The historic resignation of Pope Benedict XVI and the headline-grabbing start of his successor's ministry are certainly events worthy of close and careful analysis.
Unfortunately, "Secrets of the Vatican," a PBS documentary purporting to provide just such an examination, turns out to be, in large part, both sloppy and one-sided.
A "Frontline" presentation, Antony Thomas' film premieres Tuesday, Feb. 25, 10-11:30 p.m. EST (check local listings).
Thomas identifies three primary causes for Pope Benedict's retirement, all of them scandalous: the plague of clergy sexual abuse, financial shenanigans at the Institute for the Works of Religion, aka the Vatican Bank, and the damaging release of secret documents that has come to be known as "Vatileaks." It's Thomas' treatment of clergy sexual abuse that suffers the most from factual lapses -- and that also displays the most bias.
An early indication that scrupulous attention to detail is not on the agenda here -- and that an appealing Pope Francis is to be implicitly contrasted with his unacceptable predecessor -- comes with the statement that the current pontiff was elected after "one of the shortest conclaves ever." Yet the 2005 gathering of cardinals that selected Pope Benedict was just as brief; in fact, it ended about an hour sooner.
Familiarity with recent church history would suggest, moreover, that quick conclaves have become the norm rather than the exception. Since 1922, none has lasted more than three days.
Along the same lines, the narrative informs us that then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was responsible for disciplinary matters concerning priests for 24 years. Although that was the duration of his tenure as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, that congregation was only explicitly assigned jurisdiction over cases of sexual abuse in 2001.
We also learn that the academically focused Cardinal Ratzinger was an unsuitable choice for the papacy because he had "no pastoral experience." This ignores the fact that the future pope served as archbishop of Munich and Freising, Germany, from 1977 to 1982.
Of those interviewed in connection with the terrible crimes committed by some clergy, none speaks on behalf of the church. Instead, all are reliably dogged critics, including lawyer Jeff Anderson, who specializes in bringing suit against the church. Not surprisingly, their outlook is less than balanced.
Much attention is devoted to the monstrous behavior of Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, the Mexican-born founder of the Legionaries of Christ.
Father Maciel's ability to conceal his wrongdoing is attributed to the priest's skill as a fundraiser who put "lots of money in the Vatican's coffers." If anything, Father Maciel's influence within the church more likely stemmed from the fact that his rapidly expanding order was remarkable for its success in nurturing priestly vocations. Though this aspect of the matter is referred to in passing, its significance is downplayed.
By the time Father Maciel's double life finally was revealed, he was 86. Accordingly, instead of being subjected to an ecclesiastical trial, he was removed from all forms of ministry and enjoined -- not, as journalist Robert Mickens would have it, "invited" -- to live a life of penitence and prayer. This, of course, is presented as nothing but a whitewash.
The narrative also overlooks the fact that the Legionaries have acknowledged their founder's crimes and apologized to his victims. They have also been subjected to an apostolic visitation and a fundamental reform designed to purify their order of Father Maciel's influence while maintaining the positive elements of its mission. Instead of this, says Mickens, the Legionaries "should have been disbanded."
If Mickens paints with a broad brush, Anderson trifles with absurdity when he claims, "Every action taken by every bishop, archbishop and cardinal in connection with sexual abuse is effectively orchestrated and controlled by the Vatican." Since there are currently about 3,100 dioceses in the world, such a level of micromanagement would indeed be astounding.
The film also resurrects discredited accusations against Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York who, while archbishop of Milwaukee, assigned substantial funds to a trust for the perpetual care of Catholic cemeteries. This is portrayed as a blatant attempt to shield the money so that it would not have to be paid out to abuse victims. The fact that a court of law subsequently vindicated the cardinal's actions is mentioned, but treated as far from conclusive or dispositive.
Things become somewhat more evenhanded, though only marginally less depressing for Catholic viewers, when Thomas moves on to financial corruption and the Vatileaks revelations.
But a sustained attack on the church's teaching against homosexual acts -- and on its requirement of celibacy for Latin-rite priests -- skews the treatment of the alleged "gay lobby" within the Curia.
And darts continue to be thrown at Pope Benedict. He's accused of "engineering a change in the Catechism (of the Catholic Church)" in order to include in it an assessment of sexual activity between persons of the same gender as "intrinsically disordered." Since the text of the catechism itself accurately attributes this judgment to "tradition" -- a tradition firmly rooted in Scripture, as even a cursory reading of St. Paul's letters would show -- such an intervention seems superfluous as well as unlikely.
"Secrets of the Vatican" represents a squandered opportunity to inform television audiences about the very real problems facing the church and its new leader, a potentially valuable overview blinded by worldly values, preconceptions and prejudices.