Cardinal Bergoglio of Buenos Aires: Some More Unanswered Questions

When I wrote The Dictator Pope, I pointed out the failure of the cardinals in 2013 to inform themselves about Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio’s record as archbishop of Buenos Aires, for if they had known about it even superficially, they would not have voted for him. The more that is known about that record, the truer this appears. It is becoming increasingly clear that Cardinal Bergoglio was not merely below the standard usually expected in a papal candidate; he represented, in his close contacts if not in his own personal conduct, a link to some of the most corrupt features of the South American Church. Several examples of this need to be described.

  1. The swindle against the Sociedad Militar Seguro de Vida

In my book, I touched on a financial scandal in Buenos Aires that erupted shortly before Bergoglio became archbishop. The revelations made since then about the figure who was at the center of it, Monsignor Roberto Toledo, give it an even more sinister aspect than appeared at the time.

The story is as follows: in 1997, Jorge Bergoglio had been for five years an auxiliary bishop of Buenos Aires, and he had been granted the right of succession to Cardinal Quarracino, who was ailing and who died the following year. Quarracino had links with a bank, the Banco de Crédito Provincial, owned by the Trusso family, who were regarded as pillars of the Church and were close friends of the cardinal. Quarracino had been instrumental in securing for the BCP the large account of the Argentine military pension fund, the Sociedad Militar Seguro de Vida, and in 1997, the latter was asked to make a loan to the archdiocese of Buenos Aires of ten million dollars, underwritten by the BCP. The meeting to arrange this contract was held at the offices of the archdiocese, but Cardinal Quarracino was too ill to attend; he was represented by his general secretary, Monsignor Roberto Toledo. When the moment came to sign the contract, Monsignor Toledo took the document out of the room on the pretext of taking it to the cardinal, and he shortly brought it back with a signature, which, as later appeared, had in fact been forged by Toledo himself.

Monsignor Toledo was an egregious example of the corrupt clergy whose prominence in the Church is being highlighted ever more by the pontificate of Pope Francis. He was a homosexual and was known to have a male lover, a gym instructor, who served as a channel of the Trussos’ financial influence with the archdiocese. Within a few weeks of the conclusion of the loan, but for unrelated reasons, the BCP went into bankruptcy; it was revealed to have large debts that it could not pay, and the Sociedad Militar’s money, deposited with the bank, was lost. When the Sociedad tried to recover its loan of ten million dollars from the archdiocese, Cardinal Quarracino denied having ever signed the contract.

The cardinal died shortly afterward, and Archbishop Bergoglio took over as his successor. In his biography The Great Reformer, Austen Ivereigh represents Bergoglio as the man who brought financial probity to the finances of the archdiocese of Buenos Aires [1], but he omits a number of details crucial to the case. The first is the way Archbishop Bergoglio handled the Sociedad Militar’s claim for the restitution of its ten million dollars. He appointed as the archdiocese’s lawyer to manage the case one of the shadiest figures in the Argentine legal system, Roberto Dromi, a man who has been prosecuted for numerous offenses of corruption [2]. The mere employment of such a man by Archbishop Bergoglio should be a major cause of scandal. Dromi harassed the Sociedad to such an extent over its claim that in the end, the Sociedad was obliged to drop it.

The Trusso family were ruined by the collapse of their bank, and some of them claimed that they had suffered injustice. In 2002, the journalist Olga Wornat interviewed Francisco Trusso and asked him why he did not speak to Bergoglio about the forged signature. He replied: “I have asked for an audience, my wife has asked for an audience. My son. My brother. He won’t receive us[.] … He escapes, he doesn’t want to hear. It must be because his tail is not too clean. He must have signed something” [3].

Even more significant is Archbishop Bergoglio’s kid-glove handling of Monsignor Toledo. He was first sent back to his hometown without any sanctions. In 2005, he was tried for fraud, but no sentence was ever passed. This treatment falls into the pattern of Bergoglio’s habitual inaction in cases of misdemeanor, but there is a special detail to it: as secretary to Cardinal Quarracino back in 1991, Monsignor Toledo was the man responsible for rescuing Father Bergoglio from the internal exile to which the Jesuits had consigned him and getting him appointed auxiliary bishop of Buenos Aires. Ever since, Bergoglio has been interested in preventing the reputation of either Cardinal Quarracino or Monsignor Toledo from being tarnished by the scandals that gathered round them [4].

