VATICAN CITY - The Vatican on Wednesday came to the defense of a cardinal accused of complicity in human rights violations during his term as papal envoy in Argentina.
A strongly worded commentary by the Vatican's daily newspaper criticized an Argentine human rights group for "casting shameful shadows on the church" and Cardinal Pio Laghi.
L'Osservatore Romano expressed "full solidarity" with Laghi and said it firmly rejected the accusations.
Laghi was accused by the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a group that for 20 years has campaigned on behalf of victims of Argentina's military dictatorship.
The group formally asked the Italian justice ministry Monday to prosecute the cardinal on charges of torture, murder and kidnapping, allegedly committed while he was papal ambassador to Argentina from 1974 to 1980.
Laghi, who later was papal envoy to the United States, denied the charges Tuesday and accused the group of acting with malice.
The newspaper said it understood and shared the mothers' grief.
Argentina's government has acknowledged that at least 9,000 people disappeared during the "dirty war" against political dissidents. The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo put the number at 30,000.
By IAN PHILLIPS Associated Press Writer
BUENOS AIRES, Argentina - The Vatican this week accused her of casting shameful shadows on the Roman Catholic Church. Back home, fellow human rights activists and former colleagues long ago disowned her.
Hebe de Bonafini, the 68-year-old leader of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, relishes the controversy: "We're anti-establishment," she says. "I go anywhere and tackle anybody."
Bonafini's militancy won her fame in the 1970s when she denounced the kidnapping, torture and murder of thousands of people, including her two children, during the military dictatorship's "dirty war" on leftists and political dissidents.
But these days, her style has changed little. If anything, she's become even more confrontational.
Her estranged colleagues cringe when they see Bonafini marching alongside masked leftist youths or speaking out in favor of Mexico's Zapatista or Peru's Tupac Amaru rebels.
"If that woman's not fighting, she feels she's not doing anything," said Estela Barnes Carlotto, head of the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo.
"People see her ranting about any issue and they dismiss all of us," added Carlotto, whose group is searching for the children of victims believed to have been born in captivity.
Bonafini is being sued by the head of Argentina's army, who she accused of being a murderer. She regularly gets into verbal combat with President Carlos Menem, who dismisses her as a subversive troublemaker.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Bonafini said she felt a moral obligation to inform the public that "the police and military are murderers and that politicians are thieves."
On Tuesday, Bonafini was in Rome accusing one of the Vatican's most prominent cardinals, Pio Laghi, of complicity with the dictatorship when acting as papal envoy to Argentina in the 1970s.
The complaint, lodged in a Rome court, accused Laghi of being the director of a "crusade against communism," which sent thousands of Argentine youths to their deaths.
It included testimony of a number of witnesses, including a bishop, several priests, a mother superior and two people who say they saw Laghi at the government's secret prisons and torture centers.
Laghi called the charges defamatory and baseless, saying the Mothers had no proof and were acting out of "malice."
The Vatican, in an editorial in its daily newspaper, accused the Mothers of an attack on "justice" and "historical truth," saying their accusations were an attempt to "cast shameful shadows on the church."
The Mothers began their protest in the Plaza de Mayo in front of Government House in 1977 -- marching in circles because police banned them from sitting or holding public meetings there.
But in 1986, most members formed a splinter group, tired at what they said was Bonafini's failure to change her tactics with the return of democracy three years earlier.
The Grandmothers' Carlotto long ago stopped talking to Bonafini.
But she said Bonafini's trip to Rome to denounce Laghi could be fruitful if she has proof to back up her claims. More than 9,000 people disappeared during the dirty war, although the Mothers put the figure at 30,000.
"If they have concrete proof against Laghi, that's wonderful and would be a victory for truth," said Carlotto. "But if there's nothing to this, it will be another defeat."
Renee Eppelbaum, who lost her three children during the repression, was one of the women to break away from Bonafini's group in 1986. She now forms part of the so-called "Founding Line" group.
Sitting in a dark apartment dotted with photographs of her lost children, she claims Bonafini "now personifies everything we once fought against: authoritarianism, intolerance and disrespect."
"She's lost her focus," Epelbaum laments. "These days when I see her on the television, I get embarrassed and then angry."
[does the Vatican claim that the Argentine military had no Roman Catholic chaplains ?]