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Local tribunal judge from Argentina has high hopes for new pope

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BRAINTREE -- Metropolitan Tribunal judge Maria Bianco, a native of Argentina, worked under Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio for four years after experiencing years of conflict in her homeland during her college years.

Bianco worked in the Metropolitan Tribunal of Buenos Aires for 10 years, and came to know Pope Francis when he became the archbishop.

"I think that he has many attributes that are going to help him to be a good pope, and to be close to the people," she said.

Bianco said he was very caring and concerned for the laity and priests who worked under him. She said he was approachable and honest when consulted about problems, during the time she worked under him.

"What he was going to tell you it was just the correct answer always," she said.

Bianco, who grew up in Argentina, worked under Archbishop Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, after his installation as Archbishop of Buenos Aires in 1998, and lived there until 2002 when she came to the United States.

Bianco called criticism of Pope Francis's actions while a priest in the 1970s and 1980s "unjust" and "unfair."

She said it was important to understand the political context in Argentina at the time.

In her college years, Bianco said she witnessed upheaval in the society as the country moved toward a period of armed conflict in the 70s. She said some of her classmates became involved politically.

A period of violence between various guerilla groups, insurgents, and a military junta -- which took power during the conflict -- became known as the "Dirty War." The military junta ruled the country from 1976 until 1982 when they were forced from power.

"In Argentina there was a war that wasn't formally declared. When I am talking about this, it is about before the militarists came into the country. After that, it was still a war," Bianco said.

While she said she stayed focused on her studies at the time of her education, she witnessed other students becoming involved politically on different sides of the conflict.

"When I was in college, classmates were involved in those kind of situations," she said.

She noted a marked divide between students from poor families and students from wealthier families who came to life-endangering attention of the factions warring for control of the country by protesting in favor of or against either side.

"Where did they go looking for protection? They went to the Church. They went to see the priests, so the priests protected them more than once," she said.

"People who had money would have their parents pay for them to leave the country, but people who didn't have money they went to the Church to be protected," she said.

She added that Jewish rabbis and embassies from various countries also helped protect people, but emphasized the role of the Catholic Church.

She said the Church remained close to the social situation at the time, which meant some churchmen took sides. In 2007, former Catholic chaplain for police Christian Von Wernich was convicted for involvement with murders, abductions and cases of torture during the conflict.

"There were priests that were involved. There were priests that were accused," she said.

She said radicals against the junta committed acts of violence beyond a reasonable scope of resisting an oppressive regime.

"Some of those groups -- the more radicalized -- they kidnapped people, they killed people, they killed one of our presidents," Bianco said.

Bianco said people in Argentina during the conflict were "disappeared" by a military government that took the law into its own hands rather than employing the national judicial system, which she said remained intact at the time.

She said the military prisons ignored rule of law or accountability to the justice system in Argentina when they imprisoned people linked to guerilla groups. According to Bianco, many of those prisoners were not fighters.

"A lot of young people were sent to prison, but those prisons were not the normal prisons that you have in this country where those people can defend their rights and they have protections. Those prisons were prisons of the militarists, where young people were tortured and where those people were killed," she said.

She said she had classmates and family members to whom priests in the country opened the doors of their churches for help.

"Some priests even, they risked their lives to have people protected in their churches," she said.

She speculated that, as a priest at the time, Pope Francis would have also been exposed to the dangers of the conflict -- a conflict during which she said she saw strangers taken in the streets and blindfolded by police.

"But, for the priests it was also very dangerous because many priests were taken by the militarists too, so he had to move in very difficult waters, and he was a good sailor in those waters," she said.

Bianco said she expects Pope Francis to pursue an agenda geared toward peace and fairness because his time in Argentina brought him face-to-face with the realities of poverty and war.

"That is the reason why I think that this pope will do very good things for peace, because he was living all of those situations. He felt under his skin what is the lack of justice, what is social violence, and I think that he is going to be very good in bringing peace," she said.

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