A macabre postscript to this story emerged in January 2017, when Monsignor Toledo, who had been officiating for eighteen years as a parish priest in his hometown, still unpunished, was accused of murdering a longtime friend of his and forging his will [5]. We are given a glimpse here into the consequences of Bergoglio’s famous clemency, and we begin to get a sense of the personalities to whom he owed his rise in the Church and with whom he consorted while in office.

  1. The Catholic University of Argentina and the IOR

Another incident mentioned in my book relates to the Catholic University of Argentina, of which Bergoglio was chancellor ex officio as archbishop of Buenos Aires. His agent here was Pablo Garrido, who was financial manager of the archdiocese and whom Bergoglio also appointed financial manager of the university (a post from which he was removed in 2017). The university, which had a rich endowment of 200 million dollars, provided Archbishop Bergoglio with the financial sinews he needed in his attempts to gain influence in the Vatican, whose finances had been left in a disastrous state by the illegal activities of Monsignor Marcinkus and his successor, Monsignor de Bonis.

Between 2005 and 2011, some 40 million dollars were transferred from the Catholic University of Argentina to the Istituto per le Opere di Religione (the Vatican Bank), in a transaction that was supposed to be a deposit but which the IOR has hitherto treated as a donation. (Just this year, the reports are that this misappropriation has begun to be remedied, but only partially.) Pablo Garrido was responsible for this transfer, against the protests of members of the university who pointed out that the university, as an educational foundation, could not make a donation to a foreign bank. Together with the case of the Sociedad Militar Seguro de Vida, this is one of the obscure financial episodes in Archbishop Bergoglio’s administration that deserve to be studied in depth by a qualified researcher.

  1. The episcopal cronies of Bergoglio

Equally revealing is a look at Cardinal Bergoglio’s close associates in the Buenos Aires episcopate. The first to consider is Juan Carlos Maccarone, whom Bergoglio made an auxiliary bishop at the beginning of his tenure, in 1999. In 2005, Maccarone was dismissed from the episcopate by Pope Benedict after he was filmed having sexual relations with a homosexual prostitute in the sacristy of his cathedral. Yet Cardinal Bergoglio publicly defended him, asserting that the filming was a setup to bring the bishop down because of his left-wing political commitment. Maccarone, it is worth noting, declared that everyone was aware of his homosexual activities and he had been appointed bishop regardless of them.

Another friend and protégé of Cardinal Bergoglio was Joaquín Mariano Sucunza, whom he consecrated auxiliary bishop in 2000 although he knew that Sucunza had been cited in a divorce case as the lover of a married woman, whose husband accused him of having destroyed their marriage [6]. Bishop Sucunza has continued ever since as auxiliary and was indeed appointed by Pope Francis as temporary administrator of the archdiocese in 2013 after Bergoglio’s own elevation to the papacy.

  1. Protection of sexual abusers

No offense has been more damaging to bishops in recent years than the accusation of not having acted with diligence against priests suspected of sexually abusing children. Several bishops have had their careers destroyed over this issue, not always in cases of obvious culpability. Pope Francis himself proclaimed a “zero tolerance” policy in this area and supposedly introduced a new reign of transparency. Yet if we look into it, we find that his own past career is studded with episodes deserving fully as much scrutiny as those that have brought other prelates down.

The first case to be noticed is that of the priest Rubén Pardo, who was reported to an auxiliary bishop of Buenos Aires in 2002 for having invited a fifteen-year-old boy to his house and sexually abused him in bed. The mother of the boy had great difficulty in getting the ecclesiastical authorities to admit the case; she considered that Cardinal Bergoglio was protecting the guilty priest and was indignant at his giving him lodging in a diocesan residence. She complained that when she tried to speak to the cardinal at the archiepiscopal residence, she was ejected by the security staff. The priest died of AIDS in 2005; in 2013, a Buenos Aires court obliged the Catholic Church to pay the family compensation for the harm they had suffered. The mother’s opinion on the handling of the case was: “Bergoglio’s commitment is just talk.” (Ese es el compromiso de Bergoglio: de la boca para fuera) [7].

Another instructive case is that of Father Julio Grassi, who was convicted in 2009 of sexually abusing a teenage boy [8]. What surprises in this case is the exceptional efforts the Argentine Bishops’ Conference, under the chairmanship of Cardinal Bergoglio, devoted to getting Father Grassi cleared, commissioning a document of 2,600 pages for the purpose. It was submitted to the judges after Grassi’s conviction but before they had given sentence and was described by the attorney Juan Pablo Gallego as “a scandalous instance of lobbying and exerting pressure on the Court.”

