The Vatican will finally open its files on Argentina’s military dictatorship, giving some hope to families of victims of “The Dirty War” who are yet to know the fate of their loved ones since the regime was in place over 30 years ago.

Guillermo Karcher, one of the Pope’s masters of ceremonies, revealed the news in an interview to Radio America in Buenos Aires at the beginning of the month. For many Argentine human rights organizations the Vatican’s announcement has been long in the pipeline, with The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo and their various factions  meeting Pope Francis to discuss the matter since he was appointed in 2013.

The military dictatorship in Argentina ruled from 1976 to 1983 and saw the enforced “disappearance” of thousands of political activists, university students and human rights campaigners. The government saw these people as “subversives” and a potential threat for the stability and strength of the regime. Human rights groups estimate that some 30,000 people lost their lives during this period. The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo have been at the forefront of the campaign for truth since the height of the dictatorship itself. As judicial offices, police stations and prisons provided no answers as to the whereabouts of their children, the Mothers began peacefully marching around Plaza de Mayo each Thursday demanding answers to their questions.

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So what does the Pope and the Vatican have to do with all of this?

Pope Francis, a native of Buenos Aires and formerly known as Father Jorge Borgoglio, has always been closely connected with the Mothers group. Throughout the years of the dictatorship and despite potential dangers he maintained a close and unique friendship with Esther Careaga, the then-leading figure of the organization. Careaga was later disappeared herself in 1977 along with other key members of the group, targeted and murdered by the government. Since Pope Francis was appointed as head of the Vatican, the Mothers have been seeking to rekindle the old friendship and have been laying down the groundwork for the release of the vast amount of information the Vatican holds from this time period.

It is believed that many people turned to the Church and reported disappearances as a last resort for help throughout the dictatorship. These were all compiled in reports and it is now hoped will hold the key to answers as to the fate of many. The Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo, also known as “the Abuelas”, are keen to access these reports, as they believe they can locate some of the 400 babies that are still missing from this period. These are children that were taken from their mothers that were born in custody and then illegally adopted out to families with ties to the military and clergy.

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Madres de la Plaza de Mayo. Image: Archivo Hasenberg-Quaretti via commons.wikimedia.org

However other campaigners such as the Group of Families of those Arrested and Disappeared for Political Motives are looking for further action from the Vatican. They seek an investigation and official criticism of the Church’s own role throughout the dictatorship. Questions in particular have been raised as to relationships that were held throughout the period between certain clergymen and leaders of the military Junta. The Vatican’s Ambassador to Buenos Aires Monsignor Pio Laghi is, for example, said to have been tennis buddies with Admiral Emio Massera, one of the bloodiest leaders of that time.

The complicity of the Church in the abuses committed by the dictatorship of 1973-1986 was recognized for the first time by the Argentine judiciary in February 2013. Though Pope Francis was not officially a part of the Catholic hierarchy at the time – only head of the Jesuits – his role throughout the dictatorship has also been brought into question. Several journalistic investigations allege he collaborated with the government and linked him with the abduction of two priests. This was the cause of a tumultuous turn in relations between the Pope and “the Abuelas” last year, though the leader of the group Estela de Carlotto later apologized after inconsistencies arose  within the allegations. The Pope being the pope of course forgave all, “It’s OK, if they were mistaken, half-mistaken or changed their minds now…All of us in life make mistakes in many things”.

What is important for now is the Vatican’s willingness for cooperation. As Guillermo Karcher puts it – “This is the pope’s wish – for something to be done”. According to Karcher, “work has already begun on declassifying the Vatican archives”, though this will take some time since opening it is a “challenging job, which consists of putting into order what is in the Vatican archive to allow research”. Monsignor Laterzam secretariat of the Vatican state told Italian news agency Ansa that the information could be available to the public in one year.