Pope Benedict XVI’s unprecedented retirement and subsequent enthusiasm surrounding Pope Francis has certainly stoked interest in the Catholic Church, an organization (with apologies to Dan Brown’s readers) that remains shrouded in mystery. Yet PBS’ “Frontline” provides the documentary version of a page-turner with “Secrets of the Vatican,” a look at scandals that may have led to Benedict’s departure and could provide formidable challenges to Francis’ reform attempts. For all the coverage pertaining to pedophile priests, writer-producer-director Antony Thomas unearths fresh material, painting a portrait of an institution that still mightily endeavors to keep its secrets buried.
Because so much has been done about the clergy abuse story – including HBO’s stomach-turning “Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God,” from filmmaker Alex Gibney — one might think there’s relatively little new to say. Yet Thomas’ multi-pronged report covers not just sexual abuse and the manner in which the Vatican protected such predators, but also corruption and hypocrisy that goes well beyond that, including a “don’t ask, don’t tell” culture consisting of illicit liaisons and wild parties.
The documentary also makes a reasonably compelling inference that Benedict’s decision to leave when he did stemmed in part from knowledge of the pending investigation into misdeeds ranging from the abuse scandals to Vatican finances, as well as the impediment an apparatus within the church, the Roman Curia, presents to any attempt to alter how the institution operates.
Given how adept the Vatican’s defenders have been at circling the wagons, there will undoubtedly be an effort to dismiss this as simply more piling on by the religion-hating media hordes. Thomas, however, builds such a persuasive case as to raise questions about how the Vatican, as a sovereign entity, can ever be changed if the onslaught of bad publicity hasn’t led to greater soul-searching already.
While Benedict is described as “a creature of the institutional church” who couldn’t take the necessary actions, Francis might not be bound by those constraints. And it all looks especially timely in light of recent moves by the new pope to appoint ideologically sympathetic Cardinals from far-flung locales.
Whatever the future holds, credit Frontline (working in concert with the U.K.’s Channel 4) with another strong piece of investigative journalism, bringing to mind the adage that where there’s smoke – even if it comes in the form of white puffs – there’s usually fire.