Sunday brunch is one of New York City’s most trying experiences. More than enough people do it that the best places are almost always packed between the brunchiest hours, roughly between 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Waiting for a table and, inevitably, for friends who do not show up on time—thus losing the table—can be maddening. Unlike other meals at restaurants, eating brunch alone is egregiously anti-social, even for a solo diner like me. The entire reason for brunch is to meet people—a secular alternative to hymn-sings. But, all too often, there are too many people to deal with—and not enough mimosas and maple syrup in the world to provide solace. And so I avoid brunch. Assiduously.
But not last Sunday. For one, it was a private brunch and the numbers would be small. There would be no accidental elbowing of strangers at the table to the right or left. And there was one member of the brunch party that I wanted to meet. So, after my friend Anya von Bremzen told me of his likely presence at the gathering, I bought about a dozen of my favorite macarons from the Bosie Tea Parlor on Morton Street in Greenwich Village and, with that gift offering, walked down the icy winter sidewalks to an apartment not far away to make the acquaintance of Horacio Verbitsky, a journalist visiting from Buenos Aires.
He is Argentina’s foremost chronicler and muckraker of the atrocities and crimes of the Dirty War.
I had tried to get in touch with Verbitsky during the Argentine reporting on Pope Francis—the former Archbishop of Buenos Aires—who was TIME’s Person of the Year for 2013. (I was the co-writer of the main piece on the Pontiff.) Why was it important to speak to Verbitsky? He is Argentina’s foremost chronicler and muckraker of the atrocities and crimes of the Dirty War, the murderous campaign by the country’s military junta to get rid of thousands of its civilian opponents, with several books on the subject and many more, it seems, in the planning. But, in the broadest of parallels and yet specific to the life of Francis, if the Pope were Jean Valjean of Les Misérable, then Verbitsky would be his implacable nemesis Inspector Javert.
The almost universal acclaim and adoration that have greeted the former Jorge Mario Bergoglio since shortly after his election on March 13, 2013 have obscured the legacy of his administrative record as a senior Jesuit during the Dirty War. It was Verbitsky who detailed the allegations against the future Pope in his 2005 book The Silence, a journalistic indictment of Catholic Churchmen amid the dictatorship that ruled the country from 1976 to 1983. Verbitsky does not accuse Bergoglio of criminal actions—such as hiding political prisoners from visiting international investigators (as a previous Archbishop of Buenos Aires did) or of actively collaborating in the deadly mistreatment of dissidents (as a number of priests did). Instead, Verbitsky points to Bergoglio’s management of the case of two senior Jesuits who refused his orders to leave their mission in the slums of Buenos Aires—and who were then kidnapped by the junta shortly after the generals took power.
For most of the so-called “disappeared,” there was no re-appearance as living beings. But the two priests—Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics—were freed after five months of torture. While Jalics seemed to keep a resentful silence over the ordeal, Yorio talked about what he believed to be Bergoglio’s responsibility for their fate. At the time, Bergoglio was the head of the Jesuit order in Argentina—at the age of 36, astonishingly young to hold that position. Yorio believed that the Jesuit leader had “lifted” the order’s protection for the duo in the slums, thereby giving the military the green light to go after them without incurring interference from the Society of Jesus. That is the core of Verbitsky’s complaint against Bergoglio. Since the book was published in 2005—the first year the Archbishop of Buenos Aires was a contender for the Papacy—and from the moment Bergoglio was elected Pope Francis, he and his spokespeople have described the allegations as “old slander.” Bergoglio said he immediately went to work to win the freedom of the two priests and points to their survival as proof that his interventions with the junta worked. (His backers point to the long list of people he helped escape the clutches of the generals.) Yet the prelate’s 2005 testimony in an inquiry into the Yorio and Jalics episode of the dirty war (where he was a witness and not on trial for any crime) struck many as, if not evasive, then as tactically minimal.
