, the seat of government, to pay his respects after the president’s election.

Bergoglio was praised for speaking truth to power on behalf of the poor. ‘Here was the church assuming its proper role as the moral conscience of the community, which had delegated (and could withdraw) its consent to the government to rule on the community’s behalf,’ Ivereigh writes. ‘It was not to the institution of the church that Bergoglio was demanding that the state defer, but to the ordinary people in a culture imbued with the Gospel, of whose values the church was guardian and protector.’ This is all very well, but it raises a question about Bergoglio’s trajectory. One way of reading his rise to power is to attend to his two-year-long exile in Córdoba between 1990 and 1992. As a Jesuit, Bergoglio would have been skilled in the art of introspection. He could see the ways he had failed. As a novice master and a provincial, he had not been a uniting force. He was austere, a disciplinarian, humourless. And he had neglected to confront a vicious dictatorship. It’s possible that during those two years of banishment he decided to change. What he did once he became Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires was the result of that change. And it happened to lead him to the papacy.

Another scenario is that from the very beginning, from his ordination onwards, Bergoglio sought power, that he was guilty of the very ‘careerism and the search for promotion’ that he would deplore. Recently, he disclosed that while banished to Córdoba he read ‘all 37 volumes of Ludwig Pastor’s History of the Popes’. But there is perhaps a third and more banal way to see Bergoglio. In this, he is simply a great conformist. His rise, in this version, is not deliberate or calculated. It happened because it was noted that he would not disrupt or act courageously and would not move against the mainstream. He was a quintessential company man.

As he opposed the move to make gay marriage legal in Argentina, Bergoglio let it be known that he himself supported some form of civil union. Nonetheless, he wrote a letter to the four Carmelite monasteries in Buenos Aires in which he spoke of gay marriage as

something that the Devil himself was envious of, because it brings sin into the world by trying to destroy the image of God: men and women with their God-given mandate to grow, multiply and exercise their dominion over the earth. The new law was ‘a frontal attack on God’s law … a bid by the father of lies seeking to confuse and deceive the children of God’.

He asked the nuns to pray to the Holy Spirit ‘to protect us from the spell of so much sophistry of those who favour this law, which has confused and deceived even those of goodwill’. This was, he wrote, ‘God’s war’.

The letter was leaked, and Kirchner responded by saying that it was time for Argentina ‘definitively to leave behind these obscurantist and discriminatory views’. The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a human rights organisation, declared that the church’s complicity with the dictatorship meant it ‘lacked the moral authority’ to preach on this issue. Even after the Dirty War, Bergoglio had kept his distance from the Mothers and Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo. The argument over what should be done about the disappearances – Menem had issued pardons in 1989 and 1990 that were revoked in 2003 – continued to rage right through the Kirchners’ time in power. Ivereigh weighs in on the subject: ‘The efforts of the vast, state-funded human rights industry have led to little new information about disappearances … while in many ways making it harder for Argentines to come to terms with the 1970s.’

This view was not shared by the Kirchners. ‘At no point’, Burns writes, did Cristina Kirchner defend Bergoglio while he was archbishop and cardinal ‘from those who alleged he had been complicit with the military during the Dirty War’. In 2010, he was formally cross-examined: in Burns’s words, he ‘asked for and was granted a special dispensation under Argentine law as a high-ranking official who was not charged of any crime’. He was allowed to give evidence in the Archbishopric, behind closed doors, without having to appear in court. His evidence, almost three and a half hours of it, can be seen on YouTube.

The video of the hearing is possibly the best view we have of Bergoglio. Most of the time, as he is questioned about the case of Jalics and Yorio, the two abducted Jesuits, he is in full command. His answers are brisk, to the point, without seeming hostile or obviously evasive. His comportment is a far cry from the smiling figure that will emerge in St Peter’s Square little more than two years later. Under pressure, he is steely, distant and formidable, if somewhat impatient, even at moments arrogant. When he is irritated by a question, he has a hard, cold, withering stare. It’s easy to see why he would have been selected for early promotion by the Jesuits and then by the Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires and then by the Papal Conclave. He exudes authority while seeming to keep a great deal in reserve. Despite his eminent humility, he looks like a prince of the church.

But there are a few moments when he appears less than confident. He says that he first heard about the secret adoption of children born to women in captivity only two decades after the events. When questioned, he quickly revises his statement, saying that he learned about the adoptions at the time of the 1985 trial. But he insists that he didn’t know about it when it was happening.

