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Story Publication logo March 8, 2013

Vatican City: Assistance in the Field

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

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Alessandro Speciale (left) and Jason Berry at St Peter's. Vatican City, 2012.

"Fixer/translator/driver fees are acceptable," says the Pulitzer grant application.

I knew exactly who I wanted for assistance in Rome, not least because his Italian would serve where my French and Spanish fell short. But I would never call Alessandro Speciale a fixer, that term used by hard-charging reporters in severe places where you need a smart local who can negotiate out of bad situations or make good ones happen via the right contacts and quick thinking. Rome was not dangerous; but I needed an all-purpose hitter.

Alessandro and I met in June 2009 when I was in Rome doing research on a book contract, and devoting several days of that month to promoting a documentary I had made which had a berth in RomaFictionFest, a festival featuring made-for-television works. "Vows of Silence" explores how the Vatican justice system failed to adequately prosecute Father Marcial Maciel, a long-accused pedophile and founder of the Legion of Christ religious order. The film took four years to make with long delays for fundraising. The $325,000 budget was meager by network standards.

Festivals are crucial in getting network buyers to see a film. The festival circuit takes time and money (entry fees, travel) with no guarantee of acceptance. My film had won an award at Docs D.F. in Mexico City, but had only scattered screenings in U.S. festivals. Investigative films are a tough sell in America's feel-good TV culture. My film was released after heavy coverage of the Boston abuse crisis (as if all church scandals are one). Print coverage is pivotal in selling a film. RomaFictionFest had arranged a press screening in addition to the scheduled slot. I wanted reporters who covered the church to see it.

Robert Mickens of The Tablet recommended Speciale as a resourceful freelancer. We met at a restaurant near St. Peter's, late lunch, outside tables. Alex was just north of 30, I was 60. I asked if he could draw on some journalists familiar with the Maciel story. Eight years after the charges were filed, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI banished Maciel from ministry in 2006. The film reconstructs the investigation. The screening was two days off. Speciale nodded, suggesting people he knew personally, others by reputation. As an independent writer, I never throw money around. I don't gamble. With a small budget from the film account, I turned Ugly American. Slipping a $100 bill toward his plate, I said: "Would this work as down payment, and another hundred after the event?"

He looked at the bill and smiled. So did I. Aging muckraker corrupts young Italian journalist. He took the money.

The screening drew a crowd and at a press conference afterwards, a conservative Catholic journalist stood up and denounced the film for attacking the church. His ire was rather thrilling. The issue, I countered, was justice, not faith. In the next few days four major dailies, including Corriere della Serra and Repubblica, ran articles praising the work. I got a ton from that $200. My agent negotiated a pay-per-view agreement for Italy. In a country controlled by Silvio Berlusconi's networks, that was a breakthrough. The film later had national airdates in Ireland and Spain, though it never aired in America.

Speciale and I kept in touch. I followed his byline in Religion News Service, The Tablet, GlobalPost and The Daily Telegraph. With the Pulitzer proposal underway I contacted him, offering a substantial fee; he agreed to help with translations and arrange interviews.

"Call me Alex," he said when we met again at the Vatican press office.

Raised in Rome in a house filled with books, he was encouraged in his studies by his mother, a librarian. He read French and English for a comp lit degree at University of Pisa, gaining German proficiency along the way. A 2006 postgrad diploma in international journalism at City University of London was, he said, "the game-changer for me." He also did freelance TV and radio work.

A turning point in my project came over coffee with Giovanni Avena, the recently retired editor of Adista, a probing newsmagazine on the Italian church. A former priest, Avena has a seasoned sense of the Roman Curia, as I learned in a 2009 interview. Now, with Alex translating, Avena laid out a remarkable story of six Indian sisters who had fled a Bridgitine convent, and lives of servile labor, several years before. The Bridgitines ran hotels in their religious houses, a striking contrast from American nunneries selling assets to cover elder care. A sympathetic Benedictine abbot had arranged entry to another convent for the young sisters. For that he lost his position when the Bridgitine superior, Mother Tekla Famiglietti, put pressure on the Vatican office that governs religious orders. As Avena recounted these events I saw potential for a major episode in my series for GlobalPost and National Catholic Reporter.

First I had to read the Adista reports, some 15,000 words across several back issues. Alex, who had full time work between RNS and La Stampa's "Vatican Insider," arranged for translations and did extensive work to ensure the accuracy and language nuances. As I did web research on Mother Tekla and gathered insights from interviews, I quickly saw how she became known as "the most powerful woman in Rome." Opening a convent in Cuba with Fidel Castro's blessing is no small feat.

The iron hand she used on the Benedictine abbot and runaway nuns was another side of her complex personality. Alex found the abbot and arranged the interview. He had come to Rome with a church choir, and on a Sunday morning, with graven brow, stood near the entrance to St. Paul Outside the Walls, a mammoth church, reflecting on his experiences, the fear on his face still fresh despite the passage of time. Alex translated.

Alex also located one of the nuns by phone, and like the abbot, she did not want to talk nor have her name used, but said enough to be quoted. As I was researching the Bridgitines, Alex arranged the interview with Mother Tekla.

We entered the convent at elegant Piazza Farnese on a warm autumn day. Mother Tekla was one of the most remarkable people I have interviewed, clearly conscious of her religious persona, cautious, warm, and overflowing in reflections on her early childhood in the war. She dismissed the Adista reports, saying she had not had time to read them, as if spots on linen long cleansed.

As a long-form writer I have occasionally felt on finishing a piece that I've just opened a door into a given personality. The facts are what they are; certain people hold deeper fathoms of a human narrative fraught with mystery. How did the girl in a village near Naples, seeing bodies blow apart in World War II, become the nun who retaliated against a monk for helping disaffected sisters who had fled her convent? How did that personality evolve?

On my last day in Rome, Alex and I met to shoot some visuals at St. Peter's. When that was done, he asked where I was in the writing. In the middle of Mother Tekla, I replied. He nodded thoughtfully and, with a wisdom of the ages said, "Not so easy, eh?"


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