Photo via Infobae

The Catholic Church today announced it has finished the process of sorting and cataloguing archives from Argentina’s last dictatorship and will soon make them available to victims and their relatives as well as Church officials.  The move comes after Pope Francis ordered that the process of digitizing all documents held in the Vatican secretariat of state, the Vatican Embassy in Buenos Aires and the Argentine Bishops’ Conference answering demands by activists that have long accused the Church of complicity with the dictatorship abuses.

Yet the opening of the files is not absolute. Only victims and direct family members of the disappeared will be allowed access to the archives. If the victims are part of the Catholic Church, their superiors will also be granted access. The Vatican spokesman, Greg Burke, suggested that a broader opening (i.e for academics, journalists and others interested in reviewing the files) could come later, AP reports.

Members of the Argentine Bishops Conference’s (CEA) executive committee held a press conference to give more details about the announcement: “This mostly has to do with letters that were received requesting to know the whereabouts of detained, disappeared or some other petition to get involved in that way,” said Monsignor Malfa, Bishop of Chascomus and CEA secretary general.

“The Church doesn’t fear the archives,” Cardinal Mario Poli, who is the archbishop of Buenos Aires, said.

Although the exact process to obtain the files has yet to be determined, Church officials made clear today that to access the files a victim or a family member will have to make a request to the CEA, which will then search the archives and hand over any documents it deems relevant.

The (partial) opening of the Church’s archives follows a promise Pope Francis had made to the head of the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo, Estela de Carlotto in a meeting they held in the Vatican earlier this year. “You can count on me,” Pope Francis told Carlotto about her request to declassify the files in order to help the organization in its quest to find the real identity of babies who were stolen during the dictatorship.

The declassification can also help to shed more light on the Church’s role during the dictatorship. The Catholic Church, especially its leaders, have long been criticized for their silence and complicity regarding the atrocities being committed in the country at the time. Furthermore, certain clergymen had close relationships with leaders of the military Junta. The Vatican’s Ambassador to Buenos Aires Monsignor Pio Laghi is, for example, said to have regularly played tennis with Admiral Emilio Massera, one of the most brutal military 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 during the trial of military repressors. “Surely the members of God’s people, as well all Argentine society, expect from an institution as significant as the Church a clearer attitude of rejection” toward the human rights abuses committed during the dictatorship. The words were spoken by the judges of the tribunal that tried, among others, repressor Luciano Benjamín Menéndez for the murders of priests  Carlos de Dios Murias and Gabriel Longueville, who disappeared in July 1976.

Francis during the dictatorship years. Photo via Foros de la virgen
Francis during the dictatorship years. Photo via Foros de la virgen

Though Pope Francis was not officially a part of the Catholic hierarchy at the time — he was the head of the Jesuits … his role throughout the dictatorship was also brought into question for several years. Human rights organization accused him of having denounced two priests to the dictatorship, which he has long denied. “I did what I could for the age and few contacts I had,” he said once.

Despite initial skepticism from some human rights leaders, most have turned around. Even Hebe de Bonafini, the controversial head of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo Association who had an initial negative opinion about Bergoglio conceded she’d been “mistaken” in her previous condemnation of the pope as being friendly with the dictatorship.