Estela de la Cuadra, whose pregnant sister, Elena, was kidnapped by the military, said it was inconceivable that Bergoglio didn’t know about the stolen babies. Her father had secured a meeting with Bergoglio at the time. When Bergoglio was asked about that meeting he said: ‘I don’t recall him telling me if his daughter was pregnant.’ Many of his friends and associates remember how well informed he was in the 1970s. One close friend, the human rights lawyer and judge Alicia Oliveira, stated: ‘He always seemed to know more than me when we met to exchange information.’ The Lutheran theologian Lisandro Orlov, who defended Bergoglio’s record during the Dirty War, doesn’t accept the idea that he knew nothing about the secret adoptions: ‘None of us who were around in those years can say we didn’t know what was going on. He can’t sustain the argument that he didn’t know about the missing children.’

Bergoglio​ continued his campaign against the Argentine government. He remained, Burns writes, ‘an ever present thorn in the side of the Kirchner regime, questioning the legitimacy of its mandate to govern’. But he also remained skilled in the use of silence. When a priest called Julio Grassi was found guilty in 2009 of sexually abusing a prepubescent boy, Bergoglio, according to the Washington Post, declined to meet the victim. He didn’t offer apologies or financial restitution. ‘He has been totally silent,’ Ernesto Moreau, a member of Argentina’s Permanent Assembly for Human Rights, said. ‘In that regard, Bergoglio was no different from most of the other bishops in Argentina, or the Vatican itself.’

Bergoglio was 76 when Pope Benedict retired in 2013. ‘No runner-up at a conclave,’ Ivereigh writes, ‘had ever been elected a pope in the following one.’ Since Ratzinger’s resignation was due to age, it was believed that the conclave would, in any case, elect a much younger pope. It seemed on the face of it unlikely that Bergoglio would be elected this time, but as Ivereigh also writes, ‘Bergoglio was a once-in-a-generation combination of two qualities seldom found together: he had the political genius of a charismatic leader and the prophetic holiness of a desert saint.’ He had other important qualities too: he was not a theologian, and so might be easy to undermine; he was not homosexual, and so might not have a sense of the amount of secrecy surrounding sex in the Vatican; in fact, he had no intimate knowledge at all of the workings of the Vatican and so might be easy to confuse. Also in his favour: he had been detached from the Jesuits for more than twenty years and would not be controlled by them; he had extensive pastoral experience; he had rearranged and managed the finances of his diocese with skill and prudence; he had openly opposed the government of Argentina on social and economic questions; he had made friends with leaders of other faiths; he had created an aura around himself as a man of humility. And there must have been a few old diehard cardinals who were not unimpressed at the way he had conducted himself during the Dirty War.

Being elected pope seemed to cheer Bergoglio up immensely. He knew that no one wanted a dour old pope. Just as he had adapted to the mood of the moment by becoming humble in 1992 on his return to Buenos Aires as archbishop, now he began to smile and look lively. Immediately after the election, he travelled with the other cardinals by bus rather than in a limousine. He went himself to collect his suitcase from the hotel where he had been staying and to pay the bill. In his first papal sermon, as Ivereigh puts it, he quoted strong stuff from ‘the radical French convert León Bloy, who he had read with his friends in the Iron Guard in the 1970s: “Anyone who does not pray to the Lord prays to the Devil.”’

The new pope was shown his palatial quarters by Georg Gänswein, Ratzinger’s personal secretary and prefect of the papal household. ‘As Gänswein fumbled with the light switch,’ Ivereigh writes, ‘Francis found himself peering into a gilded cage.’ He ‘decided at that moment to remain living in the Santa Marta’ – the accommodation where the cardinals had lodged during the conclave. On the same day he personally cancelled a dental appointment in Buenos Aires and his newspaper delivery. All this became news, and, combined with his smile and the informality of his ‘buona sera’ when he first appeared on the balcony of St Peter’s, it made Bergoglio a poster boy for informality, humility and good-natured cheerfulness.

One of the subjects that continued to intrigue the Catholic hierarchy was whether members of the faithful who divorce and remarry can receive communion. Bergoglio set up a synod at which this would be discussed. The argument is between a theory and common practice. The theory says that marriage is indissoluble and that those who enter a second relationship are sinful and therefore can’t receive communion. The practice is that Catholics all over the world get divorced and remarry and many don’t feel sinful. But some of them still look to Rome and want the rule relaxed. This is a divide made in heaven, especially for elderly cardinals who like factions. It can and will go on forever.

