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 other Argentines, didn’t publicly confront the dictators who ruled from 1976 to 1983, while he was the leader of the country’s Jesuits. And human rights activists differ on how much blame he 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 Friday.
The 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 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 on Wednesday, when even his choice of footwear – his old black shoes rather than the typical papal red – was noted as a sign of his simplicity and humility.