Channel Four’s latest documentary on the Vatican presents the Church as the scarlet woman of ancient propaganda

Secrets of the Vatican aired last night on Channel 4 (CNS)

If you put together the words “Secrets”, “Vatican” and “Channel 4”, what do you get? A late night programme heavy on “crime, corruption and cover-ups” as the narrator put it, in which any attempt at objectivity has largely gone out the window. For an hour last night viewers were treated to shots of the majestic interior of St Peter’s and flash pictures of Pope Emeritus Benedict, wearing red vestments, processing wearily down a long corridor, flanked by a posse of senior churchmen. Naturally enough, the subliminal message of this “docudrama” was the Church as the scarlet woman of ancient propaganda, flaunting her pomp and power like a Renaissance court.

Channel 4 built its investigation around three main indictments: the paedophile sex abuse scandal in the Church, in which it focused on the record of the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, Fr Marcial Maciel; homosexual behaviour among Vatican clergy; and the activities of the Vatican Bank. Of the first, it is worth pointing out that the scandal was real enough – the secret double life of a man publicly revered, who was also unfortunately trusted by the late Pope John Paul II – but it is not a new story. As soon as he was elected pope in 2005, Benedict XVI investigated the rumours of scandal surrounding Maciel and as a result ordered him to “embrace a life of prayer and penance”. Channel 4 thought this was letting Maciel off the hook. Actually his fall from grace and public punishment was absolute and the Order he began has been struggling to cope with its founder’s heavy shadow ever since.

Although the programme showed that in this case the Pope acted swiftly to sort out an appalling scandal when he had the power to do so, it did not commend the Church for putting its house in order. It was keen to move on to its second charge: that the Vatican’s personnel is rife with homosexuality. This was the weakest link in Channel 4’s case. It seemed to be based on a single, undercover, rather blurred and grainy film taken at a gay night club in Rome in which we were informed that “half the people at the party were priests.” Unlike the Maciel case no hard evidence was produced; just unsubstantiated insinuations, allegations and sweeping statements such as “many bishops and archbishops are gay” of the kind that would appeal to an evening audience of hostile Rome-bashers.

If the programme had run a serious investigation into the question of homosexuals in the priesthood, it would have had more credibility; no-one doubts that there has been a problem in recent decades, especially in certain seminaries in the US. Again, this has been an area in which Pope Benedict acted with vigour in the early years of his papacy. But the programme did not mention this, and seemed entirely content to dig up dirt on the flimsiest evidence.

The third case against the Vatican concerned its finances and here the programme was on stronger ground, not rehashing an old story, as with the disgraced Maciel, or going in for its own tabloid-type expose of a morally corrupt Roman clergy, but actually dealing with an on-going serious question: why has the Vatican been so obsessively secretive about its finances and what is the real story behind the “Vatileaks” scandal? Did the Pope’s butler, Paolo Gabriele, really act alone or does the secret dossier presented to Pope Benedict by the three cardinals he appointed to investigate the affair, uncover widespread “corruption and political intrigue” in the Vatican? It is a good question, much more important than e.g. the Third Secret of Fatima, and Channel 4 could have made a worthwhile programme on this subject alone. Again, it inadvertently showed Pope Benedict in a good light, trying to reform the byzantine workings of the Vatican Bank.

One hopeful personality emerged from the programme (apart from the invigorating presence of Pope Francis who enters the stage at the end): Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Madariaga, appointed by Pope Francis to coordinate the council of eight cardinals who are overseeing the reform of the Curia. He appeared straightforward, acknowledging the problems besetting the manpower and the machinery of the papal bureaucracy, yet did not seem crushed by the revelations of financial and other misconduct. He smiled a lot and made it clear that “many things are going to change; to have health you need a clean house.” Pope Francis has evidently chosen the right man for this very difficult position.

A postscript: I have been reading “On the Left Bank of the Tiber”, the memoirs of a Jesuit academic, Fr Gerald O’Collins SJ, who lectured at, and lived within, the Gregorian University in Rome for 32 years. His time there covers the end of the pontificate of Paul VI, the brief pontificate of John Paul I, the long pontificate of John Paul II and ends with the news that “Pope Benedict has resigned.” It might be that O’Collins is extremely discreet, although I don’t think so. Yet his account of living at the heart of the Roman clerical establishment is actually rather dull – just like ordinary life in fact. The Gregorian is a large institution as is the Vatican; O’Collins’ account suggests that it harbours a tiny number of genuine saints, probably an equal number of scoundrels, and a very large majority of quiet, conscientious, middle-manager types whose worst vice is gossiping over a heavy meal in a favourite Roman trattoria. I suspect the Vatican itself is similar – but you wouldn’t guess this from Channel 4.