Before Bergoglio arrived in Rome, the terms of the debate were set by two Germans, Cardinal Kasper and Ratzinger himself. Kasper insisted that he wasn’t asking the church to change its position on the sanctity of marriage, but to change pastoral practice on who should receive communion. ‘To say we will not admit divorced and remarried people to Holy Communion? That’s not a dogma. That’s an application of a dogma in a concrete pastoral practice. This can be changed.’ The other side took the view, Vallely writes, that ‘this was exactly the wrong time for the debate on communion for the remarried … because it would weaken the church’s defence of the sanctity of marriage at a time when it was under attack from campaigners for gay marriage.’

For many, there was an obvious and simple solution. Anyone at all can walk into a church and, at the appointed time, march up and receive communion. And if the priest in one church recognises the putative communicant as divorced and remarried and refuses communion, then this recalcitrant person can move his or her business to another church in another part of town. Bergoglio, in his new lightness of spirit, often phoned people out of the blue. One day in 2014 he got a letter from a woman in Argentina who had been refused communion by her parish priest because she had married a divorced man. Bergoglio called her and suggested that she find another priest who would give her the Eucharist. ‘That had caused a furore,’ Vallely writes, ‘with conservatives saying that the pope was undermining church teaching on marriage and also that he should have consulted the woman’s priest and bishop before calling her.’

Bergoglio could play the anarchist one moment and the next revert to his role as authoritarian. Reforming the governance of the Vatican interested him, as did reining in or retiring the more vocal and inflexible and right-wing cardinals, as did replacing an emphasis on sex with an emphasis on economic justice, as did protesting against the treatment of immigrants, but, Vallely writes, Bergoglio ‘did not appear to put the same effort or urgency behind the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors that he showed on the Vatican finances. The issue of how to hold bishops to account for their failures in reporting seemed difficult for him to push through a wilfully obstructive curial bureaucracy.’

In 2015, Bergoglio showed his inflexible side when he promoted Juan Barros, a Chilean bishop who was accused of covering up a sex abuse scandal and being present while abuse occurred. Barros was to be promoted from the armed forces to the small southern diocese of Osorno. Four lay members of the Commission for the Protection of Minors made their alarm public, one of them, an abuse survivor, saying: ‘The pope cannot say one thing and then do another.’ Half of the Chilean parliament, thirty priests and more than a thousand lay people wrote to Bergoglio to condemn the appointment. The Cardinal Archbishop of Santiago warned Bergoglio against it. At the installation mass, only twelve of the fifty Chilean bishops were in attendance. The ceremony had to be cut short because heckling protestors knocked Barros’s mitre. ‘The decision to proceed with the nomination bewildered the Chilean church,’ Ivereigh writes, ‘and seemed to contradict two priorities of Francis’s pontificate: to give voice to the victims, and to respect the wishes of the local church.’ Some were unable to believe that Bergoglio was behind the decision but, Ivereigh says, he ‘was wholly informed … The Barros nomination was a reminder that, for all his winning ways, Francis is not a politician weighing a decision in terms of its impact to his standing.’

Bergoglio’s winning ways were on display again during his visit to Chile in 2018, when he said that the allegations against Barros were ‘all a calumny’ and that ‘when they bring me proof we can talk.’ One of the victims, who alleged he was abused by a priest called Fernando Karadima in the presence of Barros, responded: ‘As if I could have taken a selfie or picture while Karadima abused me or others and Juan Barros stood there watching it all.’

It didn’t help that Barros, as a military priest, had presided at Pinochet’s funeral in 2006. Nor did it help when it was discovered that Bergoglio, in speaking of the Chilean opposition to Barros, had used the word ‘zurdos’, a term used by Pinochet’s regime to describe the left. Nor did it help when emails from two Chilean cardinals were released calling one of the victims ‘a liar’ and ‘a serpent’. In Chile, Bergoglio deplored clerical sex abuse and pledged to support victims, agreeing to a private meeting with some of them. But at the huge papal mass in Santiago he was seen greeting Barros affectionately. The local cardinal noted that Barros’s presence was ‘an undesirable and parallel focus to the Holy Father’s visit’.

Bergoglio finally realised he was wrong after receiving a devastating report on clerical abuse from his envoy to Chile. His apology was, Ivereigh writes in his second book on Bergoglio, Wounded Shepherd: Pope Francis and His Struggle to Convert the Catholic Church (2019), ‘unprecedented in the depth of its personal contrition’. In June 2018, when Ivereigh interviewed him, Bergoglio described the last day of his visit to Chile – the day when he had used the word ‘calumny’ – as ‘the lowest moment’ of his pontificate.

