Covering the Vatican

Ellin Bessner, a Jewish journalist, was a card-carrying member of the Vatican Press Association in the late 80s. She discusses the screening process, the uber-modern newsroom and how covering the Vatican is a lot like covering the police beat.

I was a card-carrying member of the Vatican Press Association in Rome between 1988 and 1994. This was while I was a freelance foreign correspondent in Italy for CBC Radio News and the Canadian Press, among others.

I was there when Pope John Paul II was in office and among the issues at that time was the fallout from the sexual abuse of boys by priests affiliated with Newfoundland’s Mount Cashel orphanage. See the CBC archives for more on the scandal. And in 2002, when the Catholic Diocese of Boston sex abuse scandal was in full swing.

It wasn’t a simple thing to get accreditation to cover the Vatican. At the time, you had to apply, and a rigorous background check was involved. You still do. Click here for the form.

Ellin Bessner in the VaticanYou had to submit official paperwork and samples of previously published stories with bylines. Then it would be reviewed by the office of the official spokesman, (Joaquin Navarro Valls, a Spanish former journalist who looked like Placido Domingo, dressed in dapper suits, and ran the Vatican press office with the help of the formidable Sister Giovanna.)

If Sister Giovanna read your previous articles and didn’t find anything remotely critical of the Church or the Vatican, that would make your application acceptable. Luckily, we didn’t have Google in those days!

Eventually, I was accepted by Sister Giovanna, and got my brown leather Sala Stampa Vaticana badge. It gave me access to the Bolletino that the press office issued every day, and still does, and to the media events and other “accreditation only” Vatican business that journalists needed to cover.  You didn’t need accreditation as an official member of the Vatican Press Association to cover stories from the outside, literally, standing in St. Peter’s Square and interviewing pilgrims, which any reporter can do without accreditation. But you sure needed it to cover official visits by world leaders and dignitaries inside the Vatican. It gave you access to the weekly audiences, although the Canadian Embassy to the Holy See could also get you the odd ticket if you knew in advance what Wednesday morning you wanted to go. And covering the Vatican as a “sanctioned” member also allowed you access to the Sala Stampa Vaticana: the Vatican press room, which had –for its day — the most modern newsroom facilities in all of Rome, and the best telephone operators (the Vatican has its own telephone exchange)  for long distance filing of stories. (See photo above, courtesy of Angela Pometta)

Covering the Vatican was not unlike covering the police beat today. You had to build up sources inside the Roman Curia, or bureaucracy, and also with outside experts, such as academics, watchdogs, lay groups, and other “stakeholders”.  So you would call them regularly, every week or so, and see what was new. But they didn’t like talking on the phone. You could chat better by going to the Canadian Embassy to the Holy See events such as concerts by visiting artists, or special masses at the various churches around Rome, including Canada’s own Martyrs church there. There were also receptions at the Ambassador’s residence (by the time I left it was Ambassador Len Legault), on the Via Appia Antica, and you would liase often with his main assistant.

I also got to meet some amazing Canadian priests and nuns who were toiling away at the various orders’ head offices in Rome, where they would rotate through for a few years before being posted somewhere else, mainly Latin America or Africa, then back to Canada. The Jesuits were great interviews, especially because they spoke English. The Sisters of Jesus and Mary had been piloting the cause of one of their own, Quebec City’s Dina Belanger, to sainthood since her death in 1929. She became Blessed in 1993, during a ceremony at St. Peter’s Basilica. About 450 Canadians came to the ceremony, including a New Brunswick man, Andre Chiasson, who credits the woman with saving his life a decade after her death. In 1939, he was a 7 month old baby suffering from hydrocephalus, an illness that was often fatal. After his mother prayed to Belanger’s spirit, he recovered. Doctors could never explain why.

When I interviewed him in Rome, Chiasson, then 54, had just had a brief audience with the Pope. “It was quite an experience,” Chiasson told me at the time, visibly moved because the Pope knew all about his story.

 And like the police beat, it’s a fine line between blowing your access, and the public’s right to know. You’d be no good to your news organization if no one talked to you from the beat you are covering. That’s why some news organizations had two police reporters: one to cover the beat, and one to cover the scandals and bad news. And then, it was about picking your battles. Some might say, now, that perhaps it would have been worth it to blow your sources on this sex abuse file.

As I had been trained to do while at Carleton University School of Journalism, and with CBC as a reporter all those years in Canada, I learned to keep my own personal religious feelings out of any coverage of Vatican related stories. It was a job. You did it, as best you could, trying to remain objective.  And it was sometimes tough to stay objective. Every so often, while I was living in a 95 per cent Catholic country, the Vatican would weigh in on deeply offensive Jewish themes (I was probably, at least to my knowledge at the time, the only Jewish journalist accredited for CBC Radio News, to cover the Vatican in Rome) such as after an Italian cabinet minister accused Jewish bankers of ruling the world, or an Italian A league soccer game where fans would shout “To the Ovens” at opposing players. I was once called a “Razza di Merda” (race of shit) by one Catholic Italian (for killing Christ), although the Vatican had absolved the Jews of this accusation in the ’60s under Vatican 2.

