VATICAN CITY -- For the first time since the election of Pope Francis two days ago, the Vatican on Friday formally defended him from accusations that, decades ago, in the so-called Dirty War in his home country of Argentina, he knew about serious human rights abuses but failed to do enough to halt them.
The Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, said there had "never been a credible accusation against him" relating to the period in the 1970s when he was the superior of the Jesuit order in Argentina.
Indeed, "there have been many declarations of how much he did for many people to protect them from the military dictatorship," Father Lombardi said in a statement at a news conference.
"The accusations belong to the use of a historical-social analysis of facts for many years by the anticlerical left to attack the church and must be rejected decisively."
Pope Francis, the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, was elected by fellow cardinals on Wednesday and much of his behavior since then has seemed to indicate a shift of tone at the Vatican to a more humble and frugal approach.
When he addressed cardinals on Friday, for instance, he spoke frequently without notes, addressing them as "Brother Cardinals" rather than as the more usual "Lord Cardinals" and the Vatican press office highlighted other shows of modesty and lack of formality since his election.
But the question of his past has never been far below the surface, rekindling accusations relating to a conflict in which as many as 30,000 people were disappeared, tortured or killed by the dictatorship.
At the news conference on Friday, Father Lombardi repeated assertions by a prominent human rights campaigner that there had been "no compromise by Cardinal Bergoglio with the dictatorship."
The debate has simmered in Argentina, with journalists there publishing articles and books that appear to contradict Cardinal Bergoglio's account of his actions. These accounts draw not only on documents from the period, but also on statements by priests and lay workers who clashed with Cardinal Bergoglio.
After the church had denied for years any involvement with the dictatorship, he testified in 2010 that he had met secretly with Gen. Jorge Videla, the former head of the military junta, and Adm. Emilio Massera, the commander of the navy, to ask for the release of two kidnapped priests. The following year, prosecutors called him to the witness stand to testify on the military junta's systematic kidnapping of children, a subject he was also accused of knowing about but failing to prevent.
In a long interview published by an Argentine newspaper in 2010, Francis -- then still a cardinal -- said that he had helped hide people being sought for arrest or disappearance by the military because of their political views, had helped others leave Argentina and had lobbied the country's military rulers directly for the release and protection of others.
The renewed discussion of the case intruded into a day when Francis earlier offered warm praise on Friday to his predecessor, Benedict XVI, saying that his nearly eight years as leader of the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics had "lit a flame in the depths of our hearts."
Speaking to the church's cardinals, he urged them to persevere and find ways to spread word of their faith around the world.
"Let us not give in to pessimism, to that bitterness that the devil offers us every day," he said. But he offered no direct allusion to the myriad challenges facing the Vatican from a series of sexual abuse, financial and other scandals that swamped much of Benedict's papacy.
According to the officials, Francis frequently extemporizes, making it more difficult for the papal press office to deliver texts of addresses like Friday's.
"That's the cost of having such spontaneity," said Rev. Thomas Rosica, a Vatican spokesman.
But there was one clearly unchoreographed moment. Francis, 76, stumbled briefly as he greeted the dean of the College of Cardinals, Angelo Sodano, but swiftly recovered.
The pope also sent a message on Friday to Rome's chief rabbi, saying he wished to pursue closer ties between Catholics and Jews.
"I hope very much to be able to contribute to the progress in relations between Jews and Catholics" since the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s, the pope said in a message to the rabbi, Riccardo di Segni.
Francis is the first non-European pope for over 1,200 years and the first from the Americas. In a further display of his embrace of the poor, Vatican officials said on Friday that Francis had urged bishops and the faithful in Argentina not to spend money on a long journey to attend his formal inauguration next Tuesday but to make a donation to the poor.
In his first audience with the cardinals, Francis told them that Benedict's papacy and teachings had "enriched and invigorated" the Catholic Church and 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."
Vatican officials said the new pope planned at some stage to visit Benedict at the papal summer retreat at Castel Gandolfo outside Rome, where he is living while an apartment is made ready for him at the Vatican. In his retirement, Benedict has said, he plans to live "hidden to the world."
Last month, Benedict became the first pope in six centuries to resign, citing failing powers and old age and precipitating a scramble for the succession in which Francis was not widely seen as being among the front-runners. Sometimes speaking without notes, Francis observed Friday that many of the cardinals were of advanced age, and he told them: "Let us give this wisdom to young people; like good wine, it becomes better with age. Let us give to young people the wisdom of life."
After his remarks, Francis greeted the cardinals one by one, shaking their hands and hugging some. He also accepted letters and presents from them, including a yellow bracelet that he immediately wore on his right wrist.
Danil J. Wakin reported from Vatican City, Alan Cowell from London and Gaia Pianigiani from Rome.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.