Sunday, April 25, 2010

Can a Jewish journalist cover the Vatican sex scandal and the Catholic Church?



(Dr. Joaqin Navarro-Valls, Vatican spokesman 1984-2006) Photo courtesy his website.
(Vatican Press office newsroom - photo by Angela Pometta)

Driving my children to Sunday school this morning, I heard CBC's Sunday Edition of April 25 on the car radio, with a panel discussing whether a journalist who is a practicing member of a religion, is able to accurately and fairly report about the current sex abuse scandal rocking the Catholic Church, and the Vatican itself.

The panelists included Jeffrey Dvorkin, a former CBC Radio News managing editor (my old boss), and Tarek Fatah, a broadcaster with CFRB, and several others. They weighed in on why it's taken so long for the mainstream news media around the world to discover the decades old sex abuse scandal. Read Dvorkin's recent column about this: where the notion that non Catholic reporters may have been afraid to cover the Church for fears of being excommunicated, in a journalistic sense, by the Church, or, worse, self censored for fear of being accused of bias.

And they discussed why some Church officials are even accusing the mainstream media now of being on a witch hunt (including the New York Times).

I have some personal experience with this.

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 were 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. Click here. And in 2002, when the Catholic Diocese of Boston sex abuse scandal was in full swing.
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. I personally didn't have much to do with the sex abuse story, but would have reported anything the Pope or others said about it.

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:

You 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, (Joaqin Navarro Valls, a handsome 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 Bulletino which the press office issued every day, and to the media events and other "acceditation only" Vatican business that journalists needed to cover.
My Jewishness was never raised by anyone there. And not even after I returned to Canada, when I was the correspondent for Vatican Radio here in Canada.

While in Italy, I was encouraged to keep two passports: one that showed I had travelled to Israel for personal reasons, and the other passport --- which was kept at the Rome Canadian Embassy immigration office --- for when I needed a "clean" passport to travel to countries that wouldn't have been happy to see an Israel stamp in it.

I didn't make a habit of mentioning my religion when I was doing this job.

When then Prime Minister Jean Chretien and his wife were visiting the Pope on an official tour, we got to wait in the anteroom while they were having their official audience with the Pope. A Vatican official handed out Pope-blessed rosaries to all of the journalists and Chretien assistants, and I got one too. It was cool, actually, but I eventually gave it away to my then mother-in-law, who was Catholic, and was very excited to have it. I don't know if Chaviva Hosek, one of Chretien's advisors, kept the rosary she got! And in the end, really, anyone who wanted their own rosary could have just gone down to the St. Peter's Square, and bought one from a vendor (most of whom, are Jewish Romans.)

As for being Jewish and covering the Vatican, my close friends and family and colleagues (including foreign editor Israel Cinman at CBC Radio News) got a private chuckle out the concept because I had to cover Easter and Christmas and other Catholic religious events when the Pope spoke and we used to call it "News by Jews".

But also I covered plenty of stories that had a Jewish angle to it: would the Pope go to Israel or not? (he did) would he go to a synagogue again, would he meet with Yassir Arafat (he did)
would he release the Vatican archives showing how Pius the Sixth tried or didn't try to save Jews from the Nazis (they did, sort of).

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 these 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% Catholic country, the Vatican would weigh in on deeply offensive Jewish themes: 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 an anonymous Canadian journalist in Italy doing my job. I learned a lot about the Church: including useful things like how to navigate the difference between a "blessed" and a "saint" and how someone got canonized. My scoop about the founder of the Sister of Charity (Grey Nuns), Marguerite D'Youville on the road to becoming a saint, got front page play in the Montreal Gazette.

It was great working at the Sala Stampa Vaticana: the Vatican press room had --for its day -- the most modern newsroom facilities in all of Rome, and the best telephone receptionists for long distance filing of stories. (See photo above, courtesy of Angela Pometta.)

And I reported on the underwear controversy when the Last Judgment was restored (with the figures' loins covered), and I went to several Wednesday audiences to see the charisma coming off Pope John Paul II when I myself got goose bumps.

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 -- my being Jewish or not had no effect on getting 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.

And while covering the Canadian scene for Vatican Radio back in 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 Pope's controversial topics, 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.

As was mentioned on the CBC today, 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, videos, and countless nuncios all over the world to spread its message.

Covering the Vatican was not unlike covering 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.

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 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!