Anatomy of a Lie: The Assault on Pope Francis’ Reputation

The Eighth Commandment is clear: Thou shall not bear false witness.

The Catechism states that misrepresenting the truth to harm another’s reputation violates the Eighth Commandment, given by God to Moses, and Jesus’ commandment in the Gospel of Matthew, love your neighbor as yourself (2477-2479). Just over an hour after Jorge Bergoglio was announced as Pope Francis, a devastating example of false witness against the Holy Father was winging its way around the world.

Media outlets seized on the allegation that Pope Francis was guilty of conspiring with a violent Argentinian military dictatorship to kidnap two Jesuit priests, Father Franz Jalics and Father Orlando Yorio, in May 1976.

The military was in power from 1976 to 1983 and is blamed for the unjust deaths of approximately 9,000 innocent people, according to an independent truth commission. The period is sometimes referred to as the "Dirty War."

The story circulated internationally was that Father Jorge Bergoglio, Argentina’s Jesuit provincial (director) from 1973-1979, effectively released the priests to thugs who kidnapped and tortured them for five months. Supposedly, Father Bergoglio turned on these young priests because they had defied his order to leave the slums.

Yet Father Jalics himself reacted to allegations against the new Pope in a straightforward statement March 20 from a German monastery: "It is wrong to assert that our capture took place at the initiative of Father Bergoglio."

The next day, Argentinian Nobel Peace Prize winner Adolfo Perez Esquivel told reporters in Rome, "The Pope had nothing to do with the dictatorship. He was not an accomplice of the dictatorship. … Of this, I’m sure." Perez Esquivel received the prize in 1980 for defending human rights under the dictatorship.

Others — including Judge Alicia Oliveira, historian Loris Zanatta and human-rights leader Graciela Fernandez Meijide — contradict the allegations. Journalist Sergio Rubin, who wrote a biography of Bergoglio, said the Pope took risks and worked behind the scenes to gain release for the two priests.

A few high-profile news outlets have declared the Pope exonerated. The New York Daily News, for example, wrote a positive editorial March 23, "The Good Name of Francis: Baseless Allegations Against the Pope Suggested He Was an Ally of Argentina’s Murderous Regime."

Despite the occasional correction, these accusations damage the Pope’s reputation: Who fabricated this malicious story — and why?

On March 15, papal spokesman Father Federico Lombardi sternly rejected the lies as coming from "anti-clerical, left-wing elements that are used to attacking the Church," without naming names.

Astonishingly, the Pope’s chief accuser is one man, a notorious 71-year-old left-wing Argentinian journalist, Horacio Verbitsky, who outlined the story in the 2005 book The Silence: From Paul VI to Bergoglio: The Secret Relations Between the Church and ESMA. (ESMA refers to a military detention center used to interrogate and detain suspected suspects under the military rule of 1976-1983.)

The problem, however, wasn’t simply that overeager journalists were seizing on a book with the new Pope’s name in the title.

Verbitsky seems to have actively promoted this accusation, even naming the new Pontiff the "Pope of the Dictatorship," an echo of the slanderous moniker given to Pope Pius XII: "Hitler’s Pope."

On March 14, the morning after Pope Francis greeted the world, Verbitsky repeated his claims on a nationally syndicated American radio program that Pope Francis was directly in touch with this murderous military dictatorship and personally facilitated the kidnapping of two priests.

A few days later, on March 16, the British newspaper The Mail on Sunday printed copies of ambiguous documents ostensibly demonstrating Bergoglio’s guilt.

According to the British paper, "The damning report was handed to The Mail on Sunday by leading Argentine author and human-rights activist Horacio Verbitsky, who began investigating Bergoglio shortly after he was named archbishop of Buenos Aires in February 1998."

"Author," "investigative journalist," "human-rights activist" — these descriptors attached to Verbitsky’s name all denote neutrality.

But Verbitsky is not impartial. Rather, he has been a dedicated antagonist of the Catholic Church for his entire career, according to political analysts and clerics in Argentina, as was his father, Bernard, who was active in Argentina’s Communist Party.

Verbitsky was involved in a violent, extremist organization that was active in the 1970s, Montoneros, which is blamed for bombings, kidnappings and bank heists in Argentina, modeling its tactics on the communist takeover of Cuba. Verbitsky confirmed he was a member of Montoneros but said he wasn’t a leader.

In fact, Verbitsky and six guerrilla colleagues were prosecuted for executing a 1976 bombing at a federal police office that killed 21 people. The case was dismissed in 2007, based on an interpretation of the definition of terrorism. Violence by organizations such as Montoneros provided the rationale in 1976 for the military coup d’etat, which practiced its own brand of terrorism but stepped aside for democratic elections in 1983.

