Rome (CNN) — The Vatican has sought to quell controversy over Pope Francis’ conduct during Argentina’s so-called Dirty War, amid accusations that he could have done more to protect two Jesuit priests who were kidnapped.
A meeting on the pope’s agenda on Monday may be another sign that he’s trying to put the past behind him.
Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner is scheduled to meet with Francis in the afternoon.
As a cardinal, Francis clashed with the president’s government over his opposition to gay marriage and free distribution of contraceptives. But she sent a letter congratulating him as he assumed his new role.
The accusations have resurfaced since the Argentine cardinal’s unexpected election to the papacy last week.
A book by investigative reporter Horacio Verbitsky accuses Francis, who was then Jorge Mario Bergoglio and was head of the country’s Jesuit order, of deliberately failing to protect the two priests, Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics, when they were seized by the navy.
They were found alive five months later.
But the Rev. Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman, dismissed the claims — which date back to Argentina’s so-called Dirty War from 1976 to 1983 — as false and defamatory.
“The campaign against Bergoglio is well-known and goes back to many years ago. It was promoted by a defamatory publication,” Lombardi said at a Vatican news conference on Friday.
“This was never a concrete or credible accusation in his regard. He was questioned by an Argentinian court as someone aware of the situation but never as a defendant. He has, in documented form, denied any accusations,” said Lombardi.
“Instead, there have been many declarations demonstrating how much Bergoglio did to protect many persons at the time of the military dictatorship,” he said.
His role after he became bishop of Buenos Aires in asking for forgiveness for the church for not having done enough at the time of the dictatorship “is also well-known,” Lombardi said.
Although the allegations against Francis have never been proven, they continue to haunt him, so much so that the human rights group Center for Legal and Social Studies in Argentina opposed Francis’ selection as pope.
But an investigator with Argentina’s National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons that looked into alleged crimes from that period said she knew of no information that implicated Bergoglio.
“In the case of the priests … He told them many times to leave the militancy because they were in danger,” investigator Graciela Fernández Meijide said.
“They decided to continue with these activities and later were victims of kidnap and torture.”
“What could they say? That he didn’t take enough care of them?”
During the years of military dictatorship, up to 30,000 students, labor leaders, intellectuals and leftists disappeared or were held in secret jails and torture centers.
The claims against the new pope have cast a shadow over what has otherwise been widely viewed as a positive start for the new pontiff, who has embraced humility and simplicity.
First Sunday as pope
Thousands of Catholics waving flags from around the world packed St. Peter’s Square on Sunday to hear Pope Francis deliver his inaugural Angelus.
The new pontiff gave the noon blessing from the papal apartment window, speaking to more than 200,000 worshipers in the square four days after his election as pope.
“Dear brothers and sisters, good morning,” he said in Italian, drawing cheers from the crowd.
During the 15-minute address, he focused on forgiveness.
“Never forget this: The Lord never tires of forgiving us,” he said. “Have you thought about the patience that God has with each of us?”
He made the historic address after celebrating Mass at Sant’Anna parish in Vatican City earlier Sunday.
In his first week as pontiff, Francis has enjoyed global fanfare as the first Latin American pope and the first Jesuit pope in modern times.
Come Tuesday, St. Peter’s Square will again bustle with the faithful, tourists and locals during the official Mass to inaugurate Francis as the bishop of Rome.
The choice of day to anoint him as the holy father of the Roman Catholic Church carries a rich symbolism: It is the day that Catholics celebrate the Feast of St. Joseph to honor Jesus’ father on Earth, the carpenter Joseph.
It also happens to be Father’s Day in Italy.
Foreign dignitaries and heads of state are welcome to attend but by tradition don’t receive a specific invitation, Lombardi said.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden is to lead the U.S. presidential delegation for the Mass, the White House said Friday, with House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi also among the party.
On Friday, House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican, said he will send a separate bipartisan congressional delegation.
All of these developments come during one of the busiest times of the year on the Christian calendar.
Palm Sunday is less than a week away, and the new pontiff will be busy, as it is the holiday that kicks off Holy Week, which culminates in Easter celebrations.
Reforms to come?
In just his first few days as pope, Francis has prompted speculation that he may bring in wider changes.
While he decided the heads of the various Vatican offices will keep their jobs for now, he’s not making any definitive appointments, the Vatican said Saturday.
CNN Vatican analyst John Allen, who’s also a correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, said this is the first clear signal that he may be serious about reform.
“It’s customary for new popes to swiftly reconfirm the department heads who lose their positions when the previous pontificate ends, and then take his time about bringing in his team,” Allen said.
“The fact that Francis has not followed that path may suggest that significant personnel moves will come sooner rather than later.”
Francis wants “a certain period for reflection, prayer and dialogue before (making) any definitive nomination or confirmation,” the Vatican statement said.