September 16th, 2010
09:46 AM ET
CNN Senior Vatican Analyst John L. Allen Jr. filed this report from London.
Media coverage of day one on any papal trip is often dominated, for good or ill, by whatever the pope says to journalists aboard the papal plane. Benedict XVI’s forthright comments on the sexual abuse crisis set the right tone heading to the United States in April 2008, while his suggestion last year en route to Africa that condoms make AIDS worse set off a global contretemps.
The opening day of Benedict’s September 16 -19 trip to the United Kingdom has been another case in point, as most coverage has featured Benedict’s statement that the Catholic Church was “not sufficiently vigilant and not sufficiently quick and decisive” in combating the sexual abuse crisis.
Such comments tend to excite reporters, among other reasons because the outbound leg of a trip is virtually the only time the pope actually encounters the press. In all other instances, reporters are either compelled to quote from his prepared speeches or to rely upon the Vatican spokesperson to gloss his boss.
It’s worth noting, however, that these are not “press conferences” in anything like the traditional fashion. Instead, they’re carefully stage-managed affairs, so whatever the pope says is never truly “impromptu.”
These papal encounters with the press are part of a game plan, not a freewheeling exchange.
The way it works is this. The Vatican spokesperson, a Jesuit priest named Federico Lombardi, asks journalists travelling with the pope to submit questions several days in advance. Lombardi then sifts through the queries and picks a small number, usually three to five, which seem to represent the most commonly asked themes.
Lombardi gives those questions to Benedict XVI in advance, so the pope has the opportunity to think about what he wishes to say. Aboard the plane, Benedict comes back to the press compartment, usually shortly after take-off, and delivers a very brief opening statement. Lombardi then calls upon journalists to ask the pre-selected questions, to which the pope delivers answers.
There’s no opportunity for follow-up, and no chance to amend or adjust questions on the fly to reflect late-breaking developments.
If Benedict says something controversial, as on the trip to Africa, reports sometimes style it as a “gaffe.” If that’s intended to suggest that the pope was caught off guard, however, it’s misleading. The Vatican carefully controls the pope’s exposure to ensure that doesn’t happen.
For the record, that’s more a matter of Vatican protocol than personal disdain by the pope for the press. Prior to his election to the papacy, Benedict XVI actually sat down for several book-length interviews with journalists, and plans to do so again as pope.
Indeed, on recent trips Benedict XVI actually reversed the old Vatican pattern, which was that the pope would say or do something controversial, and then his aides would seek to calm the waters.
En route to Portugal last spring, Benedict cleaned up a mess left after senior Vatican officials had compared criticism of the pope on the sexual abuse crisis to anti-Semitism and “petty gossip.” Instead, Benedict insisted, the problem is not attacks from the outside but sin within the Church.
This time too, Benedict more or less came to the PR rescue, after comments from a retired Vatican cardinal comparing the U.K. to a “third world country” threatened to mar the opening of the trip. His candid language on the sexual abuse crisis in effect gave the media another story to do, one with a more positive spin for the pope.
Aboard the plane, the pope also said that abuser priests must never have access to children, because they have a disease that “good will” cannot cure.
Those words seemed to win the pope some credit as the church reels from yet another outbreak of the scandal in Belgium, although some critics swiftly rejected them as dishonest.
“It’s disingenuous to say church officials have been slow and insufficiently vigilant in dealing with clergy sex crimes and cover ups," said a statement from the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, the main victims’ advocacy group in the United States.
“On the contrary, they’ve been prompt and vigilant, but in concealing, not preventing, these horrors,” the statement said.
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