Vatican City Days before Roman Catholic cardinals select a new pope, a human rights lawyer filed a criminal complaint against an Argentine mentioned as a possible contender, accusing him of involvement in the 1976 kidnappings of two priests.
Jorge Cardinal Bergoglio's spokesman on Saturday called the allegation "old slander."
The complaint filed in a Buenos Aires court Friday by human rights lawyer Marcelo Parrilli accused Cardinal Bergoglio, the archbishop of Buenos Aires, of involvement in the kidnappings of two Jesuit priests by the military dictatorship, according to the Buenos Aires newspaper Clarin. The complaint does not specify Bergoglio's alleged involvement.
"This is old slander," Rev. Guillermo Marco, Cardinal Bergoglio's spokesman, told The Associated Press in Rome. "This is the week of slander."
"A lawsuit does not mean there will be a trial," he added.
Under Argentine law, an accusation can be filed with a low threshold of evidence. The court later decides whether there is cause to investigate and file charges.
The Italian newspaper Corriere dell Sera called the accusations "an infamy fuelled by Bergoglio's enemies," saying Saturday that far from participating in the kidnappings, the cardinal helped win the priests' freedom. It did not detail its sources.
The case dates back to May 1976 during Argentina's brutal military dictatorship, when Jesuit priests Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics were kidnapped by a team from the Argentine navy. They surfaced five months later, drugged and half naked, in a field outside Buenos Aires.
At the time, Cardinal Bergoglio was the superior in the Society of Jesus of Argentina the Jesuits and was clashing with activist priests who wanted to combat the dictatorship more forcefully, some even taking up arms.
Cardinal Bergoglio asked Mr. Yorio and Mr. Jalics to leave their pastoral work in some of Argentina's poorest neighbourhoods until the political situation changed, and when the priests refused, Cardinal Bergoglio removed them from the order. They were kidnapped soon after.
The accusations that Cardinal Bergoglio, 68, had something to do with the kidnappings are not new, being detailed in a recently published book by Argentine journalist Horacio Verbitsky.
Rev. Marco called Mr. Verbitsky "a gentleman of dubious fame who is advertising himself to sell a book," saying the journalist was "taking advantage of this moment."
Mr. Verbitsky, reached in Buenos Aires, said he had nothing to do with the criminal complaint, and pointed out that his book was published in February, before Pope John Paul fell ill.
He said his book contains not only accusations from the priests' relatives claiming Cardinal Bergoglio turned them in, but also Cardinal Bergoglio's version, which he paraphrased as: "What I did was tell them to get out of town, and they didn't."
"He put the safety of the Society of Jesus above the safety of the priests," Mr. Verbitsky charged.
By some accounts, however, Cardinal Bergoglio was instrumental in winning freedom for the men by pressuring the head of the navy, Emilio Massera.
Mr. Yorio died in 2000. Mr. Jalics, reached Saturday at a retreat in Wilhelmsthal, Germany, said he didn't want to comment on the case.
"I have been away from Argentina for 27 years and I don't want to stir up these things from the past," he said. Asked for his opinion of Bergoglio, he said: "I have no opinion for or against him. I prefer to remain silent."
Cardinal Bergoglio was removed as the Jesuits' superior in Argentina in 1979. He kept a low profile until 1992, when he was designated auxiliary bishop of Buenos Aires and began a climb through the ecclesiastic hierarchy in South America's second-largest country.
An advocate for the poor, he has championed social programs and won public respect for questioning free-market policies he blames for leaving millions of Argentines impoverished. Nonetheless, his conservative leanings on doctrinal and spiritual issues are widely seen as in keeping with the legacy of Pope John Paul.
Rev. Marco refused to discuss the possible impact of the lawsuit on Bergoglio's chances of becoming pope. Cardinals usually take great pains not to appear to be promoting themselves for the church's highest office.