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Vatican defends pope against Dirty War accusations

Critics have charged Pope Francis did not do enough to curb rights abuses in Argentina.

OSSERVATORE ROMANO via epa

Critics have charged Pope Francis did not do enough to curb rights abuses in Argentina.

VATICAN CITY — For the first time since the election of Pope Francis two days ago, the Vatican formally defended him on Friday from accusations that, decades ago in the so-called “dirty war” in his home country of Argentina, he knew about serious human rights abuses but failed to do enough to halt them.

The Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, said there had ‘‘never been a credible accusation against him’’ relating to the period in the 1970s when he was superior of the Jesuit order in Argentina.

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Indeed, ‘‘there have been many declarations of how much he did for many people to protect them from the military dictatorship,’’ Lombardi said in a statement at a news conference.

‘‘The accusations belong to the use of a historical-social analysis of facts for many years by the anti-clerical left to attack the church and must be rejected decisively,’’ he said.

Pope Francis, the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, was elected by fellow cardinals Wednesday and much of his behavior since then has seemed to indicate a shift of tone at the Vatican to a more humble and frugal approach.

When he addressed cardinals Friday, for instance, he spoke frequently without notes, addressing them as ‘‘Brother Cardinals’’ rather than as the more usual ‘‘Lord Cardinals,’’ and the Vatican press office highlighted other shows of modesty and lack of formality since his election.

But the question of his past has never been far below the surface, rekindling accusations relating to a conflict in which as many as 30,000 people were disappeared, tortured or killed by the dictatorship.

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At the news conference Friday, Lombardi repeated assertions by a prominent human rights campaigner that there had been ‘‘no compromise by Cardinal Bergoglio with the dictatorship.’’

The debate has simmered in Argentina, with journalists there publishing articles and books that appear to contradict Francis’s account of his actions.

These accounts draw not only on documents from the period, but also on statements by priests and lay workers who clashed with Francis.

After the church had denied for years any involvement with the dictatorship, he testified in 2010 that he had met secretly with General Jorge Videla, the former head of the military junta, and Admiral Emilio Massera, the commander of the navy, to ask for the release of two kidnapped priests.

The following year, prosecutors called him to the witness stand to testify on the military junta’s systematic kidnapping of children, a subject he was also accused of knowing about but failing to prevent.

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