While harsh, such remarks are not unusual for the Vatican when it feels under attack. Earlier this week, Lombardi issued a similar denunciation of an advocacy group for victims of sexual abuse, accusing it of using the media spotlight on the conclave to try to publicize old accusations against cardinals. The accusations, Lombardi said, are baseless and the cardinals deserve everyone's "esteem."
The accusations against Bergoglio started with the priest Yorio and with lay people working inside church offices. Horacio Verbitzky, an advocacy journalist who was a leftist militant at the time and is now closely aligned with the government, has written extensively about the accusations in Argentina's Pagina12 newspaper.
Lombardi's statement was delivered after Francis paid a heartfelt tribute to his predecessor Benedict XVI, saying his faith and teaching had "enriched and invigorated" the Catholic Church and would remain its spiritual patrimony forever.
Francis offered the respects during an audience with the cardinals who elected him to succeed Benedict, whose resignation set in motion the extraordinary conclave that brought the first prelate from the New World and first Jesuit to the papacy.
Francis, 76, tripped and stumbled when he greeted the dean of the College of Cardinals, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, at the start of the audience, but he recovered immediately.
Speaking at times off the cuff, Francis said 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."
"In these years of his pontificate, he enriched and invigorated the church with his magisterium, his goodness, guide and faith," Francis said. Pausing for effect, he added: "His humility and his gentleness."
Francis has said he wants to visit Benedict at the papal residence in Castel Gandolfo where he has been living since Feb. 28, when he became the first pope in 600 years to resign. No date has been set for the visit. Francis is due to be installed as pope on Tuesday.
The relationship between the two pontiffs has been the subject of intense speculation given the novelty of soon having a retired and reigning pope living side by side. Some analysts have expressed concern about the influence Benedict and his loyalists might wield over the new pontificate, or worse how certain factions in the church might try to undermine Francis' authority by continuing to use Benedict as their reference point.
Reporter Michael Warren in Buenos Aires and David Rising in Berlin contributed.
Follow Nicole Winfield at www.twitter.com/nwinfield
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