ROME – Journalists often are accused of reporting only bad news, and there’s often a fair bit of truth to the charge. Experience shows that scandal and controversy sell, while feel-good, uplifting material sometimes struggles to find a market, but that’s not really an excuse for failing to present the whole picture.

At the same time, the press also has an important role to play in bringing hard truths to light, which institutions usually would prefer to keep hidden. If the Catholic Church has learned anything from the sexual abuse scandals, it’s that refusing to confront bad news only makes it worse.

There are two such less-than-edifying stories bubbling in and around the Vatican at the moment, so here I’ll try to offer some resources for thinking intelligently about each – without implying that such situations are the only things the Vatican, or the Catholic Church, has going on at the moment worth knowing.

Vatican diplomat and child pornography

On Sept. 15, the Vatican issued a brief press release announcing that one of its priest-diplomats at the papal embassy in Washington, D.C., was suspected by the U.S. government of possible violation of child pornography laws and had been recalled to Rome.

The Promoter of Justice in the Vatican’s tribunal, it said, had opened an investigation and had requested information from the U.S. government, adding that those investigations are “subject to confidentiality.”

Immediately, some observers smelled a cover-up, wondering why the Vatican hadn’t simply allowed the priest – later identified as Italian Monsignor Carlo Alberto Capella – to face justice in the United States.

Some were also critical of the way the Vatican broke the news. Jesuit Father Tom Reese, a longtime commentator on the Catholic scene, wrote that “it is hard to imagine a worse press release in the 21st century,” ripping the Vatican for not naming the priest and for insisting on “confidentiality” without saying anything else, such as the conditions under which Capella is being held in Rome.

It’s instructive to compare how the Vatican has handled this situation so far with the way it responded to the last time something similar happened, when Polish Archbishop Józef Wesołowski, the pope’s ambassador to the Dominican Republic, was accused of sexual exploitation of minors in that country in August 2013.

At the time, the then-Vatican spokesman, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, told reporters that Wesołowski would be subject to the jurisdiction of Vatican courts for his alleged crimes, and that afterwards, if another state wanted to extradite him to face charges there – for instance, the Dominican Republic – the Vatican would live up to its international agreements.

The clear message was, we brought him here not to sweep anything under the rug, but to face the music.

In trying to think about what’s going on in this latest situation, three points might be helpful.

First, there’s an apples-and-oranges dimension to the Capella and Wesołowski comparison, which is that by the time Wesołowski’s case broke, the charges again him had already gone public, and there was legitimate reason to believe serious crimes had been committed.

With Capella, however, all the Vatican knows so far is that there was a “possible” violation of child pornography laws. To date, U.S. investigators have not passed along any details of those charges. The Vatican has filed a formal diplomatic request for whatever information U.S. authorities may have, and is waiting for a response.

Because Vatican officials are in the dark, there’s an understandable hesitance to start the ball rolling towards declaring Capella guilty. After all, if you’re a diplomat sent abroad to serve the Holy See and the perception is that if there’s even a whiff of scandal, you’ll be tossed under the bus immediately, that’s not exactly a real shot in the arm for morale.

Second, the Wesołowski example suggests caution before declaring a cover-up. He was formally laicized in 2014, and a criminal prosecution against him was underway when he was found dead in August 2015. Presumably, if serious charges against Capella emerge, he’ll face the same fate.

Third, Reese is probably right that it would have been nice to say some of this up-front.

At this stage, there are probably three talking points one could offer:

  • Because the Vatican has not seen any of the possible charges against Capella or the basis for them, it’s understandably premature to talk about his specific case.
  • In general, the Vatican has laws specifically against the crime of child pornography, and if one of its representatives is credibly accused of it, history suggests that person will be prosecuted. (In fact, one might reasonably ask, what’s the point of having those laws if you’re not intent on applying them?)
  • Moreover, if other states wish to prosecute someone under their laws after the Church’s processes are complete, the Vatican has said in the past it will cooperate.

Assuming all that’s true, it hardly adds up to a “cover-up.” Given what’s been said out loud so far (and what hasn’t been), however, people can be forgiven for feeling a bit perplexed.