Bergoglio’s​ first foreign trip as pope was to Brazil in July 2013. On the journey back to Rome, in a press conference on the plane, Bergoglio, in what might have been seen as his free spirit mode, responded to a question about homosexuality by saying: ‘If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?’ He spoke in Italian, but used the English word ‘gay’.

This might have seemed like a big moment of change for the church, but it’s important to look at the context. Towards the end of the press conference, for which neither the pope nor his handlers were given the questions in advance, a Brazilian journalist asked about a priest called Battista Ricca. Ricca was director of the Casa Santa Marta, where Bergoglio was lodging as pope, and served as his clerical representative at the Vatican Bank. An article in L’Espresso, written by a veteran Vatican reporter, had claimed that when Ricca was abroad as a diplomat he had been accompanied by his lover, a Swiss army captain. Also, in Montevideo, as Burns writes, Ricca had ‘been found trapped in the elevator of the nunciature with a gay rent boy known to the police’.

‘I would like permission to ask a delicate question,’ the reporter said. ‘Another image that has been going around the world is that of Monsignor Ricca and the news about his private life. I would like to know, Your Holiness, what you intend to do about this? How are you confronting this issue and how does Your Holiness intend to confront the whole question of the gay lobby?’ Bergoglio began by defending his friend: ‘About Monsignor Ricca: I did what canon law calls for, that is a preliminary investigation. And from this investigation, there was nothing of what had been alleged. We did not find anything of that. This is the response.’ He then spoke about the need to forgive sin before addressing the final question:

So much is written about the gay lobby. I still haven’t found anyone with an identity card in the Vatican with ‘gay’ on it. They say there are some there. I believe that when you are dealing with such a person, you must distinguish between the fact of a person being gay and the fact of someone forming a lobby, because not all lobbies are good. This one is not good. If someone is gay and is searching for the Lord and has good will, then who am I to judge him?

These remarks are not a new way of formulating church teaching so much as Bergoglio’s way of trying to please as many people as possible, including the journalists on the plane, his friend Ricca and gay people generally. This could be seen as an aspect of his new-found geniality once he arrived in Rome, but there’s another way of looking at it. Bergoglio is a Peronist, and the whole point of Peronism is that it can’t be pinned down. The Montoneros, who ran the terrorism campaign in Argentina in the 1970s, were Peronists, as were the Iron Guard, the right-wing group with whom Bergoglio was associated. Carlos Menem was a Peronist, as were the Kirchners. Being a Peronist means nothing and everything. It means that you can at times be in agreement with the very things that in other circumstances you don’t really favour. You can be both reformer and conservative.

In The Dictator Pope, Marcantonio Colonna, who is hostile to Bergoglio, claims that his efforts to please are ‘classic Peronism … the church has been taken by surprise by Francis because it has not had the key to him: he is Juan Perón in ecclesiastical translation. Those who seek to interpret him otherwise are missing the only relevant criterion.’ There is another explanation for Bergoglio’s remarks. He was defending Ricca because Ricca was known to be close to him. It was possible that the attack on Ricca was a veiled way of attacking him. In that case, what emerged on the plane from Rio was Bergoglio not as soft-hearted old pontiff, but as old-fashioned Peronist street fighter.

Anyone who has spent time in the Vatican will smile wearily at Bergoglio’s statement about gay people within its walls: ‘They say there are some there.’ Two years ago, Frédéric Martel, a French journalist, published In the Closet of the Vatican: Power, Homosexuality, Hypocrisy. (In French, and indeed Polish, the book’s title is Sodoma.) The many people Martel interviewed for the book in thirty countries included 41 cardinals, 52 bishops and monsignori, and 45 apostolic nuncios. Christopher Lamb, the Tablet’s Rome correspondent, called it ‘a huge operation, funded by a consortium of publishers, and aimed at revealing church hypocrisy on gay issues … The publishers decided to release the book on 21 February 2019, the day of the Vatican summit on clerical sex abuse, thus seeking to capitalise on media attention on the church and sex.’ Ivereigh called the book ‘gossipy, rambling, cavalier with sources, and because of Martel’s off-the-scale “gaydar” and his scorn for celibacy, easy for Vatican officials to dismiss. Yet many of his eye-popping stories could not be disputed.’ Martel, Ivereigh concludes, ‘showed what many knew, that “lace by day, leather by night” was part of clerical culture … The hypocrisy had mushroomed above all under John Paul II, whom conservative Catholics lionised for his moral clarity.’ Among the book’s early admirers was Steve Bannon, who wanted to acquire movie rights.