He described Francis as ‘Maradona-Pele-Cristiano Ronaldo-Messi all rolled into one’
According to both detractors and admirers in Argentina, Bergoglio’s verbal deftness—his expertise with ambivalence—served him well during the politically difficult years of the junta, where one misstep could mean downfall or worse. They also say that his current pontifical soundbites, so popular among certain sectors of the Catholic Church and many constituencies outside of it, are the product of the same talent for expressive ambiguity. After all, how many questions could his most famous statement—“Who am I to judge?” with regard to gay Catholics—actually withstand? During my reporting for TIME in Buenos Aires, I spoke to Eduardo de Serna, a priest-blogger who is often critical of Bergoglio. He described Francis as “Maradona-Pele-Cristiano Ronaldo-Messi all rolled into one”—though that praise is essentially one of verbal and political ability, of Bergolio’s “people skills” and talent for cultivating influential patrons and friends rather than evidence of the hand of God acting in his favor.
As Archbishop and as Pontiff, Francis has not admitted to any wrongdoing in the case of Yorio and Jalics. Yorio died in 2000; Jalics released a statement shortly after Francis’ election saying the case was closed and that he had reconciled with the man who was now Pope. Still, without enumerating examples, Bergoglio, as Archbishop and as Pope, has referred to his period as the young leader of Argentina’s Jesuits as a time of testing and failure. “I had to learn from my errors along the way,” he told interviewers in 2010, “because, to tell you the truth, I had made hundreds of errors. Errors and sins.” And, in a lengthy conversation with the editor of the Jesuit magazine Civilta Cattolica, he said, “I was only 36 years old. That was crazy. I had to deal with difficult situations, and I made my decisions abruptly and by myself… Eventually people get tired of authoritarianism.” In any case, there would be more controversies in the Jesuit order—including a conflict that led to Bergoglio’s internal exile in Argentina. After that, however, Bergoglio began his rise in the hierarchy but also began vigorously pursuing the tactics that he had ordered Yorio and Jalics to desist from: working in the slums among the poor.
He has been so dogged in his journalism that his nickname is el perro—the dog.
As I joined him for brunch in New York, I expected Verbitsky to be a fire-breather. After all, just before and in the early period of the Dirty War, he was briefly involved with a left-wing Peronist terror organization (which he has said he abandoned without participating in any fatal operations, though his many enemies claim otherwise); and he has taken on a President of Argentina for corruption in the family. He has been so dogged in his journalism that his nickname is <em>el perro</em>—the dog.
He does not hold back because he is afraid of hurting the feelings of his audience. Just a couple of months after the 9/11 attacks on New York, he was in the city to receive a prestigious Press Freedom Award from Committee to Protect Journalists. Nevertheless, he told the tuxedoed audience in the Waldorf-Astoria ballroom that “After the appalling September 11 terrorist attacks the United States may be tempted to erode its high standards of free expression, to restrict its own liberties and to ignore the suffering of other people. We read in the American press that due process is at stake and even the possible use of torture is being debated. We hear your president talk of being either ‘for us or against us.” Worst of all, we see the huge popularity of this approach.” He said that Argentina’s terrible experience during the bloody years of junta rule should be a lesson. “Our commitment as journalists must be to the truth, not to any government; that fights between absolute Good and Evil, as theology teaches us, usually lead to Apocalypse.” The audience, still shell-shocked from 9/11, did not quite know how to respond.
For now, very few want to hear about the flaws of their great hero. It is as if Bergoglio and Francis were different people.
However, the Verbitsky I met in Greenwich Village was nothing like the dragon I imagined. He had an avuncular and winning smile; he moved from subject to subject with a ready laugh and an urbane gentility, with a witty quip for most subjects from Edward Snowden to Barack Obama to the Argentine government of Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner to the literary reputation in Japan of one of the other guests at the brunch. But he asked not to be quoted on the subject I most wanted to talk to him about: the Pope. He was adamant that there would be no new quotes and so I can only point to his mid-March interview with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now for his latest words on Francis’ past. His opinions had been broadcast widely in March 2013 after Francis election but Verbitsky seemed to draw back as the new Pope grew in popularity.
Perhaps he is only being smart about the subject. After all, the world is enthralled by Pope Francis. The life and dubious actions of Archbishop Bergoglio of Buenos Aires are just so much minutiae, unimportant in the context of a man who has changed the tone of the Catholic Church and who may well redirect its still potentially immense energies. For now, very few want to hear about the flaws of their great hero. It is as if Bergoglio and Francis were different people. But, as history has shown again and again, even the greatest of heroes will have his or her moment of weakness. Even for Francis, the cheering will have to end, one day. And when that day comes, Horacio Verbitsky, el perro, may well be ready to tell his stories once again—because people will be willing to hear.