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Telling Vatican 'Secrets.'

Did you catch this week's episode of Frontline, "Secrets of the Vatican" (you can watch online right here)? Probably not the best title, given that the subjects it covers have been pretty well reported: Benedict's resignation, curial dysfunction, sexual abuse, Maciel's crimes, a gay clerical subculture in Rome, the Vatileaks scandal, corruption at the Vatican Bank. If you've been keeping up with those stories, you probably won't learn a lot viewing this film.

The first time I watched "Secrets of the Vatican," I found it slightly annoying.

The music: Is there some law requiring documentarians who cover the Catholic Church to score their work with spooky chant or cheese-ball action-movie music? It's distracting, especially when played behind the film's powerful interviews with victims of sexual abuse--including Maciel's son Raul Gonzales. (N.B.: When the film turns to Pope Francis's election and his focus on the poor, the music takes an appropriately humbler turn, replacing pipe organs with pan flutes. Cue Carson Zamfir joke.)

The reenactments: In the segment on the Vatican Bank scandals, the narrator describes the Italian authorites' surveillance operation, just as the camera pans across a roomful of official-looking men intently staring at computers, holding on a young man wearing headphones, leaning in toward the screen as though the thing was about to whisper the location of Jimmy Hoffa's body.

The narration: The film includes an interview with a Roman who left the priesthood to pursue a relationship with a woman. Frontline voice Will Lyman intones, “But the hypocrisy he saw around him disturbed Simone, and after a time of prayer and contemplation, he decided he wanted to live a normal life and go where his heart took him.” Ciao, celibate weirdos! (And did the director have to I.D. the guy as "Fr. Simone Alfieri" in his first appearance on film, when he knew that the man had already been laicized? Surprise.)

The sporadic imprecision: "The Benedict doctrine on homosexuality," the narrator tells viewers, "was deeply hurtful to those in the Vatican who were trying to lead celibate lives.” He's trying to describe the former pope's decree barring men with "deep-seated homosexual tendencies" from seminaries and ordination.

The confusing voicover: In one scene, the filmmaker interviews an anonymous priest about the pain he experienced following the Vatican's decree on gay seminarians. He's filmed in silhouette, shot from the side, and his voice is altered. He speaks. A man with an Italian accent translates. But you can still sort of make out what the priest is saying, even if he sounds like Darth Vader. And he is clearly speaking English. Was the director trying to further obscure the priest's identity? It's strange.

But then I watched "Secrets of the Vatican" again yesterday. Its pecadillos continued to bug me a bit. I wish the film had more to say about the Vatican's (and the U.S. bishops') recent attempts to address the scandal. I wish it offered a counterweight to some of victims' attorney Jeff Anderson's opinions. I wish it had tried to do less. But none of those shortcomings overwhelm the movie's greatest strength: the interviews. With victims--including Maciel's son, another one of Maciel's victims, Juan Vaca, and Monica Barrett (who tells her story of being raped in church by a Milwaukee priest); with journalists; with Cardinal Óscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga, who heads Francis's kitchen cabinet. Nearly all of the interviews offer real insights--not something I've found in many recent documentaries about the church.

What did you think?



Commenting Guidelines

"I know that the John Jay report concluded that the perps were mainly straight priests who chose boys because 1) they were simply more available than girls and because 2) they were "immature", whatever that meant."

I am not sure if that is quite what the Jay report meant. If 67% of priests ar gay is it highly unlikely that the majority of the abusing minority were straight. In any case, if Jay thinks that straight men would be tempted to abuse teenage boys or gay men to abuse teenage girts he is surely talking through his hat. (The case may be different with pedophilia.)

George D. is of course correct. But politically correct folk object to any link between sexual abuse of minors and the gaying of the priesthood. I think that there is a link, and it lies in the following fact:

Very many RC clergy put their (homo)sexuality on hold in the seminary. Some time after ordination they began to act out their sexuality -- at first perhaps in what they thought an innocent "touchy-feely" way and then explicitly, perhaps caught up in the tide of gay liberation. At that time, say the 1970s and 1980s, the gay world was much less oriented to adult, mature, partnered sexuality than now, much more youth-focused, and much less concerned about age of consent (in some countries homosexuality itself was illegal so the age of consent did not stand out as as a supreme barrier). That is why, as I think Jay reported, some 50% of abuse cases concern clerics who were involved with older minors in a temporary, non-recidival way, perhaps in part because their own undeveloped sexuality was itself adolescent. Gay clergy in other denomination were less likely to be in such abusive situations because of the normal rhythm of their sexual development and also possibly because in some cases their churches were more gay-friendly and more approving of stable relationships.