The book sets out to establish that almost everyone who lives in the Vatican is gay, and Martel works out a number of different ways in which their homosexuality can be categorised. He interviews the rent boys of Rome about their experience with priests, bishops and cardinals. He also interviews many princes of the church, and when possible and appropriate he describes their bathrooms and the high tone of the décor in their apartments. Some are celibate; some line up handsome seminarians for their pleasure; some live with their so-called secretaries or chauffeurs or valets; others pester the Swiss Guard. The Vatican, in Martel’s version of things, is a hotbed of sexual joy and intrigue. ‘The Vatican has one of the biggest gay communities in the world, and I doubt whether, even in San Francisco’s Castro … there are quite as many gays!’

His book, which is long, is often infuriating. There are many exclamation marks. Martel can’t stop praising himself and his work and the number of interviews he has done and journeys he has undertaken. But he can sober up. He interviews the former priest Francesco Lepore about Casa Santa Marta, where Lepore spent a year. ‘Nicknames were given to the gay cardinals, feminising them, and that made the whole table laugh … A lot of them led a double life: priest at the Vatican by day; homosexual in bars and clubs at night.’ When Martel asked Lepore to estimate the size of the male homosexual population of the Vatican, he said he believed it to be ‘around 80 per cent’. Martel creates categories of the closet based on rules. One is: ‘The more pro-gay a cleric is, the less likely he is to be gay; the more homophobic a cleric is, the more likely he is to be homosexual.’ He quotes a Mexican journalist: ‘I would say that 50 per cent of priests are gay in Mexico, if you want a minimum figure, and 75 per cent if one is being more realistic … There is a lot of tolerance within the church, so much so that it is not expressed outside it. And, of course, to protect this secret, clerics must attack gays by appearing very homophobic in public. That’s the key. Or the trick.’

Martel looks into Argentinian political intrigue too. Pio Laghi, the papal nuncio who played tennis with Massera in the 1970s, and who died in 2009, comes up in declassified CIA documents as pleading the case of the dictators to the American ambassador, saying that they were ‘good men’ who wanted to ‘correct the abuses’ of the dictatorship. ‘According to my sources,’ Martel writes, ‘Pio Laghi’s homosexuality … might have played a part in his closeness to the dictators … by making him vulnerable in the eyes of the military, who knew his predilections.’

This idea that there are homosexuals in high positions in the church who are afraid of being exposed gives Martel another of his rules of the Catholic closet: ‘Behind the majority of cases of sexual abuse there are priests and bishops who have protected the aggressors because of their own homosexuality and out of fear that it might be revealed in the event of a scandal.’ Martel notes that Bergoglio is not popular among many factions of Vatican homosexuals. He interviews Luigi Gioia, a Benedictine monk in Rome:

For a homosexual, the church appears to be a stable structure … when you need to hide, to feel secure, you need to feel that your context doesn’t move. You want the structure in which you have taken refuge to be stable and protective, and afterwards you can navigate freely within it. Yet Francis, by wanting to reform it, made the structure unstable for closeted homosexual priests. That’s what explains their violent reaction and their hatred of him. They’re scared.

He also talks to Francesco Mangiacapra, a male prostitute in Naples, who in 2018 released a dossier on his clerical clients: ‘Priests are the ideal clientele. They are loyal and they pay well. If I could, I would only work for priests. I always give them priority … There are two kinds of client … the ones who feel infallible and very strong in their position. Those clients are arrogant and stingy.’ The second group ‘are very uncomfortable in their skin. They’re very attached to affection, to caresses; they want to kiss you all the time … They’re like children.’ Mangiacapra’s dossier included the names of 34 priests, with photographs, audio recordings and screenshots, and he sent it all to the Archbishop of Naples. ‘I think it’s sad for them,’ Mangiacapra told Martel. ‘I’m not judging anybody. But what I’m doing is better than what priests do, isn’t it? It’s morally better, isn’t it?’

