A Stateside visit by Pope Benedict XVI has occasioned fresh reporting of the sex abuse scandal, the American Church and, of course, the Popemobile. National Catholic Reporter news director Tom Roberts says that journalists perform laudably, despite the secrecy of the Church.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And this week, another infallible headline generator. [CLIPS] [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: An extravagant ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House. FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: They greeted him like a rock star after the Pope's already very full day. [CHEERING] MALE CORRESPONDENT: And there he is. And he looked like he was smiling as he was waving. This is an exciting moment. [END CLIPS] BROOKE GLADSTONE: Amid the pomp and circumstance surrounding the Papal visit this week were news reports of Benedict bobbleheads, "I Heart the Pope" bumper stickers and much ado about the modified two-door Mercedes ML-430, more commonly known as the Popemobile. [CLIP] MALE CORRESPONDENT: It's got bulletproof glass. It's a Mercedes Benz. It's got a lot of capability there. [END CLIP] BROOKE GLADSTONE: Of course, a visit by the spiritual leader of 1.3 billion Catholics worldwide will raise more serious issues as well. [CLIPS] MALE CORRESPONDENT: Like the war in Iraq, like peace in the Middle East, pulling out of Iraq too quickly, the potential for a humanitarian crisis. FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: During the flight from Rome, the Pope addressed the sex abuse scandals in the Catholic Church. [END CLIPS] BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tom Roberts, news director of The National Catholic Reporter, says that the Pope can raise any of these issues if he chooses, and he does - but not because he's prompted by the media. They never get the chance. TOM ROBERTS: They're dealing with a basically secret organization. It makes its decisions in secret, its appointments in secret. There's no precedent for a real robust exchange. You don't even have that with bishops in the United States.
Very often – more often than not, I would say – they choose the turf, they choose [LAUGHS] the circumstance and they choose the questions. It's rare that they would put themselves out for an all-out, no-holds-barred news conference. So it's a tough assignment, especially when these events become the point of coverage. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Christopher Hitchens, no friend of the Church, we must say, noted this week that the Pope is, after all, a head of state and he ought to be treated as such. For example, he says, we ought to ask him why the Church continues to shelter Cardinal Law, who covered up child rape in the Archdiocese of Boston. But the Pope sets the agenda, and he doesn't schedule press conferences. TOM ROBERTS: There is some legitimacy to that critique, and I think there are a lot of Catholics who think that [LAUGHING] Cardinal Law was given a fine pass to a new life in the Vatican. BROOKE GLADSTONE: But will anyone get a chance to put that question to him? And, further, would anybody have the guts to put the question to him?
TOM ROBERTS: I think people would, but it just, it doesn't happen. I mean, on the plane ride over from Rome, the Vatican accepted questions from reporters, screened them and then chose the ones that they would answer.
It is interesting that he chose as his first question to answer the one about sex abuse, which signals that he thought it was very important, and, indeed, that issue has dominated the coverage for the first couple of days. BROOKE GLADSTONE: How has the press handled this story? TOM ROBERTS: I think that one of the indications, for instance, of how important it is, is a piece on The New York Times blog by Peter Steinfels who has been one of the more distinguished Church watchers and a very measured critic, if he is critical, of Church activity.
In this case, he is fairly severe and I would even say [LAUGHS] pessimistic, because he talks about how traumatized Catholics have been by this. But I think the media has gone as far as it can go as an entity outside the Catholic community. You know, and what can it do it in the Papal trip? It can report on what he says, and what he's saying is that this is a very important issue.
But it's tough for even those people within the community to say, okay, we understand that. We've been saying that for years, decades, even. How do we get beyond it?
And I don't know that without being able to directly question, without addressing that whole matter of clerical culture that allowed this crisis to develop and sustain itself, I don't think anybody can adequately report on it. You can't get at it. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Setting that issue aside, what else has stood out for you in the coverage of the Papal visit so far? TOM ROBERTS: There's been some really good coverage, I think, in general, of the American Catholic Church. One of the more interesting pieces I ran across was by Jennifer Medina of The New York Times, who went to a church on the Upper West Side of New York, and really just allowed the people to speak for themselves. And you get the sense of the dimensions of this church, of the diversity in worship and point of view in this one place. BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is a church that welcomes gays and seems to be engaging in precisely that cafeteria Catholicism we've been hearing so much about this week. TOM ROBERTS: Some of us would prefer to call it the big tent Catholicism. [BROOKE LAUGHS] And we all know throughout out own dioceses and wherever you are and however strict that the bishop may be, or traditional, there are always these enclaves where there will be welcoming communities, even if they can't be real open about it. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you very much. TOM ROBERTS: Thank you. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tom Roberts is the news director of National Catholic Reporter.