Although there were Catholic bishops who opposed the military regime (two were killed in suspicious car accidents) and religious and seminarians were among its victims, there were also Catholic priests implicated in "Dirty War" activities, such as serving as chaplains to units engaged in torture. As the country reflected on the past, many concluded that the Church should have stood more resolutely against tyranny.

As a result, in 2000, Argentina’s bishops, including then-Archbishop Bergoglio, asked the country for forgiveness in a dramatic statement: "We ask your forgiveness, O God, for the silent responsibility and the effective participation of the Church’s children in pushing aside human rights, in tortures and rapes, in intransigent ideologies and in foolish deaths that bloodied our country."

The apology by the Argentinian bishops did not satisfy Horacio Verbitsky, who, that same year, became president of the Center for Legal and Social Studies (CELS), which is dedicated to publicizing human-rights abuses committed during the "Dirty War."

CELS was financed by the Ford Foundation, George Soros’ Open Society Foundation and even the U.S. taxpayer-funded entity the National Endowment for Democracy.

The Ford Foundation granted CELS almost $2.5 million between 2000 and 2009. In 2011, Ford gave CELS $1 million, and it announced another $1-million award last July for the group to become a "global leader."

It has become a "global leader" with the dubious distinction of being the only non-governmental organization in the world that publicly opposed the selection of Pope Francis as soon as he was selected, as reported by CNN.

During the last decade, Verbitsky’s main political activities involved promoting first Nestor Kirchner, Argentina’s president from 2003 to 2007, then the late president’s wife, Cristina Kirchner, who has held the presidential office since 2007. The socialist "presidential marriage" (as the Argentine media calls it) has dominated the country for the last decade. The Economist, in its March 23 edition, called Verbitsky the "chief propagandist for the Kirchner governments" as editor of the pro-government newspaper Página/12. Especially after Nestor Kirchner’s death of a heart attack in 2010, Horacio Verbitsky has served as Cristina Kirchner’s confidante.

The media has focused most often on the clash between Cristina Kirchner and Archbishop Bergoglio over same-sex "marriage," but, in fact, Archbishop Bergoglio expressed concern about economic policies that risk harming people at large.

A series of economic policy initiatives demonstrates Cristina Kirchner’s admiration for the socialist agenda of Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela: She nationalized Argentina’s largest airline, took control of billions of dollars worth of private pension funds and tried to impose a grain-export tax that farmers vociferously protested.

As The Wall Street Journal’s Latin America analyst, Mary Anastasia O’Grady, observed in a March 17 commentary, "Argentines who want their country to be the next Venezuela see Francis as an obstacle" because he does not hesitate to criticize politicians who claim to be benefiting the people when they are in fact consolidating power.

Naming Horacio Verbitsky as the prime mover behind the "smear campaign" against Pope Francis, O’Grady explained how this "propaganda" links to the left’s strategy in the 1970s: "Former members of terrorist groups like Mr. Verbitsky, and their modern-day fellow travelers in the Argentine government, have used the same tactics for years to try to destroy their enemies — anyone who doesn’t endorse their brand of authoritarianism."

A partisan agitator such as Horacio Verbitsky seems to perceive the Catholic Church as an enemy regardless of the circumstances, one decade to another. Why? Because, at its best, the Church serves as a moral authority that can stand up to regimes bent on controlling the lives and minds of its citizens.

Yale professor Carlos Eire, T. Lawrason Riggs Professor of History and Religious Studies at Yale University, and a Cuban-born Catholic, spoke to the Register to explain why socialist regimes are particularly dangerous to the Catholic Church: "The Marxists and left-wing movements will always insist on ideological purity and conformity, which means they want to claim the heart and soul of every citizen. This will always be a very serious threat to the Church and to believers."

Horacio Verbitsky’s obsessive attempts to harm Pope Francis are audacious; that he receives financial support from American institutions is even more shocking.

And it should be remembered that the permanent injury to Pius XII’s good name — caused by the lies perpetrated about alleged refusal to help Jews during World War II — also derived in substantial measure from a smear campaign launched by a single man. In 1963, with the hidden backing of international communist networks and sympathizers, German playwright Rolf Hochhuth published his fictional play The Deputy. Because Hochhuth’s smears were not properly rebutted at the time, they have perpetuated for decades afterward.

That’s why it’s so important that Verbitsky’s lies about Pope Francis should be countered effectively now — before they too have a chance to cause permanent harm to the reputation of a holy pope.

Victor Gaetan writes

from Washington.