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Vatican hits at 'dirty war' claims

The Vatican has lashed out at what it called a "defamatory" and "anti-clerical left-wing" campaign to discredit Pope Francis over his actions during Argentina's 1976-1983 military junta.

It said no credible accusation had ever stuck against the new pope.

While the former Jorge Mario Bergoglio, like most other Argentines, failed to openly confront the murderous dictatorship, human rights activists differ on how much responsibility he personally deserves.

The Vatican spokesman the Rev Federico Lombardi noted today that a Jesuit who was kidnapped during the dictatorship in a case that involved Bergoglio had issued a statement earlier in the day saying the two had reconciled.

Lombardi also noted that Argentine courts had never accused Bergoglio of any crime and that on the contrary, there is ample evidence of the role he played protecting people from the military as it kidnapped and killed thousands of people in a "dirty war" to eliminate leftist opponents.

He said the accusations were made long ago "by anti-clerical left-wing elements to attack the church and must be decisively rejected."

The most damning accusation against Bergoglio is that as the military junta took over in 1976, he withdrew his support for two slum priests whose activist colleagues in the liberation theology movement were disappearing. The priests were then kidnapped and tortured at the Navy Mechanics School, which the junta used as a clandestine prison.

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 is now dead.

Jalics, who had maintained silence about the events, today issued a statement saying he had spoken to Bergoglio years later, that the two had celebrated Mass together and hugged "solemnly."

"I am reconciled to the events and consider the matter to be closed," he said.

Bergoglio in 2010 revealed his side of the story to his official biographer Sergio Rubin: 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 that he could say Mass instead. Once inside the junta leader's home, Bergoglio privately appealed for mercy, Rubin wrote.

Lombardi said the airing of the accusations in recent days in the press following Pope Francis' election was "characterised by a campaign that's often slanderous and defamatory."

While harsh, such remarks are not unusual for the Vatican when it feels under attack. Earlier this week, Lombardi issued a similar denunciation of an advocacy group for victims of sexual abuse, accusing it of using the media spotlight on the conclave to try to publicise old accusations against cardinals.

The accusations against Bergoglio started with the priest Yorio and with lay people working inside church offices. Horacio Verbitzky, an advocacy journalist who was a leftist militant at the time and is now closely aligned with the government, has written extensively about the accusations in Argentina's Pagina12 newspaper.

Lombardi's statement was delivered after Pope Francis paid a heartfelt tribute to his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI, saying his faith and teaching had "enriched and invigorated" the Catholic Church and would remain its spiritual patrimony forever.

Pope Francis offered the respects during an audience with the cardinals who elected him.

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