VATICAN CITY — The Vatican dismissed claims that Pope Francis played a direct role in the kidnappings of two Jesuit priests during Argentina's murderous military dictatorship and described them as part of a campaign by "left-wing anti-clerical elements to attack the church."
Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, read a statement to journalists March 15 in response to renewed allegations that the future pope failed to protect two young Jesuit priests -- Fathers Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics -- from kidnapping by Argentina's military junta in 1976.
"This was never a concrete or credible accusation in his regard," Father Lombardi said. "He was questioned by an Argentine court as someone aware of the situation but never as a defendant. He has, in documented form, denied any accusations.
"Instead, there have been many declarations demonstrating how much (the future Pope Francis) did to protect many persons at the time of the military dictatorship," the spokesman said.
Father Lombardi also drew attention to recent statements by a leading Argentine human rights activist that the pope "was not directly complicit" with the regime.
"He did not have ties with the dictatorship," said the statement from Adolfo Perez Esquivel, who won the 1980 Nobel Peace Prize for his work on human rights during Argentina's "dirty war" from 1976 to 1983. But the activist added that the future pope had "lacked the courage to stand with us in our struggle for human rights."
The Vatican spokesman called the statement a "declaration to be given much attention, because Perez Esquivel is not traditionally favorable to the church."
Then-Father Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the future pope, was head of the Jesuit province in the country from 1973 to 1979, the height of the clandestine war that saw as many as 30,000 Argentines kidnapped, tortured, murder or disappeared, never to be seen again.
Horacio Verbitsky, author of "El Silencio," a book about the church's role in the country at the time, claims that Cardinal Bergoglio did not endorse the work of the two priests in question, providing a tacit go-ahead for the military to abduct them.
Military officials held and tortured the men before eventually releasing them.
Speaking at the Vatican, Father Lombardi also referred to a news report that one of the two priests, now living in Germany, had said that he and the other kidnap victim had eventually reconciled with the future Pope Francis.
"The campaign against Bergoglio is well-known and dates back to many years ago," Father Lombardi said. "The accusations pertain to a use of historical-sociological analysis of the dictatorship period made years ago by left-wing anti-clerical elements to attack the church. They must be firmly rejected."
The Vatican spokesman said that the future pope, in his years as a bishop, was involved in publicly asking forgiveness on behalf of the church in Argentina "for not having done enough at the time of the dictatorship."
Bergoglio twice refused to testify on the kidnapping incident before taking the stand in 2010. Prosecutors said his testimony failed to answer the allegations.
In an authorized biography, written by Argentine journalist Sergio Rubin, then-Cardinal Bergoglio said he had advised the priests to stop their work.
"I warned them to be very careful," he said, in excerpts quoted by the Associated Press. "They were too exposed to the paranoia of the witch hunt. Because they stayed in the barrio, Yorio and Jalics were kidnapped."
Many documents from the era have been destroyed or lost and many survivors have died, including Father Yorio.
"We have no elements other than the accusations that show Bergoglio was involved," said Jose Maria Poirier, director of the Buenos Aires Catholic magazine El Criterio.
The church's role in the war was complex, Poirier said. Many priests were killed by the military for their work. Other priests involved themselves with the dictatorship.
But "the line that the church most often took was of silence," Poirier said. "It was a dark time in the country's history."
The Association of Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, which advocates for justice in the name of their children who were disappeared during the war, said the silence was harmful.
"We listed 150 priests who were assassinated by the dictatorship; the official church was silent and never made a claim for them," said a statement by Hebe de Bonafini, the group's president.
In 1996, Argentina's bishops admitted they did not do enough during the period.
"We deeply regret not having been able to further lighten the suffering produced by such a great tragedy. We stand in solidarity with all those who feel injured by what happened, and we sincerely lament that sons and daughters of the church were involved in violating human rights," the bishops said in a statement.
"At that time, the bishops thought they should combine firm denunciation of such violations with frequent appeals to government authorities," the statement said. "We must confess that, unfortunately, this approach came up against unyielding stances on the part of many government authorities who erected an almost impenetrable wall."
In 2007, Father Christian von Wernich became the first Catholic priest to be criminally charged for involvement in the war. A court found him guilty of crimes against humanity for collaborating in murders, cases of torture and kidnapping. He was given a life sentence.
After the historic verdict was rendered, Cardinal Bergoglio issued a statement, saying, "We believe that the findings of the court should serve to renew the efforts of all citizens on the path of reconciliation and call us to distance ourselves not just from impunity, but from hatred and bitterness."