Pope Francis’s sister has revealed that their family fled Italy and emigrated to Argentina in the 1920s in order to escape the Fascist regime of Benito Mussolini.
Maria Elena Bergoglio hit back at allegations that her brother may have colluded with the military junta in Argentina, saying that their family’s escape from Italy had instilled in him a revulsion for military dictatorships.
Their parents, Mario, a railway worker, and Regina, emigrated from Piedmont in northwestern Italy after Mussolini came to power in 1922.
“I remember my father often saying that the advent of the Fascist regime was the reason why he made up his mind to leave the country,” Mrs Bergoglio, the only surviving sibling of the Pope, told La Stampa newspaper on Sunday.
She said allegations that her brother, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, had turned a blind eye to the brutal rule of Argentina’s military junta in the 1970s and early 1980s were hurtful and false.
“Does it really seem credible to you? It would have meant betraying all the lessons that our father taught us with the difficult decision he made (to emigrate).”
There have been accusations that, as a senior Jesuit in Argentina, Francis was complicit in the kidnapping and torture of two priests during the country’s “dirty war”.
The Vatican hit back forcefully on Friday, saying the allegations were baseless and defamatory.
Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, said the accusations were being levelled as part of a “Left-wing, anti-clerical” smear campaign and insisted that the charges would be “clearly and firmly denied”.
Mrs Bergoglio, 65, the divorced mother of two adult sons, said: “He protected and helped many people who were being persecuted by the dictatorship. They were dark times and one needed to be very careful, but his commitment to victims is well documented.”
The Pope’s sister lives in the run-down, industrial Buenos Aires commuter town of Ituzaingó – a far cry from the grandeur of the Vatican, where her brother’s future now lies.
Their family emigrated from Portacomario, a village of around 2,000 people near the town of Asti.
Francis speaks fluent Italian, albeit with a slight Spanish intonation, and his links to Italy are thought to have smoothed his election by his fellow cardinals in last week’s secret conclave, held in the Sistine Chapel.
He is the third successive Pope to come from outside Italy after centuries of Italian domination of the papacy, following Pope John Paul II, the Polish pontiff, and Benedict XVI, from Germany.