BY MICHAEL WARREN AND NICOLE WINFIELD
VATICAN CITY — The honeymoon that Pope Francis has enjoyed since his remarkable election hit a bump Friday, with the Vatican lashing out at what it called a defamatory and "anti-clerical left-wing" media campaign questioning his actions during Argentina's murderous military dictatorship.
On Day 2 of the Francis pontificate, the Vatican denounced news reports in Argentina and beyond resurrecting allegations that the former Jorge Mario Bergoglio failed to openly confront the junta responsible for kidnapping and killing thousands of people in a "dirty war" to eliminate leftist opponents.
Bergoglio, like most Argentines, didn't publicly confront the dictators who ruled from 1976-83, while he was the leader of the country's Jesuits. And human rights activists differ on how much blame he personally deserves.
Top church leaders had endorsed the junta and some priests even worked alongside torturers inside secret prisons. Nobody has produced any evidence suggesting Bergoglio had anything to do with such crimes. But many activists are angry that as archbishop of Buenos Aires for more than a decade, he didn't do more to support investigations into the atrocities.
On Thursday, the old ghosts resurfaced.
A group of 44 former military and police officers on trial for torture, rape and murder in a concentration camp in Cordoba province in the 1970s wore the yellow-and-white ribbons of the papal flag in Francis' honor. Many Argentine newspapers ran the photo Friday.
The Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi noted that Argentine courts had never accused Bergoglio of any crime, that he had denied all accusations against him and that on the contrary "there have been many declarations demonstrating how much Bergoglio did to protect many persons at the time."
He said the accusations against the new pope were made long ago "by anti-clerical left-wing elements to attack the church. They must be firmly rejected."
The harsh denunciation was typical of a Vatican that often reacts defensively when it feels under attack, even though its response served to give the story legs for another day.
It interrupted the generally positive reception Francis has enjoyed since his election as pope on Wednesday, when even his choice of footwear — his old black shoes rather than the typical papal red — was noted as a sign of his simplicity and humility.
There was one clearly unscripted moment Friday, when the 76-year-old Francis stumbled briefly during an audience with the cardinals, but he quickly recovered. And for the second day in a row, Francis slipped out of the Vatican walls, this time to visit an ailing Argentine cardinal, Jorge Mejia, who suffered a heart attack Wednesday and was in the hospital.
This upbeat narrative of a people's pope who named himself after the nature-loving St. Francis of Assisi has clashed with accusations stemming from Bergoglio's past.
The worst allegation is that as the military junta took over in 1976, he withdrew support for two Jesuit priests whose work in the slums of Buenos Aires had put them in direct contact with the leftist guerrilla movement advocating armed revolution. The priests were then kidnapped and interrogated inside a clandestine torture center at the Navy Mechanics School.
Bergoglio said he had told the priests — Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics — to give up their slum 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 died in Uruguay in 2000.
Jalics, who had maintained silence about the events, issued a statement Friday saying he spoke with Bergoglio years later and the two celebrated Mass together and hugged "solemnly."
"I am reconciled to the events and consider the matter to be closed," he said.
Bergoglio told his official biographer, Sergio Rubin, in 2010, that he had gone to extraordinary, behind-the-scenes lengths to save the men.
The Jesuit leader persuaded the family priest of feared dictator Jorge Videla to call in sick so Bergoglio could say Mass instead and take the opportunity to successfully appeal for their release, Rubin wrote.
Lombardi said the airing of the accusations following Francis' election was "characterized by a campaign that's often slanderous and defamatory."
Earlier this week, Lombardi issued a similar denunciation of an advocacy group for victims of sexual abuse, accusing it of using the media spotlight on the conclave to try to publicize old accusations against cardinals. The accusations, Lombardi said, are baseless and the cardinals deserve everyone's "esteem."
The accusations against Bergoglio were fanned by Horacio Verbitzky, an investigative journalist who was a leftist militant in the 1970s and is now closely aligned with the government. He has written extensively about the accusations in Argentina's Pagina12 newspaper, a left-wing daily known for advocacy journalism.
Adolfo Perez Esquivel, who won the 1980 Nobel Peace Prize for documenting the junta's atrocities, said this week that "Bergoglio was no accomplice of the dictatorship."
"Perhaps he didn't have the courage of other priests, but he never collaborated with the dictatorship," Esquivel said on Buenos Aires' Radio de la Red.
Argentine political analyst Ignacio Fidanza concurred.
"What they're demanding is that during the dictatorship he should have planted himself in the Plaza de Mayo and shouted against it," he told The Associated Press. "It was probably more effective to speak in silence, since it was an extreme situation."
Human rights investigators in Argentina have been unable to make any other cases against Bergoglio from the junta years, other than the allegations concerning the two Jesuits and that he failed to help a family find their murdered daughter's illegally adopted baby.
But activists are also angry that as leader of the Argentine church, he has never acknowledged or apologized for what they describe as the church's active institutional support of the military government, said Gaston Chillier, who tracks the country's human rights cases as director of the Center for Legal and Social Studies.
The church was so deeply in league with the dictators that when the Inter-American Human Rights Commission came for an inspection in 1979, the Argentine navy moved many detainees to an island owned by the diocese during the visit.
"He is responsible during Argentina's period of democracy for continuing a cover-up," Chillier told the AP. "His knowledge of these cases clearly shows that he cannot deny the torture and the systematic theft of babies."
Bergoglio testified in 2010 that he didn't know anything about baby thefts until well after the dictatorship.
Since Bergoglio became archbishop in 1998, his church has issued several apologies for failing to do more to protect people from violence that came from both the right and the left. The latest, in October 2012, was the most forceful, and it also, for the first time, asked Catholics to come forward with whatever evidence they may have to support Argentina's human rights trials.
But Chillier says Bergoglio could have done more to make the church help identify children and the bodies of detainees as well as identify those responsible for atrocities.
"It's one thing to acknowledge what you failed to do, but another entirely to apologize for what you actually did," Chillier said.
Warren and Almudena Calatrava contributed from Buenos Aires. David Rising in Berlin contributed.