Souvenirs are displayed at a 2019 demonstration in Madrid against the exhumation of Spain's former dictator, Gen. Francisco Franco. The Vatican released a statement July 21 distancing itself from any involvement in the Spanish government's decision to exhume Franco's remains, a divisive issue in that country. (CNS photo/Javier Barbancho, Reuters)
Souvenirs are displayed at a 2019 demonstration in Madrid against the exhumation of Spain's former dictator, Gen. Francisco Franco. The Vatican released a statement July 21 distancing itself from any involvement in the Spanish government's decision to exhume Franco's remains, a divisive issue in that country. (CNS photo/Javier Barbancho, Reuters)
VATICAN CITY — The Vatican stated Tuesday that Pope Francis did not intervene in last year’s controversy over the exhumation of the body of Francisco Franco from the Valley of the Fallen in Spain.

In a statement sent July 21, the Vatican said that the Holy See had urged dialogue between the family of Franco and the government, but never “made any declaration on either the exhumation or the place of burial, because it is not part of its competency.”

“On the question of Francisco Franco’s exhumation, [the Holy See] has repeated on various occasions its respect for the legality and the decisions of the competent governmental and judicial authorities,” it said.

Franco’s body was exhumed from the Basilica of the Holy Cross at the Valley of the Fallen Oct. 24, 2019. It was re-interred in Madrid’s El Pardo cemetery.

The Vatican statement was in response to a July 8 interview in the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, in which Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez claimed that Pope Francis had intervened to help the government carry out the controversial exhumation.

“I’ll tell you one thing: in the affair of Franco’s body [Pope Francis] helped me. In the Valley of the Fallen there was a community of Benedictines which was very against the exhumation. I asked for Vatican intervention. And it all worked out,” Sánchez told the newspaper.

Sánchez’s government, led by the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, had pledged to exhume Franco’s body, which took place in October 2019 after a year of legal battles between the government and relatives of Franco.

The exhumation occurred two weeks before Spain held a repeat national election.

According to the BBC, the government spent around $70,000 on the exhumation and reburial.

About 100 supporters of Franco protested outside El Pardo cemetery the day of the exhumation.

Franco was Spain’s head of state from 1939, at the end of the Spanish Civil War when the Nationalist forces he led defeated the Republican faction, until his death in 1975. During the war, Republicans martyred thousands of clerics, religious, and laity; of these, 11 have been canonized, and 1,915 beatified. Franco’s forces were also accused of committing multiple atrocities in 1936-45, a period known as the White Terror.

The Valley of the Fallen is a monumental complex near Madrid which includes an abbey and basilica, the construction of which Franco ordered to honor the fallen of both sides during the civil war. The bodies of more than 30,000 victims of the war are buried in the complex.

The prior of the Benedictine abbey opposed Franco’s exhumation from the Valley of the Fallen, writing that it failed to respect the inviolability of the abbey as a sacred place.

Fr. Santiago Cantera, prior of the Abbey of the Holy Cross, sent a message to Pope Francis; the abbot of Solesmes Abbey; and Cardinal Carlos Osoro Sierra of Madrid noting the violation.

Cantera also filed a complaint Oct. 21 with the Guardia de San Lorenzo Court of El Escorial for “preventing access by the monks” to the basilica while also allowing third parties to enter the basilica and abbey “without the least supervision.”

The Benedictines said that because of this, they were not sure if people entering the basilica had not contravened “the sacred character of the church, not knowing if actions incompatible with worship, piety, or religion have taken place.”