Not the least interesting aspect of the exposure of the double life of some gay Catholic priests in Rome is the way it was handled by the Italian media. Panorama, the news magazine that carried out the investigation, tipped off the rest of the press last Thursday afternoon. Italy’s biggest news agency, Ansa, carried a brief dispatch on the magazine’s exclusive at 5.32 pm. By 7 o’clock it was number six on its “billboard” of the day’s top stories.
Yet not a single national newspaper picked up on Panorama’s story. It was only the following day – by which time the Rome diocese had responded with a statement berating the magazine for “defaming all priests” – that the Italian press felt able to run “balanced” reports leading with the diocese’s advice to gay priests to “come out” – and get out.
Why this reluctance? Some will doubtless argue that the report, accompanied by photographs of half-naked priests, one still wearing his dog collar, was pure smut. I disagree. It went to the heart of the paradox, let us call it, that underlies many of the Catholic church’s current problems. While condemning gay sex as disordered and at the same time insisting on celibacy in an age in which heterosexual clerics can no longer get away with the hypocrisy of “housekeepers”, the Vatican is gradually creating a predominantly gay priesthood in all but the developing world. The most reliable estimate suggested that up to half of US Catholic priests are homosexual.
The story had another intriguing dimension. Panorama is owned by Italy’s prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi. He cannot be expected to know about everything reported by the three television stations, two daily newspapers and one news magazine that his family influences. But it is hard to believe that he, or his immediate staff, was not alerted to Panorama’s spectacular exclusive. And yet, in the three days since it was published, no one in a country addicted to conspiracy theories has posed any awkward questions in public about a possible connection between Panorama’s ownership and a story that severely embarrassed the church.
What we have is an example of something with repercussions that go far beyond Italy – the deference with which the media closest to the Vatican treats it and the church that it administers. I hardly need to tell readers of this corner of Comment is free that since January, Europe has been swept by clerical sex abuse scandals involving Catholic priests and bishops. The impression given in the Italian media has been that they have solely affected the German-speaking world and a few other countries like Holland and Norway. In fact, cases of clerics accused of molesting or raping children have surfaced repeatedly in Italy and been systematically ignored. In 2005, a former abbot in Arezzo in Tuscany confessed to molesting 38 children. In 2008, a priest was convicted by a court in Ferrara of abusing children as young as three. He was sentenced to six years and 10 months. Right now, the parish priest of a Rome suburb is on trial in a case involving seven alleged victims. None of this has excited more than passing interest, let alone raised questions about the responsibilities of the priests’ superiors. In at least one of case, the accused is known to have been confirmed in his post after the first claims against him were made.
I mention all this not so much to make a point about the media as about the Vatican and the Italian church. It has frequently been remarked that the Catholic hierarchy from the pope downwards seemed not to realise the gravity of what happened this year until it was too late. Its initial reaction to the scandals was to denounce them as part of a conspiracy. But, seen from Rome, this is not at all surprising. Wrapped in the dense, comforting cotton wool of Italian media respect, the Vatican just does not feel or hear the outrage that has been generated.
The situation is exacerbated by the fact that the Vatican communicates largely with Italian journalists. On the scale of values of most members of the pope’s bureaucracy, the Roman curia, Il Messaggero, with a circulation of maybe 200,000 but based in Rome and traditionally Christian Democrat in outlook, counts for far more than CNN or Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. This in turn is a reflection of how little the Vatican has been internationalised even though it is now 32 years since the last Italian pope. The curia manages a vast, international organisation.
Yet it still manned to a disproportionate extent by Italians with Italian – and, to an even greater extent, Roman – sensibilities and priorities. Sooner or later, that is surely going to have to change.
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