Vatican denies Dirty War allegations against Pope

Vatican Press Secretary, Fr Tom Rosica, said the accusations must be "firmly and clearly denied" (Photo shows Pope supporters in St Peter's Square)

The Vatican has denied that Pope Francis failed to speak out against human rights abuses during military rule in his native Argentina.

"There has never been a credible, concrete accusation against him," said Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi, adding he had never been charged.

The spokesman blamed the accusations on "anti-clerical left-wing elements that are used to attack the Church".

Jorge Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, led Argentina's Jesuits under the junta.

Correspondents say that like other Latin American churchmen of the time, he had to contend, on the one hand, with a repressive right-wing regime and, on the other, a wing of his Church leaning towards political activism on the left.

One allegation concerns the abduction in 1976 of two Jesuits by Argentina's military government, suspicious of their work among slum-dwellers.

Analysis

The fact that the Vatican has come out with such a firm denial shows it understands the damage this story could do to the new Pope's image.

The former head of the Jesuits in Argentina stands accused of failing to confront the country's 1976-1983 military junta as it kidnapped and killed thousands in its "Dirty War" against leftist opponents.

One of two priests kidnapped in 1976 - who has since died - later accused Bergoglio of effectively delivering the men to the death squads by failing to publicly endorse their work.

But some say that in working to remove them from their posts he was trying to save their lives. The surviving kidnap victim, now in his eighties and living in a monastery in Germany, says he became reconciled with the current Pope over the issue more than a decade ago - and now considers it closed.

The Vatican, too, would like to put a lid on the issue. And Friday's denial showed an interesting development in papal communications. This was the Catholic Church trying to get ahead of the story, and thereby nip its potentially harmful impact in the bud. That in itself is new.

As the priests' provincial superior at the time, Jorge Bergoglio was accused by some of having failed to shield them from arrest - a charge his office flatly denied.

Judges investigating the arrest and torture of the two men - who were freed after five months - questioned Cardinal Bergoglio as a witness in 2010.

The new Pope's official biographer, Sergio Rubin, argues that the Jesuit leader "took extraordinary, behind-the-scenes action to save them".

Another accusation levelled against him from the Dirty War era is that he failed to follow up a request to help find the baby of a woman kidnapped when five months' pregnant and killed in 1977. It is believed the baby was illegally adopted.

The cardinal testified in 2010 that he had not known about baby thefts until well after the junta fell - a claim relatives dispute.

Turned in?

In his book The Silence, Argentine investigative journalist Horacio Verbitsky says the Jesuit leader withdrew his order's protection from Francisco Jalics and Orlando Yorio after the two priests refused to stop visiting slums.

The journalist is close to Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, who often clashed with Cardinal Bergoglio on social policy.

"He turned priests in during the dictatorship," Verbitsky was quoted as saying by Reuters news agency.

Start Quote

I warned them to be very careful. They were too exposed to the paranoia of the witch hunt”

End Quote Jorge Bergoglio (now Pope Francis) Interviewed by his biographer

The man who is now Pope once talked about the two priests to his biographer.

"I warned them to be very careful," he told Rubin. "They were too exposed to the paranoia of the witch hunt. Because they stayed in the barrio, Yorio and Jalics were kidnapped.''

Both priests were held inside the feared Navy Mechanics School prison. Finally, drugged and blindfolded, they were left in a field by a helicopter.

Orlando Yorio, who reportedly accused Fr Bergoglio of effectively delivering them to the death squads by declining to publicly endorse their work, is now dead.

AP news agency quoted Francisco Jalics as saying on Friday: "It was only years later that we had the opportunity to talk with Fr Bergoglio... to discuss the events.

"Following that, we celebrated Mass publicly together and hugged solemnly. I am reconciled to the events and consider the matter to be closed."

Adolfo Perez Esquivel, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for defending human rights during the dictatorship, believes Fr Bergoglio "tried to... help where he could" under the junta.

"It's true that he didn't do what very few bishops did in terms of defending the human rights cause, but it's not right to accuse him of being an accomplice," he told Reuters.

"Bergoglio never turned anyone in, neither was he an accomplice of the dictatorship," Mr Esquivel said.

Pope Francis From a humble background in Argentina, Jorge Mario Bergoglio has risen to the head of the Roman Catholic Church as Pope Francis. We look at key moments in his life and career so far.
Jorge Mario Bergoglio and family Jorge Mario Bergoglio was born on 17 December 1936 in Buenos Aires. His father was an Italian immigrant railway worker. He became a Jesuit priest at 32, a decade after losing a lung due to illness and abandoning his chemistry studies. He became a bishop in 1992 and was made Archbishop of Buenos Aires in 1998.
Faces of the Argentine 'disappeared' 1970s: Human rights groups have raised questions about his role under the Argentine military dictatorship of 1976-1983 - and particularly about the kidnap of two Jesuit priests. The cardinal's office has always denied his involvement. He told Perfil magazine in 2010 he had helped some dissidents escape the country.
Argentine soldier in the Falklands 1982: Pope Francis has been a strong supporter of the veterans of the war in the Falkland Islands - referred to in Argentina as Las Malvinas. He has spoken against attempts to "demalvinizar" or gloss over the history of the war.
Protests in Buenos Aires, 2001 2001: The Archbishop of Buenos Aires became a cardinal in 2001, as the Argentine economy was in crisis. Speaking in Buenos Aires as thousands joined rallies against government austerity plans, he highlighted the contrast between the rich and "poor people who are persecuted for demanding work".
Conclave 2005 2005: Cardinal Bergoglio was seen as a strong contender to become Pope at the 2005 conclave to elect a successor to Pope John Paul II. He was reported to be the chief rival to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who was duly elected and became Pope Benedict XVI.
Cardinal Bergoglio at a Mass in 2009 and protesters at a march 2009: As cardinal and archbishop, he stood out for his humility, living in a modest apartment, rather than his luxury official residence. In his sermons, he often stressed social inclusion and criticised governments which did not help those on the margins of society, describing poverty in Argentina as "immoral and unjust".
Supporters of gay marriage in Argentina 2010: Although Pope Francis is strong on social justice, he is extremely conservative on sexual matters. He voiced staunch opposition to gay marriage when it was legalised in Argentina in 2010. He said: "Let's not be naive: this isn't a simple political fight, it is a destructive attack on God's plan."
Cardinal Bergoglio at a Mass 2012: Cardinal Bergoglio preferred life outside the bureaucracy of Rome and he criticised those "who clericalise the Church". In a sermon to Argentine priests, he attacked those who would not baptise children of single mothers. "Those who separate the people of God from salvation. These are today's hypocrites."
Pope Francis 2013: Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio was not seen by the media as one of the front-runners to succeed Pope Benedict. But he is now the first non-European Pope for more than 1,000 years and the first from Latin America, home to 40% of the world's Catholics.

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