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Argentina's Dirty War in the late 1970s and early 1980s was a dark time for both the country and the Roman Catholic Church. Thousands were kidnapped or killed by the military junta in a campaign to crush leftist opposition to the government.
Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, lived in Buenos Aires then but never publicly confronted the dictatorship during its reign, and since kept relatively quiet on the subject. Some human rights activists argue that his silence hurt investigations in the Dirty War's aftermath, while other accounts reveal that the Pope took major risks to save the persecuted.
For more now, we turn to Michael Warren, Buenos Aires bureau chief of the Associated Press. Michael, welcome to the program.
MICHAEL WARREN: Hi, there.
CORNISH: And you've written about some of these. And I want to start with the most serious accusation, which is that Pope Francis withdrew his support for two priests who were then kidnapped and tortured by the junta. Tell us about this period and about these allegations.
WARREN: Well, this happened just before and after the 1976 coup, in which the military took over Argentina and quickly went about kidnapping and killing thousands in a campaign to eliminate their leftist critics. Each priest knew they were in danger and they were told by Bergoglio to leave their positions in the slum, to take refuge with Bergoglio on church property.
But at the same time, Bergoglio didn't particularly support the kind of work they were doing in the slums at the time, which was part of the Liberation Theology Movement that was sweeping across Latin America.
CORNISH: Meanwhile, the Pope's authorized biographer has said that Pope Francis actually went to great lengths to save these men after they were taken. Tell us more about that. What is he saying that the Pope is referring to?
WARREN: Important to know that Bergoglio never talks about this. He was persuaded to talk once to his authorized biographer, Sergio Rubin. And he said that when these two priests were kidnapped, he actually did some cloak and dagger stuff. He persuaded the family priest, who performed Mass for dictator Jorge Videla, to call in sick. And he performed the Mass in his place.
And while there inside talking to this fierce dictator, he put in a good word for his kidnapped priests. And five months after they took them into captivity, the priests were freed.
CORNISH: Michael Warren, these allegations have been floating around obviously for many years. Are they truly resurfacing now? Is this something that is becoming an issue in Argentina?
WARREN: I have not seen anything new surface in these weeks, it's important to say. And it's also really important to say, I tried to make this come out in my story, that this needs to be seen in context and with nuance. Because based on the evidence against Bergoglio, if he's guilty, well, then much of a generation of Argentines are guilty. Because what he's being accused of is not doing enough to confront a murderous dictatorship. There were other priests who did and were killed. And there are other priests who committed torture and are serving life sentences.
So, Bergoglio is neither of those things. He was a church leader at the time and he's now, and has been, the leader of the Argentine church for more than a decade. As such, he has taken on, politically, a lot of battles against this current government that is very tightly in league with leading human rights activists. Those human rights activists are against Bergoglio.
But there are other human rights activists who say this is really not fair. And among them is Nobel Prize winner Adolfo Perez Esquivel. He won the Nobel Peace Prize for his Argentine human rights work. And he said Bergoglio was no accomplice of the dictatorship. He cannot be accused of that.
CORNISH: That's Michael Warren, Buenos Aires bureau chief for the Associated Press. He was talking about the new pope and his time during Argentina's Dirty War in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Michael Warren, thank you.
WARREN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.