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Story Publication logo December 19, 2012

Sourcing at the Vatican

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Cardinals in Rome ordered two investigations of American nuns. Is this a modern-day Inquisition...

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Nuns celebrate the appointment of new cardinals at a reception in the Apostolic Palace, Image by Jason Berry. Vatican City, 2012.

The Vatican is oft-compared to the Kremlin as a fortress of secrecy, famously difficult for journalists to penetrate. I have no experience in Russia but on four assignments in Rome in recent years, each lasting about a month, I found many people willing to talk, if not always for attribution, and abundant information for solid reporting.

You have to approach any inquiry here by treating Rome as the greater source zone on tiny Vatican City (108 acres) and talk with people at the many religious orders, universities and newsrooms. Any coverage of the Vatican is reporting on the larger church. Italian newspapers are famously partisan in covering the pope, cardinals and how the Vatican interacts with political Italy. Even if you don't read Italian, many of the priests, nuns, scholars, and journalists do so, and they follow the internal dynamics of today's church with its many camps and collisions. In America, as opinion polls have long attested, the Catholic Church is as divided as the blue vs. red electorate. Similar divisions abound in Rome.

The Sala Stampa, or Vatican press office, provides credentials to journalists through a website application. Reporters who cover the Vatican full time have been a great help to me in understanding the cardinals who run key congregations, how their personalities may clash or agendas differ. Yes, the church is a monarchy and the pope oversees a top-down power structure. It is also the largest organization in the world with lots of internal chaos. Among the journalists who helped me grasp the internal dynamics, at the top of the list I'd put Robert Mickens, an American who covers Rome for The Tablet, the English Catholic biweekly. Alessandro Speciale, a young reporter for La Stampa and the Religion News Service, provided translation and research assistance on the last assignment. Philip Puella, a senior correspondent for Thomson Reuters; Marco Politi, a veteran journalist and author of papal biographies; and Andrea Tornielli of La Stampa, a prolific author on popes and the Vatican, all gave me a sharper sense of where to train the viewfinder.

Although it was tangential to my assignment on the Vatican investigation of the nuns, the dominant topic of discussions among journalists was the fierce infighting among factions of the Roman Curia, or bureaucracy, and Pope Benedict's detachment.

When Paolo Gabriele, the pope's butler, was arrested for leaking documents to investigative journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi, La Stampa sought opinion from the author Vittoria Missori, a staunch Catholic who had done interview books with John Paul II and with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger before he became pope. "The Roman Curia has always been a viper's nest," Missori said. "However, in the past at least, it was the most efficient state organization in the world. It ran an empire the sun never set on and it had an unparalleled diplomatic corps. What is left of that today?"

That amazing quote appears on Vatican Insider, a must-read website run by La Stampa with multilingual versions. (I sought an interview with Missori but he declined.) The National Catholic Reporter has stellar coverage on its website, particularly by veteran correspondent John Allen. Another valuable source is the weekly column by Sandro Magister, who covers religion for the weekly l'Espresso. Magister is a chronicler of the Curia; he has impeccable sources and has broken some major stories, though his romantic view of orthodoxy and the hierarchy as a mandarin class is a tad detached from the workaday lives that most Catholics lead.

Getting access to cardinals or high-level monsignors requires a patient approach since many of them distrust the press. It helps to attend public events and try to establish a personal presence with these men. You also need a Vatican phone directory. The "Pontifico Annuario" is a red hardback tome that sells for $80; the much thinner directory for journalists is a gold mine. I don't know why the Sala Stampa has so few copies. Reporters who have them can be of strategic assistance.

That's because many Vatican functionaries ignore email. I don't know if they find it a nuisance or fear leaving some cyber-trail that might haunt them down the line. But mid-level staffers answer their phones and often talk. The office and home numbers for cardinals are in the directory. Some cardinals are open to reporters. Not so Cardinal Bernard Law, the disgraced ex-archbishop of Boston. When I called his residence at Santa Maria Maggiore, a great basilica, an American with a priestly voice evinced a trace of scorn: "The cardinal just does not grant interviews."

Receptions, press briefings, book launches and conferences on new policy briefings or official reports offer access to Vatican officials. A Nov. 24, 2012, reception for the public to meet six newly-invested cardinals was an entry to the normally off-limits Apostolic Palace (the papal apartment is on the third floor). What a remarkable scene. Nigerians in colorful outfits, emblazoned with the face of their new cardinal, Archbishop John Olorunfemi Onaiyekan of Abjua, gave a festive sense of the global church. The art works, murals, marble floors and stairways were a breathtaking reminder of the hierarchs' aloof world. And proof all the more when a reporter, seen from a distance, tried to button-hole Cardinal Law, only to be brushed off by a priest in his retinue. Once gregarious with the press, Law has not given an interview in ten years.

The most important thing I learned starting with the first trip, in 2002, is to do extensive legwork in advance, gather names and leads from Americans with contacts in Rome. Many priests and nuns know people at their religious order headquarters or universities where they studied. Canon lawyers, male and female, closely follow the proceedings from Vatican tribunals. In 2002 I was focused on the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (C.D.F.), housed in the old Palace of the Holy Office, where pedophilia allegations had been filed in 1998 against a powerful religious order leader, Father Marcial Maciel, with no action in four years. C.D.F. proceedings are secret -- administrative hearings more than trials. The C.D.F. also investigates theologians, religious activists and scholars for compliance with church teaching. A canonist in America who briefed me on a case he handled provided the name of a staffer who had just arrived at the C.D.F. I called; he invited me to his office the following day.

Getting inside the building where Galilelo in 1633 was convicted as a heretic for arguing that the earth revolves around the sun, and taking photographs that day, proved highly useful in what I eventually wrote. My source advised me on how to phrase a letter seeking an interview from the official in charge of the Maciel case. I was not surprised when the letter drew no answer. But after further conversations, my source opened the door with a canon law official in another office who yielded priceless insights on Vatican officials' outrage at American bishops' liberal granting of marriage annulments for divorced Catholics. And that, he said, was why Rome would not allow streamlined procedures to defrock pedophiles!

As surreal as that mindset may seem to those who wonder how the Vatican allowed the abuse crisis to do such damage over so many years, the aloofness, detachment and ornamental sense of privilege in which the cardinals work is a major reason why. Cardinal Ratzinger ordered an investigation of Maciel in 2004, shortly before John Paul II died. In 2006 – eight years after the case was filed – as Benedict XVI, he banned Maciel from ministry.

I tried, as so many journalists did, without success to get an interview with Ratzinger during his C.D.F. years. But using the network of friends and sources one develops I have in the years since gotten to several cardinals and mid-level officials, on the record. On this last trip I interviewed Cardinal Franc Rodé, the retired prefect who ordered the first investigation of American nuns in 2009. His apartment is in the Holy Office; though I asked several questions that made him uncomfortable, he nevertheless took time at the end to show me his art collection before I took the elevator down to the courtyard. I took more photographs before the Swiss Guards, whose outfits remind me of harlequin outfits at Mardi Gras, saluted smartly as if I were important and made my way across St. Peter's Square.


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