For centuries the Catholic Church has had a love-hate relationship with new forms of communication, both fearing their potentially subversive power but also eagerly adopting them as novel tools to spread Christ's message. Seeking to harness the power of the Internet, in recent years the Vatican has ostensibly embraced new media. It has created a large web presence that includes a YouTube channel, a Facebook profile and Twitter accounts in nine languages for the pope.
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But while mastering the technique, the Vatican has been far more reluctant to embrace the greater transparency and accountability that are the driving spirit of these new tools. The Holy See is not the only government that has tried to have its cake and eat it too on this matter, but it has been particularly strict in controlling the flow of information and maintaining a veil of secrecy over most of the Church's affairs.
Never has this policy been more apparent than in the aftermath of Pope Benedict XVI's sudden resignation and in the way the Vatican reacted to the ensuing media storm. And despite the completely different background, the situation that emerged bears some keen similarities to the controversy over how Israel handled the "Prisoner X" affair, and is another example of how attempts to keep the public in the dark and preserve a culture of secrecy are not only counterproductive, but also futile.
The furor at the Vatican didn't involve a mysterious prisoner who died in jail, but a document that may or may not hold the reasons for the first papal resignation in 600 years. After Benedict announced he was stepping down due to his old age and failing health, many media outlets, particularly Italian papers, published stories about a secret report on the ills of the Church that allegedly played a major part in the pontiff's decision.
There is no doubt this report exists. Last year the pope charged three senior cardinals (dubbed "the 007 cardinals" by Italian journalists) with investigating the so-called Vatileaks scandal, in which Benedict's butler was arrested for leaking to the press papal documents that revealed power struggles and corruption within the top ranks of the Church.
The three cardinals were allowed to interrogate anyone in the hierarchy and were given broad discretion in their investigation, which reportedly went well beyond probing the butler and those who might have helped him. The pope received their final report in December, but the Vatican has refused to publish it or make its contents known. Since the pope's surprise resignation, this refusal has fueled speculation that the report was so shocking that it pushed Benedict to abdicate in frustration at the impossibility of reforming the Church. After the pope's announcement, Italian media published the purported content of the secret report, citing unsourced excerpts and witnesses. The stories painted the picture of a corrupt and divided Church, with prelates concerned mainly with their careers and various lobbies struggling for power. Chief among these groups is supposedly a "gay lobby", as Italian daily La Repubblica dubbed it, formed by homosexual priests that scheme to advance their agenda, but are also vulnerable to blackmail by their secular lovers.
The Vatican responded to these scoops by reiterating that only the next pope will see the cardinals' report and by launching a rare attack on the media. The Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, said the press was "taking advantage" of the Church's difficult moment to "spread lies" and try to influence the upcoming Conclave, the assembly of cardinals that will elect the new pontiff.
Lombardi may be right, but the refusal to publish the report did nothing to quash the rumors, giving the impression that the Vatican did have something to hide and leaving the field entirely to the Dan Brown-esque newspaper articles, irrespective of their accuracy. In this climate, any step by the Holy See has launched a renewed flurry of speculation, such as when, a few days before the pope officially stepped down, a key official in charge of improving the Vatican Bank's much-questioned anti money-laundering procedures was suddenly named the Holy See's ambassador to Colombia. Now, as the Conclave nears and the behind-the-scenes intrigue amongst the cardinals intensifies, the Vatican can expect to see more leaks and purported revelations in the press.
Similarly, Israel's initial attempts to silence its own media about the suicide of Ben Zygier only managed to magnify the scandal, promoting criticism and conspiracy theories that paint an even worse picture than the one that would have probably emerged had the case been handled more transparently.
When in Rome or in Jerusalem, such crises could be dealt with more effectively through greater accountability and openness rather than gag orders or stubborn silence.
Ariel David is a Tel Aviv-based foreign correspondent for Italian and English-language publications. He worked for five years as correspondent for the Associated Press in Rome, covering Italy and the Vatican, reporting on key events in Pope Benedict XVI's pontificate, including his election and his trip to the Holy Land in 2009.