VATICAN CITY – The honeymoon that Pope Francis has enjoyed since his remarkable election hit a bump Friday, with the Vatican lashing out at what it called a defamatory and “anti-clerical left-wing” media campaign questioning his actions during Argentina’s murderous military dictatorship.
On Day 2 of the Francis pontificate, the Vatican denounced news reports in Argentina and beyond resurrecting allegations that the former Jorge Mario Bergoglio failed to openly confront the junta responsible for kidnapping and killing thousands of people in a “dirty war” to eliminate leftist opponents.
Bergoglio, like most Argentines, didn’t publicly confront the dictators who ruled from 1976-83, while he was the leader of the country’s Jesuits. And human rights activists differ on how much blame he personally deserves.
Top church leaders had endorsed the junta and some priests even worked alongside torturers inside secret prisons. Nobody has produced any evidence suggesting Bergoglio had anything to do with such crimes. But many activists are angry that as archbishop of Buenos Aires for more than a decade, he didn’t do more to support investigations into the atrocities.
On Thursday, the old ghosts resurfaced. A group of 44 former military and police officers on trial for torture, rape and murder in a concentration camp in Cordoba province in the 1970s wore the yellow-and-white ribbons of the papal flag in Francis’ honor. Many Argentine newspapers ran the photo.
Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi noted that Argentine courts had never accused Bergoglio of any crime, that he had denied all accusations against him and that on the contrary “there have been many declarations demonstrating how much Bergoglio did to protect many persons at the time.”
He said the accusations against the new pope were made long ago “by anti-clerical left-wing elements to attack the church. They must be firmly rejected.”
The harsh denunciation was typical of a Vatican that often reacts defensively when it feels under attack, even though its response served to give the story legs for another day. It interrupted the generally positive reception Francis has enjoyed since his election as pope Wednesday.
The worst allegation is that as the military junta took over in 1976, Bergoglio withdrew support for two Jesuit priests whose work in the slums of Buenos Aires had put them in direct contact with the leftist guerrilla movement advocating armed revolution. The priests were then kidnapped and interrogated inside a clandestine torture center.
Bergoglio said he had told the priests – Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics – to give up their slum work for their own safety, and they refused. Yorio later accused Bergoglio of effectively delivering them to the death squads by declining to publicly endorse their work. Yorio died in Uruguay in 2000.
Jalics, who had maintained silence about the events, issued a statement Friday saying he spoke with Bergoglio years later and the two celebrated Mass together and hugged “solemnly.”
“I am reconciled to the events and consider the matter to be closed,” he said.
Bergoglio told his official biographer, Sergio Rubin, in 2010 that he had gone to extraordinary, behind-the-scenes lengths to save the men.
The Jesuit leader persuaded the family priest of feared dictator Jorge Videla to call in sick so Bergoglio could say Mass instead and take the opportunity to successfully appeal for their release, Rubin wrote.