VATICAN CITY March 15, 2013— -- A Vatican spokesman hit back today at accusations that newly elected Pope Francis is in any way to blame for the kidnappings of two Jesuit priests during Argentina's military dictatorship decades ago.
Since his election Wednesday to become the new leader of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis has been hailed as a compassionate new pontiff, but the spotlight of the papacy has now renewed questions about his role in the 1976 kidnappings of Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics during Argentina's "Dirty War."
The two priests spent much of their time working with the poor in a Buenos Aires slum, but they were kidnapped in a raid by security forces. In the ensuing months, the two men were reportedly tortured, kept in shackles and even threatened with electrocution. While they were eventually freed after five months, Yorio later said that he faulted Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio for the incident. Bergoglio took the name Francis after his papal election.
Bergoglio, according to critics, was accused not only of staying silent about the government's brutality, but of being partly to blame for the kidnappings by withdrawing church protection for them. Before Yorio died, he told Argentine journalist Horacio Verbitsky, "I don't have any reason to think that [Bergoglio] did anything for our freedom."
Such accusations, Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi said today, are simply not true.
"There has never been a credible accusation against him," Lombardi stated at the daily Vatican briefing.
In fact, Lombardi continued, Bergoglio tried to protect many people from the military junta and the criticism of his actions during that time stem from "anti-clerical" and "left-wing" elements.
Jalics issued a statement today saying that he has reconciled with his former cardinal.
"It was only years later that we had the opportunity to talk with Father Bergoglio ... to discuss the events," Jalics said in a statement. "Following that, we celebrated Mass publicly together and hugged solemnly. I am reconciled to the events and consider the matter to be closed."
In 2010, Bergoglio testified about his role during that period. In his testimony, later posted on an Argentine human rights website, Bergoglio said that when he learned of the kidnappings he "acted immediately," contacting the police and the armed forces in an effort to help the two priests. It was, he said, "a moment of desperation."
While the Vatican today adamantly refuted any suggestions that Bergoglio was in any way at fault for his actions during the "Dirty War," it is a "potentially problematic" issue for the church, according to John Thavis, author of "The Vatican Diaries."
"People are going to be looking at that period of history pretty closely. On the other hand, people have already looked at that period of history pretty closely and if there was any evidence that as a cardinal or Jesuit provincial he really did work hand in glove with military leaders we would have known it by now," Thavis said.
Bergoglio, Thavis noted, did not have "a highly visible role" at that time and "it was not his job to go around denouncing things."
After Bergoglio emerged victorious from this week's conclave at the Vatican to pick the successor to the retired Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, Yorio's sister Graciela said in an email to Verbitsky that she was "distressed and full of anger" about the new pope.
"I can't believe it," she said.
An email to Graciela Yorio from ABC News Friday asking for further comment on her late brother's kidnapping was not answered.
The controversial has echoes of the accusations in the early days of Pope Benedict's reign that he had ties to the Nazi party because he was a member of the Hitler Youth. But the pope explained that membership in the group was virtually mandatory, and after being drafted into the German army he deserted.