Pope Francis, Shine the Light of Transparency on the Holy See


ROME—imageIn the waning days of Pope Benedict XVI’s papacy, the Italian newspaper La Repubblica reported a potential bombshell about a network of gay clergy working inside the Vatican. Three elderly cardinals had conducted an investigation into the issue, and had produced a 300-page report detailing their findings.

Was this a revelation so big it would effect who would be selected as the next pope? Or was it a new spin on information being whispered about for months and was only now being pulled together in an official way?

Nobody knows. Vatican press officials confirmed an official investigation had been conducted, and they did not deny La Repubblica’s description of the topic of the inquiry. But the Vatican would say no more: the conclusions of the cardinals’ investigation were sealed and would not be shown to anyone—not even the 115 cardinals who would select the next pope and who might risk choosing someone named in the report—until a new pope had been elected.

The secret 300-page report is part of a wider problem. There’s no doubt Benedict, who became the first pope in nearly 600 years to resign when he stepped down, went out riding a wave of controversy—much of it made worse by a purposefully opaque information policy from the Holy See.

Other headlines in recent weeks included:

  • The decision from Scottish Cardinal Keith O’Brien to resigned as the archbishop of Edinburgh and announce he would not attend the conclave while denying allegations of “inappropriate conduct” involving priests in the 1980s (the Vatican said it accepted O’Brien’s resignation but only because he was nearing his 75th birthday, a point when most archbishops retire);

  • The Vatican Bank is under investigations from Italian and European banking regulators looking into charges of money laundering and false accounting, a probe that at one point resulted in the automatic teller machines in the Vatican being taken off line and requiring that piles of cash be transferred from Vatican merchants to other banks in armored trucks rather than electronically (the Vatican said the ATM problems were largely technical and denied broader problems);

  • After Benedict’s 11 Feb. decision to step down because of failing health and his advanced age, reports surfaced that the now-former pontiff used a pacemaker and that last year in Mexico he fell and hit his head, bloodying his hair, robes, and the floor, possibly contributing to his weakening health (the Vatican said those issues were too small to mention and that they had no impact on Benedict’s decision to abdicate).

“Interest in what’s happening at the Vatican, particularly during a papal transition, is very high, but the Vatican’s press policy is very often inadequate to the task of handling that,” said Italo image Bianchi, a communications expert with the University of Rome.

“There’s something quaint about a 21st-Century process that relies on smoke signals, but there are more serious issue ranging from the extraordinarily long time for journalists arriving for the event to get credentialed to the level of secrecy that surrounds almost everything. But [Vatican] communications personnel seem especially unprepared for the impacts of new technologies.”

Papal conclaves are far and away the point when international interest in the Vatican is highest. But conclaves happen so infrequently that there’s almost always a new wave of technology to confront each time: the 2013 conclave was the first to feature widespread use of social media; the 2005 conclave was the first with issues related to mobile phones and the Internet; the two 1978 conclaves were the first with live television; in 1963, it was next-day newspaper coverage.

This time around, nearly three-dozen cardinals had Twitter accounts, but policy about what they could and could not communicate via the medium was ad hoc at best. At one point, information being “leaked” to the Italian newspaper La Stampa from daily pre-conclave briefings from US cardinals resulted in those encounters being abruptly cancelled, the first time just 90 minutes before it was to take place. Soon after, all cardinals were reportedly told to cut off communication with the media, with only limited impact. And within a day of the end of the conclave that elected Pope Francis, details were already appearing about the highly secretive voting process that selected him on the fifth ballot.

“We have learned that trying to block out all information is a policy doomed to fail,” Bianchi said. “It’s much more effective to manage and direct information rather than to attempt to cut it off completely.” image

In the early days of Francis’ papacy hopes are running high that the former Argentinean cardinal known for his humbleness, spirituality, and intelligence will be successful in confronting the biggest problems facing the Holy See, ranging from addressing the growing sex scandals (including the 300-page report that he’ll reportedly see for the first time Monday) to reforming the powerful Roman curia, the church’s main administrative bureaucracy often seen as an obstacle to change.

The Vatican press corps swelled to 5,300 members at the start of the conclave, and is now in the process of contracting back to its normal size of about 400 members—almost all of whom must be hoping Pope Francis’ reforms will include ushering in a new age of transparency for Europe’s last absolute monarchy.

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