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US cardinals told not to talk to media

Order comes after they were praised for greater transparency

  • Alessandro Speciale, Vatican City
  • Vatican City
  • March 7, 2013
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It had become a cherished, if stressful, daily appointment. But it was also too good to last.

Since the pre-conclave meetings started, the well organized group of American prelates had started holding daily press briefings from their headquarters on the Gianicolo hill, just an hour after the “official” briefing from the Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi.

The most surprising – and, for the thousands of news-hungry journalists who have flocked to Rome to cover these weeks' events, precious – thing about the American briefings was that they featured real cardinals speaking on the record.

Journalists had begun the habit of listening to Lombardi and then rushing out to catch the American red hats.

For pre-conclave coverage that is used to relying on unnamed sources and tall reports of intrigue and scandals by shady churchmen who never put their name and face forward, this was a distinct change from the past.

But, as said before, it was too good to last.

On Wednesday, while the Vatican was holding its official and quite stiff media briefing, news spread that American cardinals had chosen – others would say they had been forced – to end their media outreach effort.

The official reason: “Concern was expressed in the General Congregation about leaks of confidential proceedings reported in Italian newspapers,” said Sister Mary Ann Walsh, the United States Bishops’ Conference spokeswoman, in a hastily prepared email.

“As a precaution, the cardinals have agreed not to do interviews.”

In fact, Italian newspapers, especially La Stampa, have carried regular stories about the proceedings of the formally closed-doors cardinals' meetings, known as “General Congregations,” with details on who said what and how it was received.

Conversely, American cardinals in their public briefings were careful not to break their confidentiality oath, but shared general information on the tone and content of the meetings.

On Wednesday, Lombardi faced a barrage of questions from journalists who wanted to know if it was the Vatican that ordered the silencing of the American cardinals.

He said that as cardinals get deeper into their reflections, a change of strategy, with more focus on the traditional conclave silence, was understandable. And, he added, the decision on how to deal with journalists was in the hands of the College of Cardinals as a whole.

Unsurprisingly, despite what some American journalists have called the “gag order” on their cardinals, La Stampa in its regular Thursday edition carried its report on the supposedly secret meeting of cardinals – but with an interesting new detail.

On Wednesday, according to the newspaper, a non-Italian cardinal reportedly inquired during the session about two lay people – a Vatican employee and another one who has frequent contacts with the Vatican's top echelons – who have been frequently quoted in the Italian media in connection with the Vatileaks affair.

The request reportedly prompted an angry reaction by the two top Italian Curia cardinals running the interregnum – former secretary of state Tarcisio Bertone and his predecessor and Dean of the College of Cardinals Angelo Sodano – who sent all cardinals a note telling them not to “name names” unless they were 100 percent sure of their facts, to avoid spreading more lies and poison.

It's hard to verify whether this report is accurate. But what is sure is that even without media briefings, information leaks in the Vatican continue. It's just harder to verify their accuracy.

On her blog, Sister Walsh compares “the shut down to the old Catholic school style of one kid talks and everyone stays after school.”

Ironically, just a day earlier, on Wednesday, the editor of the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano had been praising the new media openness of the 2013 conclave.

“Today there is much more confidence in the media compared to eight years ago,” Giovanni Maria Vian told Rome's Foreign Press Association.

“There is a difference in spirit, there is much less tension. Benedict knows very well that the media are not always well-intentioned but, despite all, he appreciates the media, because they helped with the purification of the Church” over the sex abuse crisis.”

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