When I arrived in Rome three months ago, I wasn’t to know that I was about to get a first-hand experience of one of the biggest crises of the western world’s oldest and largest institution: the Roman Catholic Church.
As I started my internship with the BBC, I was immediately intrigued by the subtle yet omnipresent power of the Church that pervaded all of Rome: not only a visual and physical power – the colossal St Peter’s church, hundreds of priests and nuns walking silently on the streets – but also a fiercely strong political and social one.

I understood what it meant to live in the same city as the Pope when I was sent to interview the head of a Roman state school. The man had provoked the Vatican’s wrath by installing a condom machine for students. It ‘trivializes sexuality’ wrote Cardinal Augosto Vallini, Vicar General of Rome, in an official statement that was relayed by most Italian newspapers. Within a few hours, everyone knew about the small Kepler school situated in a lower-middle class district on the outskirts of Rome. Heading to the interview, I gave the taxi driver the school’s address not expecting that he would know about it but he immediately replied: ‘Ha, you want to go to the ‘condom school!’ and seeing me surprised he added, ‘It’s been on the radio all day’. On that afternoon, I witnessed the Vatican’s success in creating a media storm in Italy out of a decision that many schools around the world had made before without any particular public interest.

I observed a similar attempt by the Church to control the lives of the Italian laity during the regional elections in March 2010. Two women were competing for the presidency of Lazio, the region comprising Rome and the Vatican; Renata Polverini was from Berlusconi’s PDL party and Emma Bonino was the centre-left Democratic Party’s candidate, well known for her pro-abortion views. They had been head-to-head in the polls throughout the campaign. It has been argued that what eventually gave Polverini the advantage was the Church’s official intervention asking citizens to act according to their Catholic conscience thus avoiding voting for pro-abortion candidates.
‘It is with regard to the primordial right to life that in this third millennium, the whole of society still has to carry out an examination of conscience. Every citizen must bare this in mind when voting, both for national and local elections’, wrote Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, head of the Italian Bishops Conference, in an official statement issued a few days before the elections. On the 29th of March 2010, Renata Polverini won the elections with 51.14% of the votes.

The problem is that the Vatican tends to impose its views when it does not strictly need to intervene, but conveniently remains quiet on more critical matters when they threaten its reputation. This wall of silence has been under attack for many years but when I arrived in Rome it finally seemed to be breaking down.

It is not the first time that the Vatican has been plagued by sex scandals – the Boston priests’ case in the 1990s caused public outrage and forced Pope John Paul II to call an emergency meeting with US cardinals in 2002, which resulted in Archbishop Bernard Law’s resignation later that year. But this particular crisis seems particularly tenacious, and therefore extremely dangerous for the Church. ‘I have never seen a graver crisis affecting the Church’ said David Willey, the BBC’s Vatican specialist who has been reporting from the principality for the past forty years and for whom I had the privilege to work. ‘The façade is finally beginning to crack’, he added. That is because the scandals now directly involve the Vatican’s most holy and powerful representative: the Pope.

Did Benedict XVI (Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger at the time) know about all these atrocities, and if so, why did he not report them to the authorities? The fact that the press all around the world has repeatedly raised this question is quite an exceptional event in itself. For the first time, the Church’s leader is accused of being somewhat responsible for covering up heinous crimes that were allegedly reported to him while he was Archbishop of Munich in the 1970s and later in Rome. Indeed, between 1981 and 2005, Cardinal Ratzinger was Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) in charge, amongst other things, of dealing with clerical sexual misconduct.

In May 2001, Ratzinger sent a letter to all Catholic Bishops ordering that ‘preliminary investigations’ into claims of sexual abuse should be sent directly to the CDF office, without informing authorities for ‘cases of this kind are subject to the pontifical secret’. Some argue that this letter proved Cardinal Ratzinger’s deliberate attempt to obstruct an inquiry into sex abuse, but others claim it showed his determination to organize the Church’s chaotic system by centralizing all the allegations to his office. As a matter of fact, Ratzinger’s defenders portray him as the first Pope who has demonstrated a real dedication to free the Church from sexual crimes. Not only has Benedict XVI commented on the scandals more frequently than his predecessor, but he also tried investigating an estimated two thousand sexual abuses on boys committed during the 1990s by the Austrian Cardinal Groër, John Paul II’s close friend, but the Vatican stopped him. Could John Paul II, the much-loved pope, have done a worse job than the austere Benedict XVI in handling cases of sexual abuse? ‘I doubt that Ratzinger will go down in history as a better pope than his predecessor, but he may well have prevented him ever becoming a Saint’ David Willey told me.

It is interesting to see how Ratzinger’s 2001 letter can be interpreted in such drastically opposed, yet justifiable, ways. Unfortunately, the Vatican’s media strategy has been appalling throughout the crisis and therefore the other side of the story has rarely been heard. The Vatican would ‘shoot the messenger’ – a New York Times’ article was said to be an ‘ignoble attempt to attack at any cost Benedict XVI’ – but never rationally invalidated the accusations regarding the Pope’s handling of the sexual abuse cases.

It is key to remember that the word ‘cases’ objectifies what is fundamentally a terrible human tragedy, as I realized during the afternoon I spent at the BBC office with two American men who had been sexually abused by priests more than thirty years ago. No words could ever describe what they had to endure, and the psychological torture they still suffer today. They had come to Rome to be heard, having felt that the moment of truth had finally arrived. ‘It is amazing to see that no matter where we come from, the same rule of silence has been imposed upon priests’ victims’ one of the men told me. ‘I still believe in God, but not in the Church’, he added in a calm but resolute tone. When I left the office that night and walked through St Peter’s square, not even the beautiful façade of the church in the twilight could make me forget what I had heard.