The role of online journalism and the Catholic Church sex-abuse scandal
NEW YORK – “Proclaim the truth and do not be silent through fear.” Those words by Saint Catherine of Siena appear most fitting this summer as the Catholic Church in the United States grapples with allegations of widespread sex abuse by priests going back several decades.
In July, Pope Francis accepted the resignation of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick after it was revealed that the 88-year-old former head of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., had allegedly abused a teenage boy for years starting in 1969. It was also made public that McCarrick had been accused in three other sexual assault cases involving seminarians.
Last month, a Pennsylvania grand jury released a shocking report filled with decades of allegations regarding sexual abuses by clerics with children and teenagers – and cover-ups by bishops – that reopened a wound within the church regarding pedophilia and homosexuality among the clergy. It also sparked debate for reform regarding whether priests should be allowed to marry like clergy in other Christian denominations.
The incidents came on the heels of sex-abuse scandals that rocked the church in Chile and Australia. If that wasn’t enough, a whistleblower named Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano released an 11-page letter on August 25 describing a series of events in which the Vatican – and specifically Pope Francis – had been made aware of McCarrick’s immoral behavior years ago. Vigano claimed Pope Benedict XVI had placed restrictions on McCarrick, including not allowing him to say Mass in public. Vigano alleges Pope Francis reversed those sanctions. In the letter, Vigano, a former papal ambassador to the United States, said Francis “knew from at least June 23, 2013 that McCarrick was a serial predator. He knew that he was a corrupt man, he covered for him to the bitter end.”
Unlike in 2002 – when an investigation by The Boston Globe unearthed decades of abuse by prelates never reported to civil authorities – accusations of wrongdoing within the Catholic Church these days are mixed with politics. When it was revealed that two Catholic journalists had helped Vigano edit and distribute the letter, those actions shed a light on the increasingly polarized Catholic Church and the growth and influence of conservative news and opinion websites that oppose Pope Francis and what they believe is the pontiff’s assault on orthodoxy.
Much in the same way The Drudge Report attacked President Bill Clinton in the 1990s (blogger Matt Drudge was the first to report on the Monica Lewinsky affair after the mainstream press had passed on it) and Brietbart.com wrote stories attacking Hilary Clinton during the 2016 US presidential election, so too are several anti-Francis sites in Italy and around the world fueling criticism of how the Vatican has been operating since he was made pope in March 2013.
When Vigano’s letter called on Francis to resign – an unprecedented move in the Vatican’s history – the power of these journalists was revealed. Those journalists, Aldo Maria Valli and Marco Tosatti, acknowledge that they met with Vigano before the memo was made public. What happened from there is at the heart of the debate and credibility of both Vigano and the journalists.
“I did not help Vigano,” Valli said. “The memo is all his own.”
It depends on what one’s definition of “help” is. Valli would not comment further for this article. Instead, he referred questions to a September 2 post on his blog, where he details how the American press treated Pope Benedict differently compared to Francis regarding clergy sex-abuse allegations. Compare the past with the present: The Boston Globe won a Pultizer Prize in 2003 for its reporting (an investigation later made into the 2015 Academy Award-winning movie Spotlight). These days, many in the press – and among liberal Catholics – have tried to discredit Vigano.
“Then the ‘conservative’ [Joseph] Ratzinger, despite being the pope who against sexual abuse has done more than any other, was literally put on the cross and defended by very few,” Valli wrote. “Today, however, since doubts and perplexities concern the ‘progressive’ Francis, for the great press the focal point is not so much the question itself, namely the abuses and cover-ups of which senior representatives of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church have been responsible, but the ‘war’ that ‘conservatives’ and ‘traditionalists’ would have triggered, for who knows what shady interests, against Francis, while he is committed to giving a new face, more open and dialoguing, to the church.”
Valli has authored books on the church and worked in television since 1986, including as a religion reporter with Italian state broadcaster RAI. He has covered the Vatican since 1996 and traveled with Pope John Paul II. It was two years ago that he started to openly criticize Pope Francis on his personal blog. The 60-year-old Valli, in that same September 2 post, attacked members of the news media, saying: “Why are we not seeing journalists like those at The Boston Globe since the moment someone tries to investigate, they are immediately covered with insults and discredited? Why the mainstream media are doing everything to paint Vigano as a disgruntled and angry conservative, who uses the sad McCarrick affair as a pretext to settle the accounts with Francis? Why The New York Times, which was at the forefront of accusing Benedict XVI eight years ago, now speaks instead of ‘struggle for power in the Vatican,” obviously maneuvered by the ‘conservatives?’ And why, can we add, great Italian newspapers here do the same?”
Tosatti, meanwhile, is also viewed as anti-Francis, posting regularly on his blog Stilum Curiae – a must-read for those inside the Vatican – about the goings on in Rome. In Tosatti’s biography posted to his site, he writes that he has always wanted to be a journalist.
“They convinced me since childhood that it was a noble and important profession,” he wrote. “I have ‘covered’ many fields: news, trade unions, parliament, education and schools, diplomacy. Since 1981, I have been involved in an ongoing religious manner, living in Rome, in Italy, and especially in the West in the Vatican.”
Tosatti, a correspondent for the Italian daily newspaper La Stampa, did not respond to a request for comment regarding his involvement with the Vigano letter. He did grant an interview to The Associated Press, which reported that Tosatti helped Vigano rewrite and edit the memo, saying the two sat side-by-side at a table in his living room for three hours on Aug. 22.
“He had prepared some kind of a draft of a document and he sat here by my side,” Tosatti recounted. “I told him that we had to work on it really because it was not in a journalistic style.”
Once the final version of the memo had been written, Tosatti contacted publications that were willing to publish it. The U.S.-based National Catholic Register and LifeSiteNews.com as well as the Italian daily La Verita and Spanish site InfoVaticana did. The Italian archbishop’s letter became front-page news across the world.
The Vatican has not released documents that could discredit Vigano. At the same time, Pope Francis has kept mum, saying only, “I will not say a single word about this” at a news conference after his trip from Ireland for last month’s World Meeting on Families.
Did Valli and Tosatti cross an ethical journalistic line? Would it have been more prudent had they interviewed Vigano and posted his comments on their websites, rather than help him draft a memo and disperse it? In the world of online journalism, facts, opinions and rumors often combine to form the narrative. Italian journalists often inject commentary into their reporting. In a country where political parties run newspapers, this is nothing new. What is new here is the global scope the Vigano story has taken over the past few weeks and whether any of the revelations will ultimately force a sitting pope to step down.