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Vatican says 'dirty war' accusations about Pope Francis just a left-wing smear

Reports that the leader of Argentina's Jesuits didn't do enough to protect two priests kidnapped and tortured during Argentina's military dictatorship are believed to be anti-clerical elements used to attack the church, according to the Vatican. NBC's Anne Thompson reports.

The Vatican on Friday denied “anti-clerical” accusations that Pope Francis failed to protect priests during the so-called “dirty war” waged by Argentinian dictators more than 30 years ago.

“We have every reason to affirm that these accusations are not reliable and there is no reason for them today to cast a shadow over the new pope,” Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said at a briefing.

A second spokesman, Father Tom Rosica said the accusations by a Argentinian journalist amounted to a political smear campaign against the new pope, who was known as Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio until his election on Wednesday.

“They reveal left-wing elements, anti-clerical elements that are used to attack the Church,” Rosica said. “They must be firmly and clearly denied.”

Bergoglio was not a cardinal, or even a bishop, during the time in question but supervisor of Jesuit priests in Argentina.

Two Jesuits were kidnapped in 1976 by government agents. Although Bergoglio has said he quietly pushed for their release, he has been dogged by criticism he didn’t do enough to stand up to the military junta or speak out against human-rights abuses.

The Vatican’s strong defense of Pope Francis came as he met an audience of cardinals, urging them never to give in to the “bitterness” that “the devil places before us every day.”

During a meeting in the Sistine Chapel, Francis stumbled on the steps to his throne but managed not to fall and quickly smiled.

Among the challenges faced by the church are allegations of corruption with the Vatican and the ongoing scandal over sex abuse of children by priests.

Francis may have had those problems in mind when he urged some 150 assembled cardinals to remain hopeful and to keep trying to do the right thing.

Argentines divided on pope's legacy

"Let us never give in to the pessimism, to that bitterness, that the devil places before us every day. Let us not give into pessimism and discouragement," he said, according to Reuters.

The 76-year-old pontiff also said that the church’s elder statesman should help the younger generation of clergy.

After distancing himself from the traditional pomp and privilege of his new title, Pope Francis – known for his sincerity and frugality – has shown every indication that he plans to remain an educator and a pastor in addition to all of his other responsibilities. NBC's Anne Thompson reports.

"We are in old age. Old age is the seat of wisdom," he said, according to Reuters. "Like good wine that becomes better with age, let us pass on to young people the wisdom of life."

Francis also paid tribute to Emeritus Pope Benedict, who decided to stand down last month.

Benedict had "lit a flame in the depths of our hearts that will continue to burn because it is fueled by his prayers that will support the church on its missionary path,” Francis said, according to The Associated Press.

"In these years of his pontificate, he enriched and invigorated the church with his magisterium, his goodness, guide and faith … his humility and his gentleness,” he added.

Francis has brought to the papacy a new tone of informality -- some of his remarks Friday were said to be unscripted and he spoke from the pulpit, not the throne -- and an ordinary touch.

He was pictured paying his own hotel bill, and in Argentina people told of how he used to regularly ride the bus as a cardinal. He has been dubbed the "slum pope" because of his work in poor areas of his home country.

Cardinal Sean O'Malley, archbishop of Boston, said that Francis "coming out of Latin America is very much impassioned by a desire to make the church present to people in suffering."

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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