Pope junta claims 'a smear and a lie': Pell

Pope junta claims 'a smear and a lie': Pell

Pope junta claims 'a smear and a lie': Pell

Updated 15 March 2013, 13:23 AEDT

Australia's top-ranking Catholic has dismissed claims about the new Pope Francis's conduct under Argentina's military junta as "a smear and a lie."

Australia's top-ranking Catholic has dismissed claims about the new Pope Francis's conduct under Argentina's military junta as "a smear and a lie".

The Argentine church has been accused of not doing enough to oppose the country's far-right junta from the late 1970s - a period when Jorge Mario Bergoglio was a leading member of the Jesuits.

In 2005 a human rights lawyer filed a criminal complaint against him, accusing him of unspecified involvement in the kidnapping of two priests.

After years of rumours, the future Pope told his biographer he in fact made secret interventions to save the men's lives.

A papal spokesman has described the accusations as old "slander", and Cardinal George Pell agrees.

"Those stories have been dismissed years and years ago," he said.

"There was a telephone call, the head of Amnesty International at the time said those charges were completely false.

"They were a smear and a lie and they've been laid to rest years ago."

Cardinal Pell, the Archbishop of Sydney, and one of the men who took part in the conclave to elect the new Pope, said the allegations had not been considered during the conclave's deliberations.

Pope Francis held his first mass in the Sistine Chapel overnight, warning the church risked fading into irrelevance unless it embarked on a course of spiritual renewal.

Some clergymen stayed silent, others were complicit. There were bishops who sympathised with the dictatorship, but that's not the case with Bergoglio, he's a man beyond reproach.

Jose Maria Poirier

Afterwards he took a bus with other cardinals back to their residence, rather than taking the papal car.

As Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the Pope was head of the Argentine Jesuits between 1973 and 1979 - a period which saw the start of the so-called 'Dirty War' in which the country's junta killed and abducted tens of thousands of its political opponents.

In 2000 the Argentine Catholic Church apologised for its failure to take a stand against the brutal right-wing junta which held power between 1976 and 1983.

In 2010, Bergoglio was questioned as a witness by judges probing the arrest and torture of two young Jesuits, Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics, who were taken to the notorious Naval School of Mechanics (ESMA) in March 1976.

ESMA was known as a torture centre during the Dirty War. Yorio and Jalics were freed alive after five months.

Bergoglio was alleged to have betrayed the young missionaries to the regime because they had become opposition sympathisers and he wanted to preserve the Jesuits' political neutrality.

He was also questioned in two more investigations into alleged regime crimes, but no charges were brought and he denied any wrongdoing.

'Five new witnesses'

Horacio Verbitsky, a leftist author and militant who has written extensively on the Dirty War, claims that he has found "five new witnesses who confirm Bergoglio's role in the military government's crackdown".

Verbitsky maintains that the church actively collaborated with the regime and was even complicit in the disappearance of dissident priests.

For his part, Bergoglio has always denied any implication in the case of the two tortured missionaries, and says he intervened with the then-head of the junta, Jorge Videla, to beg for their freedom.

At a glance: Pope Francis's views

What he opposes:

  • Firmly opposed to abortion and euthanasia.
  • Opposed Argentina's government promoting free contraception.
  • Against gay marriage, calling it a "real and dire anthropological throwback".
  • But he says individuals who are homosexual should be respected.
  • Opposes gay adoption, calling it discrimination against children.

His causes:

  • He is a champion of social justice.
  • Deeply concerned about social inequalities in Latin America.
  • He says extreme poverty and economic structures which support this are violations of human rights.
  • He is not afraid to challenge governments and other powerful interests.
  • Francis, the name the new Pope has chosen, is believed to represent poverty and humility.

"He even allowed them to leave for Italy," Jose Maria Poirier, director of the Argentine Catholic journal Criterio, said.

"Some clergymen stayed silent, others were complicit. There were bishops who sympathised with the dictatorship, but that's not the case with Bergoglio, he's a man beyond reproach."

Argentine artist Alfredo Perez Esquivel, 81, himself a torture victim and winner of the 1980 Nobel Peace Prize for his human rights advocacy, came to Bergoglio's defence in an interview with BBC radio.

"There were bishops who were accomplices of the dictatorship, but Bergoglio was not," he said.

"There is no link between him and the dictatorship."

On Thursday a group accused of crimes against humanity under the dictatorship appeared in court wearing Vatican rosettes in honour of Bergoglio's new papal duties.

The defendants sat in the dock wearing the Vatican insignia on the lapel of their jackets during a hearing in the north-western city of Cordoba.

The trial aims to to determine the responsibility of a group of more than 40 soldiers in atrocities committed in the clandestine detention centre La Perla.

In 2007, former police chaplain Cristian von Vernich became the first Argentine priest to be jailed for life.

He was found guilty of complicity in seven murders, 31 cases of torture and 42 kidnappings.

While bells rang out around Argentina and the Catholic world to celebrate Bergoglio's promotion to become Pope Francis, some sceptical Argentines took to the internet to voice dissent on social networks.

And, shortly after Francis appeared on the balcony of St Peter's Basilica in Rome to be hailed as leader of more than a billion Catholic believers, an accusatory message was scrawled on a wall near the cathedral of Buenos Aires.

"The pope is Videla's friend," it alleged.

ABC/AFP