VATICAN CITY -- The Vatican lashed out Friday at what it called a "defamatory" and "anticlerical left-wing" campaign to discredit Pope Francis over his actions during Argentina's 1976-1983 military junta, when he was the leader of the country's Jesuits, saying no credible accusation had ever stuck.
While the former Jorge Mario Bergoglio, like most other Argentines, failed to openly confront the murderous dictatorship, human rights activists differ on how much responsibility he personally deserves.
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said Friday that a Jesuit who was kidnapped during the dictatorship in a case that involved Bergoglio had issued a statement earlier in the day saying the two had reconciled.
Lombardi also noted that Argentine courts had never accused Bergoglio of any crime and that, on the contrary, there is ample evidence of the role he played protecting people from the military as it kidnapped and killed thousands of people in a "dirty war" to eliminate leftist opponents.
He said the accusations were made long ago "by anticlerical left-wing elements to attack the church and must be decisively rejected."
One accusation against Bergoglio is that as the military junta took over in 1976, he withdrew his support for two priests whose activist colleagues were disappearing. The priests were then kidnapped and tortured at the Navy Mechanics School, which the junta used as a clandestine prison.
Bergoglio said he had told the priests -- Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics -- to give up their work for their own safety, and they refused. Yorio later accused Bergoglio of effectively delivering them to the death squads by declining to publicly endorse their work. Yorio is now dead.
Jalics, who had maintained silence about the events, Friday issued a statement saying he had spoken with Bergoglio years later, that they had celebrated Mass together and hugged "solemnly." "I am reconciled to the events and consider the matter to be closed," he said.
Bergoglio in 2010 revealed his side of the story to his official biographer, Sergio Rubin: that he had gone to extraordinary lengths to save the men.
The Jesuit leader persuaded the family priest of feared dictator Jorge Videla to call in sick so that he could say Mass instead. Once inside the junta leader's home, Bergoglio privately appealed for mercy, Rubin wrote.
Lombardi said the airing of the accusations in recent days in the media following Francis' election was "characterized by a campaign that's often slanderous and defamatory."
The accusations against Bergoglio started with Yorio and with lay people working inside church offices. Horacio Verbitzky, an advocacy journalist who was a leftist militant at the time and is now closely aligned with the government, has written extensively about the accusations.
Some leading Argentine human rights activists agree that Bergoglio doesn't deserve to be lumped together with other church figures who were closely aligned with the dictatorship.
"Perhaps he didn't have the courage of other priests, but he never collaborated with the dictatorship," said Adolfo Perez Esquivel, who won the 1980 Nobel Peace Prize for documenting the junta's atrocities. "Bergoglio was no accomplice of the dictatorship. He can't be accused of that."
Other activists are angry over the positions Bergoglio, 76, has taken in recent years, as Argentina pursues investigations aimed at exposing those responsible for killing as many as 30,000 people, and finding traces of their victims.
"There's hypocrisy here when it comes to the church's conduct, and with Bergoglio in particular," said Estela de la Cuadra, whose mother co-founded the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo activist group during the dictatorship to search for missing family members. "There are trials of all kinds now, and Bergoglio systematically refuses to support them."