One of the many interesting things about the new movie Spotlight is that it shows how slow the Boston Globe was to chase the story that it ultimately published in 2002 about the systematic coverup of clergy sexual abuse in the Boston archdiocese. The newspaper had gotten similar information five years earlier, it turned out, but editors who either felt a connection to the Catholic Church or were otherwise reluctant to offend a mostly Catholic readership had edged it aside. Under the leadership of a new editor, the paper sought and reported the truth.
This comes to mind as the Vatican pursues the disastrous course of criminally investigating two Italian journalists who wrote books based on documents leaked from the Vatican. What is this but an effort to intimidate journalists from reporting the truth?
Respect for a free press -- a media free to report the truth -- requires that news reporters not be coerced into giving up their confidential sources. Most states in the United States have shield laws that offer reporters some measure of protection. There is a great need for a federal version of that law, but even without it, procedures the Justice Department has in place make it unusual for reporters to be subpoenaed -- much less placed under criminal investigation themselves for reporting the news. Italy also has protections for reporters. Vatican City does not.
There have been many fine Vatican statements about the duty of the news media to seek the truth, including addresses by Pope Francis, but they don't mean much if the church is going to be bent on criminalizing investigative reporting. The Vatican should stop this investigation immediately. If it can't do so for the right reason -- to respect the role of a free press -- then it should consider the public relations disaster that would develop if it files criminal charges against these journalists.