Trial, accountability and reform

This week brought the first real action in the Vatican’s first-ever criminal trial under new laws on financial corruption adopted under Popes Benedict XVI and Francis.

Two former officials of the papally-sponsored Bambino Gesù pediatric hospital stand accused of diverting roughly $500,000 of the hospital’s money to pay for the remodeling of a Vatican apartment currently occupied by Italian Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the former Secretary of State under Benedict.

The charge asserts that the defendants, Italian laymen Giuseppe Profiti and Massimo Spina, acted in part to benefit another Italian layman, Gianantonio Bandera, whose now-bankrupt construction company was awarded the contract for the work outside normal competitive bidding procedures, and who also allegedly double-billed the Vatican for work that was never even completed.

So far, the Vatican’s three-judge panel has heard from Profiti and Spina, as well an official of the Government of the Vatican City State, which normally is responsible for such construction projects within Vatican territory, and three defense witnesses for Spina.

All this is important for the Vatican for many reasons, including the fact that Moneyval, the Council of Europe’s anti-money laundering agency, is due to make an interim report about the Vatican’s compliance with the international standards in December. The last time Moneyval came calling, it said that the new laws and structures adopted under the last two popes look great, but now they need to see them in action – which meant, specifically, they wanted to see prosecutions for financial crimes.

The Vatican needs a clean bill of health from Moneyval, because it wants to be on global “white lists” of virtuous actors, which means reduced transaction costs, easier access to financial markets, avoiding the risk of accounts being frozen, and so on.

If you were scoring the past week of the trial like a boxing match, you’d probably have Profiti down on points and Spina holding his own.

During his own testimony on Tuesday, Profiti tried to project a “nothing to see here” tone about the outlay on Bertone’s apartment, saying the Bambino Gesù foundation planned to use that space for fundraising events, they’d make far more out of it than they spent, and it was an utterly routine business decision.

However, judges on Tuesday indicated some skepticism about that, wondering why, if that were so, Profiti made the decision himself rather than bringing it before the foundation’s board. On Friday, an official of the Government of the Vatican City State called the whole thing “singular” and “anomalous,” saying it completely bypassed the competitive bidding process normally required for any expense above 50,000 Euro.

Spina, on the other hand, may have had some success in arguing that he was only following Profiti’s lead. Profiti himself said so on Tuesday, and on Friday witnesses from both the Vatican bank and the Administration of the Patrimony of the Holy See (APSA), which handle money for various papal entities, said Spina had no authority to authorize expenses for Bambino Gesù during the time in question, 2013-14, which belonged exclusively to Profiti.

Beyond those details, however, the big picture is this: Is there any way this trial can be seen as a blow for accountability, when the cardinal at the heart of it has been completely insulated from responsibility? Not only is Bertone not charged with anything, he was never investigated, and he’s not been listed as a witness either.

That’s undeniably a hard one to explain, but when you put the question before Vatican insiders, you’ll generally hear some version of three things.

First, it was never on the table right now to charge a cardinal and former Secretary of State. Things are slowly changing, they say, but we’re not there yet. First, smaller precedents have to be set, and then we’ll see where it leads.

(As a technical matter, they’ll also point out that the apartment in question doesn’t actually belong to Bertone but to the Vatican, even if he happens to be living there at the moment. In other words, whatever improvements took place don’t just benefit Bertone, but whoever will occupy the space after him.)

Second, they insist, leaving Bertone out of it doesn’t mean the whole exercise is pointless.

Even if Profiti, for instance, wasn’t the only one involved, he still was involved. Moreover, since most of the financial scandals around the Vatican have involved a nexus between a senior cleric and one or more lay Italian financiers, if those financiers become skittish because of the threat of prosecution, then clerics will have fewer opportunities to go down the wrong path.

Third, they say, this is only the tip of the iceberg. More indictments and prosecutions are in the works, they vow, and that’s how cultural change is built – one step at a time.

The next hearing in the trial is set for Monday, Oct. 2., and we’ll see at the end what impression it leaves in terms of where the reform cause stands.