VATICAN CITY -- Just days before Roman Catholic cardinals select a new pope, a human rights lawyer filed a criminal complaint against a cardinal from Argentina mentioned as a possible contender, accusing him of involvement in the 1976 kidnappings of two priests.
Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio's spokesman yesterday called the allegation ''old slander."
The complaint filed in a Buenos Aires court Friday by human rights lawyer Marcelo Parrilli 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 Bergoglio's alleged involvement.
The priests were released after five months.
''This is old slander," said the Rev. Guillermo Marco, Bergoglio's spokesman. ''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 yesterday 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 are detailed in a recently published book by Argentine journalist Horacio Verbitsky.
Marco called Verbitsky ''a gentleman of dubious fame who is advertising himself to sell a book," saying the journalist was ''taking advantage of this moment."
''A lawsuit does not mean there will be a trial," he added.
Marco said the book was baseless.
''There is no proof," he said. ''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."
Verbitsky could not be reached for comment.
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 Company 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.
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.
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 II.
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.
''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.