When people react defensively to any attempt to relate clerical abuse of minors with homosexuality, in defiance of the clear evidence that 80% of the reported abuse concerns boys not girls,they are blocking one of the paths to insight. Of course this is not to say that gays as such are more prone to abuse of minors, as some homophobic commentators have tried to claim.

I tuned in half way through and was riveted.I realized quickly enough I was watching a hatchet job on the Vatican.It had every propaganda tool in the book,especially the narrator's voice.[Frontine itself are propaganda pieces]. It dealth with all manner of sins ,crimes and hypocrisy; clerical sexual abuse ,clerical gay subculture, financial corruptions and I forget what else was thrown in. It certainly aroused my pruient interest.That scene with the gay priests dancing together was well,something. That a closed 2000+ year old  hierarchal institution,on  earth, contains sins and crimes is not surprising.And it is good that the crimes and sins get exposed and that with new insights into pychology and sexuality, the church revises long held positions on celibacy and  homosexuality and the role of women.Some housecleaning and revisions of  entrenched hypocritical norms  is always approppriate.And it's is happening.If  the message is that the Vatican should be disolved eventually,I think that would do a disservice to the Church .Over time the tenets of the faith ,of our creed needs to be propagated to future generations. A centralized theocratic institution preserves the tenets of the faith and keeps the church Universal.Horizontal input from the laity is one thing;abolishing a heirarchy is a recipe for a haphazard ,individual or localized hodge podge of creeds.


@ Rose-Ellen Caminer:  "Hatchet job"???  Really?  However, I am glad to see that you and I agree that "the church [needs to revise] long held positions on celibacy and  homosexuality and the role of women."  For the record, I certainly don't want a Catholicism without priesthood.  

The critical reform for me would be that the PEOPLE actually call and choose whomever they want to be their priests and/or bishops.  For me, the priesthood must spring from the local church, and not somekind of self-perpetuating feudal oligarchy.  Hence, LET THE PEOPLE DECIDE!

@ Ann Olivier:  The operative words in Kafka's postulation are ["One of those factors ..."].  There are other factors besides celibacy for sure - that is why I hope that Kafka and others continue down this line of inquiry.  Remember, we are dealing with a human phenomenon that is both multi-factorial and multi-variate in nature.  Nothing in humans is uncomplicated.  

I believe that one of those other factors in a perpetrators choice of victim is the nexus of the complete concentration of political power in a sub-culture of the church community AND essentially unaccountable access by priests and bishops to mountains of money to finance both the abuse and its cover-up.  How you operationalize those factors in order to study and test for them is what researchers like Kafka do for a living.  We'll just have to wait and see where this line of inquiry leads.

I do believe that Kafka does address your issue about the prevalence of child abuse in "other organizations" as opposed to what we find among Catholic clergy.  While I agree with you that child sexual abuse occurs in the general population mostly within family relationships, the rate of abusive Catholic clergy dwarfs other clergy from other denominations.  That begs the obvious question of why?  What are the differences between these different strains of clergy?  Well, celibacy kind of leaps out as a major differing factor that needs to be examined.

Another factor to consider:  Andrew Greely, a respected sociologist besides being a priest, theorized that after the exodus of thousands of priests from the priesthood in the 60s, 70s, and 80s the overwhelming majority of priests remaining in the priesthood [including hierarchs] were homosexual in orientation - both sexually active and chaste.  The predominance of homosexuals in the priesthood - for whatever the historic reasons - needs to be part of the mix when considering the factors that contributed to priests' sexual predation of mostly adolescent boys.  

[Personally, I think that in this area the factor of availability - that is, the choice of victim in sexual abuse is also related to what victims are available with impunity to the perpetrators - is certainly operative in this study and discussion.]

Remember:  Multi-factorial and Multi-variate.  Let's keep our eye on the ball. 

Why all the bold type, capitals and italics?  Have more faith in the strength of your words. 

Thanks, Mr. Jenkins - well written; good analysis and excellent points.  Please ignore the *swipe* by Mr. Ryder.

Dave P:  thanks for remembering "Nothing Sacred."  When it was unceremoniously cancelled I wrote to ABC and begged them to put out a VHS (it was that long ago) containing the 15 released and 5 unreleased but "canned" episodes.

They, of course, did not respond.

Yes, it was very much ahead of its time (1997-98) with treatment of the topics it touched. For those who know not of what we speak:

And you'll be glad to know how good it was .....  

“The Catholic League and Alan Keyes on its board of advisors, specifically, declared the show in 1997 a "sacrilege" according to one commentator, who also quoted Keyes as calling it "propaganda dressed up as entertainment[, infused with] belief that there are no moral absolutes.” "

So you know that it HAD to be good!

