Pope Benedict XVI, right, at a digital media conference. Photo by Morgan Till.
VATICAN CITY | We’ve come to Rome for a week to explore how the new wave in the Catholic clergy sex abuse scandal is being seen and dealt with by the Vatican, the power center of worldwide Catholicism. Pope Benedict XVI is coming under increasing pressure, as hundreds of charges of alleged priest abuse of minors explode throughout Europe — so we were eager to see him at the earliest possible opportunity.
Hence our attendance Saturday morning at a conference on digital media at the cavernous Paul VI hall in the Vatican. We were ushered to the nosebleed balcony reserved for the “stampa” (press), where we could look out over an 8,000-person sea of the Italian Catholic media — journalists and editors of newspapers, Web sites, radio and television, and teachers, professors and cultural figures, and webmasters of Catholic organizations of all types. Anticipating the noontime arrival of the pope himself, many had brought their families and children, too.
It was the last morning of a three-day conference on how the church should use and deal with the digital media of today. “Have they talked about the sex abuse scandal?” I whispered to a young reporter for Avvenire, the country’s dominant Catholic newspaper. She smiled and shook her head: “Not a chance.”
But then, the silence was broken. Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, took his turn at the microphone. “The situation in which we are living is extremely exacting, and we are asked to be absolutely truthful and credible,” he said. The last couple of months have been very difficult, he went on, with so many questions being raised about things that happened long ago. But he said, “This is the time for truth, transparency and credibility. Secrecy and discretion are not values that are in fashion at the moment. We must be in a condition of having nothing to hide.” The crowd applauded.
What did he mean? Just how open is the Vatican prepared to be about the spreading web of allegations of clerical cover-up of abusive priests’ cases in decades past? As the panel was cleared away to install a gilded tapestry-upholstered chair on a platform atop an oriental carpet was readied, we hoped Pope Benedict would fill out the picture. Suddenly the scene transported us back in time. Two Swiss Guards in medieval dress, grasping halberds (a two-handed pole weapon last used to battle effect in the 15th century) stood flanking it. Bugles sounded a herald, but the pope didn’t appear. The audience waited, and waited … for 30 minutes.
Finally, a cry rose up as he was glimpsed walking in from stage right — arms out in the familiar pose of benediction. “Papa! Papa!” the crowd cried. He made his way to the throne, sat for a fulsome introduction by the head bishop of the Italian church, then began to speak. What he said did not sound overly encouraging to devotees of the new digital age.
“The times in which we living knows a huge widening of the frontiers of communication,” he said (according to our Italian fixer/producer) and the new media of this new age points to a more “egalitarian and pluralistic” forum. But, he went on to say, it also opens a new hole, the “digital divide” between haves and have-nots. Even more ominous, he said, it exacerbates tensions between nations and within nations themselves. And it increases the “dangers of … intellectual and moral relativism,” which can lead to “multiple forms of degradation and humiliation” of the essence of a person, and to the “pollution of the spirit.” All in all, it seemed a pretty grim view of the wide open communication parameters being demanded by the Internet age.
So where does this Vatican stand on being more transparent about how it has handled priest abuse cases in decades past? Will it respond to the call for greater openness that we have heard from so many Catholics here, in our two brief days so far? It was hard to glimpse the truth from our Vatican encounter Saturday. We can only hope to be able to shed greater light on the question by week’s end.
Watch my first report, which aired on Friday’s NewsHour, with more to come this week:
You also can keep track of our reporting trip via Flickr photos.