In early 1977, Estela de la Cuadra’s husband, brother, pregnant sister and brother-in-law disappeared.
In the dark period known as Argentina’s “Dirty War” of the late ’70s and early ’80s, activists were routinely kidnapped, tortured and murdered for opposing the ruling military regime.
The de la Cuadras appealed to Pedro Arrupe, head of the Jesuit order in Rome, praying the church would help save their family. Arrupe dispatched Jorge Mario Bergoglio — the future Pope Francis.
Bergoglio, then head of the Jesuits in Argentina, waited months to act, they say, and when he did, it was only to pass the case off to a local Catholic bishop.
HISTORY: Francis wrote to a bishop in 1977, telling him to meet with the family of kidnapped couple Elena de la Cuadra and Hector Baratti.
It was too little, too late, the family claims.
By the time Bergoglio penned a brief missive to Bishop Mario Picchi in October 1977, asking the prelate to meet with Estela’s father, her imprisoned sister’s baby had been snatched and given to a “prominent family.”
The little girl was one of hundreds of babies born to suspected leftists and spirited away by the right-wing dictatorship.
The bishop delivered the bad news to the family.
“They said the case was closed,” Estela told The Post from her home in La Plata, a city outside Buenos Aries.
When Bergoglio was named pope last week, she said, “I was horrified. I thought of impunity. This was the price of impunity.”
As Catholics around the world celebrated the elevation of Bergoglio, the first Jesuit and Latin American to become pope, at least two families in his home country remain bitter about his actions, or lack thereof, during a civil war in which 30,000 people died.
Estela’s husband and brother-in-law were executed in a manner typical of the period — they were thrown alive out of an airplane. She doesn’t know how her brother died, or the fate of her sister, Elena. Her stolen niece, Ana, would be 35 now, and the family still looks for her.
“With his silence, he supported the military,” Estela told The Post.
In 2010, Bergoglio testified about Argentina’s dark days, saying he did not know about stolen babies until years later.
The de la Cuadra family disputes that.
“Bergoglio knew from us that this was going on,” Estela said.
Last year, under Bergoglio’s leadership, the Argentine bishops apologized for the church’s failures during the Dirty War.
On Friday, the Vatican defended the new pope’s conduct in Argentina, saying, “There have been many declarations of how much he did for many people to protect them from the military dictatorship.”
Some defenders say that while he may have been publicly silent, he was using back channels to save people.
“He was anguished,” former Argentina Attorney General Alicia Oliveira told The Washington Post, noting that when she urged him to speak out during the war, “he said he couldn’t, that it wasn’t an easy thing to do.”
The most controversial case involved the kidnapping of two Jesuits, Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics. The priests’ work in the slums made them suspected guerrillas.
In his 2012 official biography, Bergoglio says he warned the pair to be careful, saying their presence in the shantytowns made them “too exposed to the paranoia of the witch hunt.”
But in a 2005 book, “The Silence,” journalist Horacio Verbitsky claims Bergoglio turned in the priests.
“They were kidnapped in May 1976. They were chained to a bed with chains to their hands and feet. Their faces were covered during five months,” Yorio’s sister, Graciela, told The Post.
Graciela said her family met with Bergoglio three times during her brother’s captivity and never got help. At one point, she said he told the family, “Orlando, we no longer speak about him.”
The priests were set free after five months. Bergoglio contends he acted behind the scenes to save them. “The very night I learnt of their kidnapping, I began moving,” he said in his biography, “The Jesuit.”
Yorio died in 2000. Jalics said last week that he could not comment on Bergoglio’s role in his capture. He said he had discussed it with him years later.
“Afterwards, we together celebrated a public Mass and solemnly embraced. I am reconciled to the events and view them from my side as concluded,” he said.
But Graciela is outraged Bergoglio is pope.
“I just have to think that this is the church that we have,” she said. “In order to be pope, you have to be a traitor, a liar, a collaborator and power-hungry.”