BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) -- Before he became Pope Francis, Argentina's Catholic leader took the first steps toward granting sainthood status to priests and other Catholics who were murdered in July 1976 as Argentina's dictatorship was killing thousands of so-called "subversives."
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, confirmed Tuesday that it was Jorge Bergoglio who approved the beatification cause of Carlos de Dios Murias, a Franciscan priest killed in Argentina's La Rioja province, where his mission had challenged the interests of powerful local leaders.
A fellow Franciscan priest, a Frenchman named Gabriel Longueville, was found alongside Murias. Both had their eyes gouged out and hands cut off, allegedly after being kidnapped by a military death squad. A Catholic lay worker who collaborated with them, Wenceslao Pedernera, was found beaten to death days later. The diocese of La Rioja province has been working on a sainthood case for all three since 2011. Only now has Argentina's justice system put the alleged suspects on trial.
Lombardi said that as leader of Argentina's bishops, Bergoglio also approved a sainthood investigation for five Pallotine churchmen killed at St. Patrick's Church in Buenos Aires. Fathers Alfredo Kelly, Alfredo Leaden and Pedro Dufau and their seminarians Salvador Berbeito and Emilio Barletti were shot to death by a right-wing hit squad. The killers left graffiti saying the deaths were in revenge for a leftist guerrilla bombing of a police station two days earlier that had killed 18 people.
Both sets of killings were among a wave of kidnappings and deaths targeting church representatives who ran social missions at a time when the highest church authorities in Argentina were publicly silent about the junta's use of kidnapping, torture and murder to eliminate people they considered to be subversives.
The Franciscan priests' bishop, Enrique Angelelli, had gathered evidence about their deaths when he, too, was killed in a suspicious traffic accident. Church leaders didn't acknowledge that Angelelli was probably murdered until 2006, when President Nestor Kirchner announced a national day of mourning in his honor. Bergoglio said Mass in La Rioja that day, calling Angelelli a "martyr" during the first official church homage to him.
The so-called "Saint Patricks' Massacre" was another notorious case, happening on church property in one of the Argentine capital's most exclusive neighborhoods, Belgrano. But it drew only a tepid public response from the Argentine church hierarchy. Days later, they wrote the junta saying "We wonder, or rather, the people wonder, what kind of forces are so powerful that they can act at their own discretion in our society with total impunity and anonymity. ... We have made this statement sure of Your Excellencies' understanding, knowing your high ideals and your generous attitude toward the fatherland, its institutions and its citizens."
These cases surfaced again Tuesday during Francis' installation as pope because the leader of the Franciscan order in Argentina and Uruguay, Carlos Trovarelli, told the Italian paper La Stampa that Bergoglio's wisdom about church politics was what enabled the canonization process to prosper.
Trovarelli said Bergoglio approved the La Rioja diocese's work in May 2011, when nobody thought he would be pope. He said Bergoglio asked those involved to act with great discretion, saying "many Argentine bishops, especially the oldest ones, are opposed to judgments based on social commitments."
"Thanks to his caution, the process was able to advance," Trovarelli told La Stampa.
Trovarelli later denied in a phone call with The Associated Press that he had told La Stampa anything about other Argentine bishops.
La Stampa also interviewed another priest, Miguel La Civita, who was close to Angelelli, and credits Bergoglio for saving him and other priests by hiding them inside the Colegio Maximo, a church university in suburban Buenos Aires where Bergoglio was the rector.
"I was the exact prototype of what were then called 'third-world priests,' liberation theology," La Civita was quoted as saying. "The Colegio Maximo had become a kind of safe house to help the persecuted: they were hidden, false documents were prepared and they helped them flee the country. Bergoglio was convinced that the military wouldn't have the guts to violate the Colegio Maximo."
While the La Rioja diocese gathers evidence to support sainthood for the three dirty war victims there, civilian judges are putting three men on trial in their deaths -- a former policeman, a former military officer and former Army Gen. Benjamin Menendez, who already is serving several life sentences for other human rights violations in northeastern Argentina.
Now that he's become pope, Argentines familiar with these cases are hoping Francis will have a free hand to beatify these men.