I watched the episode online and agree that the interviews of sexual abuse survivors was the most memorable part. Monica Barrett said that she "didn't understand what was going on". I suppose that that inability to understand adult acts might protect children from being traumatized, but the context is as though calculated to make the rape as destructive as possible: the belief that the priest was the closest they could get to God, and the abuser threatening Monica Barrett afterwards. All that must have greatly magnified her trauma.

After watching the part about Maciel, it's hard to believe that John Paul II will be canonized next month!

The rest of the documentary was much less interesting. The transition from sex abuse to  homosexuality and back to sex abuse was quite awkward, the section on the laicized priest and his girlfriend was a bit strange and superficial, and I'm not so interested in money-laundering questions.

Well, I'll be darned .... youtube has the/some episodes:

Evidently these are bootlegged from the old TV show and, while far from up to excellent quality, still viewable.

Isn't life in the 21st century a hoot and a half!

Claire, about JPII's canonization, I must ignore it.

But I think Fr. O'Leary may be on to something here about JPII and Maciel: March 2, 2:04AM (an unusual occurrence for me)

"The person most damaged by the program was John Paul II -- himself the object of a mindless cult of personality (to which the majority of Catholics contributed). He loved his successful fellow cult-object -- a guy who got out the youth and excited crowds just as the pope himself did. There was a touch of the rogue about John Paul II -- and not just a "loveable rogue".

IOW, fellow cult objects related to each other on that score. 

As for a 'not loveaqble rogue,' here is an interview about JPII, the journalist specifying it not appear until after JPII's death: 

Australian radio 4-6-05, I believe the day after the pope died: original link inacrive now

Stephen Crittenden: You say that there’s actually a disconnect between the Pope’s collective achievement and what you call a blind spot that this Pope had at a personal level, and you talk about acts of personal cruelty.

William Johnston: Well I call it a blind spot; I think that’s a kind way, it may have been deliberate. The example I was told from an eye witness when the American bishops had one of their joint visits to the Pope in the early ‘90s, he greeted each of them individually as they stood in a circle.

Stephen Crittenden: By name?

William Johnston: By name, he knew their names, their diocese and something about them. He went around the circle and charmed all of them. There was one man he wished to punish and each of the three times he came to that man, he was overheard to lean into him and say, ‘And what’s your name? What’s your diocese?’ He did that three times. Now that kind of humiliation among one’s peers smacks of Soviet governmental technique, and I think it was obviously deliberate, it’s cruel, it’s even vindictive and it’s now coming to light.

Another one that I find troubling is there are 4,000 bishops, 3,000 have been appointed by the recent pontiff, and when one thinks that many of those 3,000 appointees involved passing over highly able priests who in the normal run of things would have become bishop. So I like to think that probably 2,500 more than capable potential bishops, who did not get the nod.

Stephen Crittenden: In other words there’s been a kind of cruelty to talented people who’ve been passed over.

William Johnston: Exactly. They’ve been excluded, they’re not acknowledged, we don’t know who they are, we can just imagine they’re there. Their careers have been blighted, if you will, and I regard that as a mistreatment as well as a dreadful personnel policy, it’s not the way to run an organisation.

Stephen Crittenden: And not blighted because of disloyalty, a lot of people have kind of put their heads down and remained silent and put up with it.

William Johnston: But you see, that again is the Eastern European technique, where, as Peter Hebblethwaite put it, you humiliate a few stars as a warning to the others, and the others then withdraw their dissent and go private. It’s a technique of achieving conformity by punishing only a few exemplary figures. It works extremely well, and I would suggest the Pope saw how well it worked in Poland, and he just borrowed the technique and used it in his organisation, because it’s an effective technique.

(Sorry, it this is a repeat to some)

Perhaps the most relevant measure is the impact of the program on the average viewer who does not read NCR or Commonweal or America? There was little that I was not already aware of, but it offered a review of the material that offered clarity and a couple of surprises. I teach adult education in a parish with highly motivated,  committed parishoners and the program was a revelation to most of them.   They were familiar with some of the generalities, but the specifics were shocking to many. These are people who love their faith and love the Church and are not about to leave. But the truth shall set us free, and on this level, I think  the documentary provided a great service, despite some of the shlock.  




Is it time to refocus on the issue of Christianity, as well as the other current religions and faiths in today’s world? I had to take a break from reading the ‘unending’ preoccupation with such news items as “Telling Vatican ‘Secrets’ ” much as I respect Frontline as a news source. That was dated Mar. 1, 2014 and today is August 26, 2014.  So in the next six months if we would read more from say The New York Times and other worthy sources on the state of America, the international news, the frightening state of planet Earth, for example the latest reports on our future, this would readily refocus us and how we must change if we are to have a viable future. This would be a functional Catholicism.