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Argentine Cardinal Accused in Kidnappings

April 16, 2005 GMT

VATICAN CITY (AP) _ Just days before Roman Catholic cardinals begin meetings to 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.

Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio’s spokesman on Saturday called the allegation ``old slander.″

The complaint filed in a Buenos Aires court Friday accused 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 the nature of Bergoglio’s alleged involvement.

The priests were released after five months.

``This is old slander,″ the Rev. Guillermo Marco, Bergoglio’s spokesman, told The Associated Press in Rome. ``This is the week of slander.″

Under Argentine law, an accusation can be filed with a very 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 fueled 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 accusations against Bergoglio, 68, in the kidnappings of priests Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics had already been detailed in a recently published book by the Argentine journalist Horacio Verbitsky.

Marco called Verbitsky ``a gentleman of dubious fame who is advertising himself to sell a book,″ and said the account was baseless.

``There is never anyone quoted by name. Of the two (priests), one is dead and Father Jalics was at the Jubilee in 2000 together with the cardinal, with whom he has good relations. There are photos of them together,″ he said.

In May 1976, during Argentina’s brutal military dictatorship, Yorio and Jalics were kidnapped by a team from the Argentine navy. They surfaced five months later, drugged and seminude, in a field outside Buenos Aires.

At the time, Bergoglio was the superior in the Society of Jesus of Argentina, and some priests were toying with the idea of taking up arms against the dictatorship. According to some associates, the two priests were in disagreement with the company because of their activism.

Bergoglio asked them to leave their pastoral work in some of Argentina’s poorest neighborhoods until the political situation changed, and when the priests said no, Bergoglio removed them from the order.

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 II took ill.

He said his book contains not only accusations from the priests’ relatives claiming Bergoglio turned them in, but also 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,″ Verbitsky charged.

But according to some accounts, Bergoglio was instrumental in winning freedom for the men by pressuring the head of the navy, Emilio Massera.

Bergoglio was removed as the order’s superior 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.

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 John Paul.

Marco refused to discuss how the lawsuit might affect Bergoglio’s chances of becoming pope. Cardinals usually take great pains not to appear to be promoting themselves for the church’s highest office.

``No candidacy will fall apart, because we never thought of that possibility,″ he said. ``We’re very calm.″

If chosen, Bergoglio would become the first Jesuit pontiff.

___

Associated Press reporter Kevin Gray in Buenos Aires, Argentina, contributed to this story.