Martel has a marvellous time being received by various cardinals. At the door of one, he is met by a young man, ‘the quintessence of Asian beauty’; in the drawing room, he notes all the portraits of the cardinal himself. He understands why the cardinal holds himself in such esteem. ‘After all, he fought like the very devil to impede the battle against Aids on five continents, with a certain degree of success, and not everybody can say that.’ The cardinal is foolish enough to give Martel a tour of his apartment, ‘his private chapel, his interminable corridor, his ten or so rooms, and even a panoramic terrace with a wonderful view over Catholic Rome. His apartment is at least ten times as big as Pope Francis’s.’ Many photographs of the cardinal are on display: in one he is ‘on the back of an elephant with a handsome young man’; in another ‘he is posing insouciantly with a Thai companion.’

The sexuality of many senior clergy leaves them open to blackmail. Martel alleges that during the debate about civil unions for gay people in Italy, one cardinal, now dead, with his ‘legendary homophobia’, was vociferously against the change. ‘He was told, at a tense meeting, that rumours were circulating about his double life and his gay entourage, and that if he mobilised against civil unions, it was likely that gay activists would spread their information this time.’ Another cardinal known ‘for the cleverness of his gossip, the gaiety of his heart and his love of lace’ similarly calmed down under pressure.

The revelations in Martel’s book aren’t new to anyone who spends time in the Vatican. They are part of the life there, the air of intrigue that makes clergy who have to go back to their own countries long for Rome. Knowing the codes, reading the signs and being in on the gossip are deeply nourishing for men who are otherwise isolated. Taking Martel’s revelations for granted, sighing wearily at the sheer dullness of his breathlessness, or pointing out some errors of fact in the book, is evidence that you are an insider.

The fact that Bergoglio had spent so little time in Rome before he became pope had its advantages. He didn’t climb the Vatican ladder while picking up lurid information about the private lives of cardinals. He didn’t become part of a whispering circle or feed on innuendo. But his distance from all this also meant that he seemed to believe, at the beginning of his papacy, that there could actually be robust and sincere debate among cardinals and bishops about the private sexual lives of others, including divorced people and homosexuals. All that winking, nodding, subterfuge and underhand knowledge, all those interlocking networks and double lives, are hardly in line with the transparency and clarity of purpose required by the Heavenly Father, who is invoked regularly by even the most reprobate prelates.

Bergoglio’s power comes from the fact that he doesn’t belong to this world. In April 2019, when a gay man told him that he didn’t feel accepted by the church, the pope replied: ‘Giving more importance to the adjective than the noun – this is not good. We are all human beings and have dignity. There are people that prefer to select or discard people because of an adjective; these people do not have a human heart.’ Some of these people are members of the Curia. Having read Martel’s book, Ivereigh concludes: ‘Suddenly it was easier to understand Francis’s Christmas speeches to the Curia, his tongue-lashing of “the hypocrites” who “hide the truth from God, from others, and from themselves”, and his warnings against “the rigid” who “present themselves to you as perfect” but who “lack the spirit of God”.’

It isn’t as though Bergoglio, always hard to pin down on any matter, has become a poster pope for gay liberation. Many of his appointments to cardinal – Blase Cupich in Chicago, Joseph Tobin in Newark and Kevin Farrell in Rome – show an urge to get away from the emphasis on abortion, gay rights and divorce, but in a country where signals matter more, such as Ethiopia, he appointed Berhaneyesus Demerew Souraphiel as cardinal, a man who has referred to homosexual behaviour as ‘the pinnacle of immorality’ and who, in 2008, endorsed outlawing homosexual activity as part of Ethiopia’s constitution.

At 84, as apparent in his latest book, Let Us Dream: The Path to a Better Future, written during the pandemic, Bergoglio has come to sound like a gentle soul. In his final years as pope, Ratzinger was the same. It must make Bergoglio smile that there is a group, centred around the influential Princess Gloria von Thurn und Taxis, who, Ivereigh writes, ‘has busily promoted the emeritus pope’ – Ratzinger – ‘as a pastoral and theological alternative to the Francis papacy’. In 2016, Georg Gänswein, still close to Ratzinger, ‘advanced his “two popes” theory that the papacy now consisted of “an expanded ministry, with an active member and a contemplative member”’, Ivereigh writes. When Bergoglio, on a flight back from Armenia, was asked directly, ‘Are there two popes?’ the old steely Jesuit in him re-emerged. He had no trouble putting paid to Gänswein, and gently also to Ratzinger himself. This was the tone that Buenos Aires had been familiar with, but it was sweeter now that Bergoglio was in power: ‘Benedict is in the monastery praying … I’ve heard, but I don’t know if it’s true … that some have gone there [to him] to complain because of this new pope … and he chased them away with the best Bavarian style. This great man of prayer is … not the second pope … for me, he is the wise grandfather at home.’

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