Let us not deny the importance of defending innocent people against false accusations, but we are not left with the impression of a prelate with a “zero tolerance” record against sexual abuse. Perhaps more significant is a remark by Cardinal Bergoglio to Rabbi Abraham Skorka, published in 2010, a year after Father Grassi’s conviction, that cases of clerical sexual abuse “had never arisen” in his diocese [9]. It is an example of the characteristic habit of Jorge Bergoglio of disposing of inconvenient facts by denying their existence.

Another example of this foible is provided by the father of a pupil at the Jesuit school in Buenos Aires where Bergoglio had taught as a young man in the 1960s. Forty years later, when Bergoglio was cardinal-archbishop, that father was told by his son that the chaplain of the school had indecently propositioned him in the confessional. He reported the case to the cardinal and was shocked to find that he took no action, the response of Bergoglio that we find time and again in the face of misconduct of all kinds. Shortly afterward, the father was astonished to hear Cardinal Bergoglio, replying to a question in a meeting of parents of the school, declare that the problem of sexual abuse and of homosexual clergy was virtually nonexistent in his diocese.

In the light of these facts, the recent revelations about Pope Francis’s complicity in the cover-ups of sexual abuse in the United States fall easily into place. It is entirely in the character of a man who throughout his career had shown complete indifference to accusations of clerical corruption when they came to his notice. When we consider his promotions of Bishop Maccarone and Bishop Sucunza, it comes as no surprise that he was a friend of Cardinal McCarrick, who, in the years before Bergoglio’s election as pope, had already been disciplined by Pope Benedict for his widespread molestation of boys and young men but who was nevertheless able to play an influential role in Bergoglio’s election. It is also completely in character that, on becoming pope, he should have taken as his leading allies prelates such as Cardinal Danneels, who was known to have covered up child abuse in Belgium, and Cardinal Wuerl, whose role in the United States proves to have been equally murky.

We come back to the fact that, if the cardinals had had any inkling of the background of Cardinal Bergoglio’s Church in Buenos Aires, they would never have voted for him. They might not have foreseen Bergoglio’s cavalier attitude to Catholic doctrine, but what they were looking for was a man who would tackle the knotty problems, which had defeated Benedict XVI, of financial and moral reform in the Vatican and of the widespread plague of clerical sexual abuse. If they had been aware of the lack of moral integrity of the clergy with whom Bergoglio had surrounded himself in Buenos Aires, of the financial scandals in his diocese, of his habitual inaction in cases of wrongdoing, of his repeated turning away of people who came to him with complaints, and of his head-in-the-sand attitude toward criticism, it would have been clear to them that this was the last candidate to fit the profile of a reformer.

[1] Austen Ivereigh, The Great Reformer, 2014, p. 244.

[2] See the articles “Acusan a Dromi de cobrar sobornos. Guillermo Laura dice que el exministro recibió US$ 7 millones de firmas viales” (“Dromi accused of taking bribes. Guillermo Laura says ex-minister received US$ 7 million from road construction firms”) in La Nación, 9 September 1999; and “La Justicia pidió un embargo millonario contra Menem y Dromi. Presunta venta irregular de un terreno de 241 ha. a Radio Nacional” (“Court demands embargo of millions against Menem and Dromi. Alleged irregular sale of 241 ha. plot to Radio Nacional”) in La Gaceta  (Tucumán), 23 April 2008.

[3] Olga Wornat, Nuestra Santa Madre, Buenos Aires, 2002.

[4] See Urgente24 (an Argentine online newspaper), 23 March 2013: “Una causa judicial que todavía le importa al papa” (“A court case that still matters to the pope”). In this article, published just after Bergoglio was elected pope, the author also reports the story related by Bishop Justo Laguna of Morón, that at the time of the 2005 Conclave the Argentine Cardinal Leonardo Sandri remarked to him, referring to Bergoglio: “You’d better pray to St Joseph that this man doesn’t become pope.”

[5] See (“A suspicious death, a millionaire inheritance and a priest under suspicion”).

[6] See the article by Marcelo González in Panorama Católico Internacional, 20 September 2010: “Obispo Adúltero: Nombre y Pruebas” (“Adulterer Bishop: Name and Proofs).”

[7] See the article in Público, 3 May 2013, “El Papa encubrió al cura que abusó de mi hijo” (“The Pope covered up for the priest who abused my son”).

[8] See BBC News, 24 September 2013, “Argentine priest Julio Grassi jailed over sexual abuse.”

[9] Sobre el cielo y la tierra, a book of conversations between Cardinal Bergoglio and Rabbi Abraham Skorka, published in Buenos Aires in 2010.

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