But for the most part, along the way of being a Vatican correspondent, I was just a Canadian journalist in Italy doing my job. I learned a lot about the Church: including useful things like the difference between a “blessed” and a “saint” and how someone got canonized. My scoop for Canadian Press in March 27,1990 about the founder of the Sister of Charity (Grey Nuns), Marguerite D’Youville  becoming the first ever Canadian born saint, got front page play in the Montreal Gazette and many other Canadian newspapers. I got the story by interviewing Cardinal Edouard Gagnon, then president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Commission for the Family, and a former bishop of St. Paul Alberta. He swore me to secrecy until he had made the official presentation in mi- March. After that, I got the green light to run with the story.

And I reported on the underwear controversy when the Last Judgment was restored in the Sistine Chapel but with the figures’ loins still covered with the  “braghe” or pants,  that had been added long after Michealangelo painted the original.

And I went to several Wednesday audiences to see the charisma coming off Pope John Paul II when I myself got goose bumps. When 50 Canadian soldiers became the first members of the UN Protection Force in Bosnia to have a private audience with the Pope in March 1994, I was there. He met them in the Sala del Concistorio, a Vatican hall used when the Church chooses a new Pope. The peacekeepers were stationed near Sarajevo after the end of the Serb siege of the former capital of Yugoslavia during the Balkan War. I covered then Prime Minister Jean Chretien and his wife Aline’s official visit to the Vatican, where her command of Italian was helpful as she got a tour of the priceless artwork.

But as far as media access to covering “taboo” subjects, like sexual abuse, the Vatican’s actions during the Second World War involving the Holocaust, ordination of women as priests, homosexuality, birth control, AIDS, would there ever be a black Pope it was usually impossible to get someone to speak on the record about it. Quotes from someone who worked for the Church? Forget it. No one who valued their careers in the Vatican could be seen or heard discussing these issues with a journalist. They would be blacklisted, as would the journalist have been.

I remember one journalist was not permitted to travel with the Vatican Press corps on the Papal plane any longer, after writing stuff that Sister Giovanna and her officials didn’t approve of.

At the time, the only way to get a quote about sex abuse cases, or war in the Middle East, was to get an advance copy of the Pope’s speeches from the Press Office, such as the one he gave each year called Urbi and Orbi at Easter and Christmas  and parse the lines for some reference to the newsworthy event in question. We could sometimes find a line or two in the Pope’s homily, or communiqué, after a meeting with a dignitary. But if the Pope said nothing, no one else would talk about it on the record, except perhaps the Vatican’s Secretary of State.

And while covering the Canadian scene for Vatican Radio after I returned to Canada between 1994 and 1997, I learned they would gladly take stories about Aboriginal rights, and human rights, and Quebec nationalism, and health stories. But nothing about sexual abuse cases by Canadian priests. Or “pro-ordination of women” protests. Or the Canadian Anglican church’s debate on homosexual marriages. That’s just how they operated. For $35 a story.

From 1997-to 2005, while working at CTV in Toronto, I was one of the producers of the “Death of the Pope” special. CTV planned its coverage of the eventual death of Pope John Paul for several years before the actual event. I was assigned to line up guests in Rome, who we could interview during special live coverage. Even then, the only people who would speak candidly about any of the controversial topics during the Pope’s reign, were Church outsiders: journalists, authors, an Italian Gay Pride activist, and a former Catholic now converted to Islam. Insiders would not consent to criticize the Pope’s regime. One high ranking Canadian monsignor told me it was bad luck to even discuss the Pope’s ill health before he had actually died, saying he didn’t want to be seen crying “lacrime di crocodillo” crocodile tears.

The Vatican was not a democracy. In those days, when I was covering the Vatican, the Church didn’t have to talk to journalists. It could access its flock via sermons directly on Vatican TV. It also had Vatican Radio, Radio Maria, The Osservatore Romano newspaper, videos, and countless nuncios all over the world to spread its message.

Today, some members of the Church are now accusing the mainstream media of being on a witch-hunt regarding the sex scandals. In my view, it has nothing to do with one’s religion or a witch hunt. (And here goes my chances at accreditation to the Vatican in the future.) It’s more that I think the Church should learn that nothing stays secret for long, anymore.

While, nowadays the Vatican can still try to bypass the mainstream media, and go directly to its flock with Papal You Tube videos and even a Facebook App., the difference is, in these days of Tiger Woods and Twitter, and Michael Jackson’s death, the story spreads so quickly on the Internet, that the Church can’t sweep the sex abuse story under a rug and keep it quiet any longer.

It’s no longer an issue of granting access to mainstream journalists, or not, be they Jewish or not. Journalists can now get the story and they don’t need the Church to do so. Critics and victims are blogging, Tweeting, using Facebook and other social media methods to publicize the information. There’s even a new Facebook group called 1 million people against Church Abuse. And that makes it easy for journalists to keep the story alive.

One final thought: I have always tried to stay out of religion or self identifying in public, because at Journalism school, they taught us this was fundamental to being able to operate as a journalist in most any situation. Don’t join a political party, they warned. Don’t write letters to the editor, they said. Don’t put lawn signs up at your house. Most media organizations still have these warnings in their Codes of Ethics, which employees have to follow. But it’s even more important nowadays, with the Internet, to be scrupulously careful about your neutral public image as a journalist. There might be a Sister Giovanna out there vetting your application!

Ellin Bessner has been teaching journalism in the Toronto area since 1999, at Ryerson University, Seneca College and now, on the faculty of  Centennial College. A former foreign correspondent in Europe, and business anchor at CTV Newsnet, she still works occasionally as a reporter for CBC Radio in Toronto and as back up news anchor at Jazz FM 91.1, as well as writing blogs, and articles for local newspapers in the Toronto area.