Pope Francis has reflected on the “deep wounds” the Argentine dictatorship caused to two Jesuit priests the government abducted and tortured in the 1970s while the future pontiff was provincial of the Society of Jesus in Argentina.

“Fathers Ferenc Jálics and Orlando Yorio ministered in a working-class neighborhood and worked hard. Jálics was my spiritual father and confessor during my first and second years of theology,” the pontiff said at an April 29 meeting in Budapest with Hungarian Jesuits, the Jesuit-run magazine La Civiltà Cattolica reported May 9.

In 1974 Jálics and Yorio began to live in a Buenos Aires slum so that they might better share the life of the poor. In May 1976, amid Argentina’s notorious “Dirty War,” the newly empowered military junta abducted and tortured them.

“In the neighborhood where he worked there was a guerrilla cell. But the two Jesuits had nothing to do with them: They were pastors, not politicians,” the pope continued. “They were innocent when taken prisoner. The military found nothing to charge them with, but they had to spend nine months in prison, suffering threats and torture. Then they were released, but these things leave deep wounds.”

Pope Francis’ words differ from most reports, which say the detention lasted five months.

After the abduction, then-Father Jorge Bergoglio, as Jesuit provincial, worked to release the two priests and even asked the military junta’s leader, Jorge Rafael Videla, to intervene. However, rumors circulated that Bergoglio himself had denounced the priests to the regime — rumors the two priests would believe.

Yorio, who never rejoined the Jesuits after his abduction, until his death in 2000 believed Bergoglio was responsible for the abduction. Jálics, however, exonerated Bergoglio in a March 2013 statement. He said that while he once believed his 1976 kidnapping was due to a denunciation from then-Father Bergoglio, he realized years later that this belief was incorrect.

“These are the facts: Neither I nor Orlando Yorio were denounced by Father Bergoglio,” Jálics said soon after Pope Francis’ election to the papacy.

Pope Francis recounts ‘very painful’ episode

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The question about the Budapest-born Father Jálics came during the first Jesuit pope’s apostolic visit to Hungary. It was one of 150 questions the Jesuits of Hungary had collected from the public. Some questions were discussed in public events while some were raised in the discussion with the Hungarian Jesuits, sources told CNA’s sister news agency ACI Stampa.

Speaking to Hungary’s Jesuits, Pope Francis recounted his interactions with Jálics after his release.

“Jálics immediately came to me and we talked. I advised him to go to his mother in the United States,” the pontiff said.

In just two years, more than 30,000 people were killed by the junta. The dead included both left-wing guerilla fighters and innocent civilians.

The situation in Argentina was “really too confusing and uncertain,” Pope Francis told the 32 Jesuits gathered at Budapest’s apostolic nunciature. “Then the legend developed that I had handed them over to be imprisoned.”

Further accounts of this time, the pontiff said, are available in the Argentine Catholic bishops’ recent publication of two volumes of a planned three-volume series. These will have “all the documents related to what happened between the Church and the military.”

“You will find everything there,” he said.

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When the military imprisoned the two priests, the pope said, the situation was “bewildering” and “it was not at all clear what should be done.”

“I did what I felt I had to do to defend them. It was a very painful affair,” the pope said.

“Jálics was a good man, a man of God, a man who sought God, but he fell victim to an association to which he did not belong. He himself understood this. That association was the active resistance in the place where he went to be a chaplain.”

After Jálics left Argentina, he served as a retreat leader in Germany starting in 1978. Over the decades, he became well known as a spiritual director and author of several books on contemplation, prayer, and spirituality. He spent the last three years of his life in a Budapest nursing home, dying at the age of 93 on Feb. 13, 2021.

The victimized priest did have further contact with Bergoglio, who would become archbishop of Buenos Aires in 1998.

“When the military left, Jálics asked my permission to come to do a course of spiritual exercises in Argentina,” Pope Francis said. “I let him come, and we even celebrated Mass together. Then I saw him again as archbishop and then again also as pope; he came to Rome to see me. We always maintained this relationship.”

“But when he came the last time to see me in the Vatican, I could see that he was suffering because he didn’t know how to talk to me,” the pontiff added. “There was a distance. The wounds of those past years remained both in me and in him, because we both experienced that persecution.”

In 2010, years after the end of the dictatorship, the Argentine government under President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner decided to scrutinize Bergoglio’s actions, Reuters reported. This inquiry, held in the episcopal residence, lasted more than four hours. According to Pope Francis, Jálics was not a major part of the discussion.

“Some people in the government wanted to ‘cut my head off,’ and they brought up not so much this issue of Jálics, but they questioned my whole way of acting during the dictatorship. So they put me on trial,” the pope told the Hungarian Jesuits.

“One of the judges was very insistent in his questioning about the way I behaved. I always answered truthfully,” he said. “In the end, my innocence was established. But in that judgment there was almost no mention of Jàlics, but of other cases of people who had asked for help.”

How Jálics saw the abduction — and came to disbelieve the rumors

Jálics was born in Budapest in 1927 and lived there during the Second World War. He entered the Jesuit novitiate but was forced to leave Hungary by the communist government. He later served as a theology teacher in Buenos Aires, where he was a spiritual director for Jesuit scholastics. After the 1976 military coup, the Argentine military arrested him. He was locked in a cell blindfolded for five months.

When Pope Francis was elected pontiff, Jálics issued an initial statement and then a follow-up saying that some commentaries and reports contradicted what he wanted to say. He emphasized that Pope Francis was not responsible for his detention.

“These are the facts: Neither I nor Orlando Yorio were denounced by Father Bergoglio,” he said. “As I made clear in my previous statement, we were arrested because of a catechist who worked with us first and later joined the guerillas.”

“For nine months we never saw her again, but two or three days after she was detained, we were detained as well,” he recounted. “The official who interrogated me asked for my papers. When he saw that I was born in Budapest, he thought I was a Russian spy.”

“In the Argentinean Jesuit congregation and in Catholic circles, false information spread in the years prior that claimed we had moved to the poor barrios because we belonged to the guerilla (movement),” the priest said. “But that was not the case. I suppose these rumors were motivated by the fact that we were not immediately released.”

“I was once inclined to think that we were the victims of a betrayal. But at the end of the 1990s, I realized after many conversations that this assumption was baseless,” he said. “For this reason, it is wrong to assert that our capture happened because of Father Bergoglio.”