ROME — The Vatican vigorously defended Pope Francis on Friday by seeking to discredit accusations that he failed to oppose and may even have collaborated with Argentina’s feared military junta during the so-called “dirty war” against left-wing activists.
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, departed from his recent good cheer since the pope’s election to excoriate the criticisms in the press. He called the accusations against the former Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who served as a Jesuit provincial superior and then archbishop of Buenos Aires, stale and the work of “anti-clerical left-wing elements to attack the church [that] must be decisively rejected.”
Lombardi framed the criticism as part of a “campaign that’s often slanderous and defamatory.”
The reception of Francis in Rome and beyond has been generally positive, and his simple style and reputation for modesty have been seen as a breath of fresh air in what many consider the stultified atmosphere of the Vatican recently.
But questions about the activities of Bergoglio from 1976 to 1983, when a military dictatorship terrorized much of Argentina and “disappeared” thousands of its own citizens, remain a cloud over his papacy’s otherwise bright early days.
Lombardi dismissed the accusations, mostly centered on Bergoglio’s alleged complicity in the torture of two slum priests, as old and unfounded.
“This was never a concrete or credible accusation in his regard,” Lombardi said. “He was questioned by an Argentinian court as someone aware of the situation but never as a defendant. He has, in documented form, denied any accusations.”
While Bergoglio did not confront the abuses of the junta with anything approaching the public fervor of his fellow clerics facing other dictatorships, as in Chile, it is not clear whether he used other, more private channels, to protect his flock. Bergoglio once told a biographer that he purposely said Mass for the nation’s dictator, Jorge Videla, once in order to advocate for mercy.
Lombardi pointed out Friday that no courts had ever formally accused Bergoglio of wrongdoing and that one of the Jesuit slum priests who was kidnapped in the case in question had earlier in the day issued a statement saying the two had reconciled.
“The accusations pertain to a use of historical-sociological analysis of the dictatorship period made years ago by anti-clerical elements to attack the Church. They must be firmly rejected,” he said.
Francisco Jalics, who had previously been silent about the incident, said in a statement that he had spoken with Bergoglio years later and that the two Jesuits had celebrated Mass together and embraced “solemnly.”
“I am reconciled to the events and consider the matter to be closed,” he said.