< Inside the Vatican


Friday, February 22, 2013

BOB GARFIELD:  After the initial shock following Pope Benedict’s sudden resignation last week, plans swung into motion for the next Vatican Conclave to appoint a new pontiff. The usual reporters on the Pope beat will be joined by a global horde of journalists in every medium. Among them will be Rocco Palmo who usually covers the Catholic Church from his home in Philadelphia. His blog, Whispers in the Loggia, is widely read and widely praised, including by NPR, which called it “a must-read for church insiders.”

Palmo co-chaired the Vatican's first-ever Social Media Conference and has cultivated a stable of sources that gives him eyes and ears inside the Papacy. Palmo says he owes much of his success in building relationships in Rome to his hometown.

ROCCO PALMO:  I grew up in a very thickly Catholic culture here in Philadelphia. In this city, even Jews don’t identify themselves by what neighborhood they come from but what Catholic parish they come from. And so, as, as a young kid, I got to meet the Cardinal - then, at the time, Anthony Bevilacqua. And I just had a lot of dumb questions and started asking them and, you know, 22 years later, here we are.

BOB GARFIELD:  You break so many scoops. You have [LAUGHS] sources that may be unparalleled. How do you cultivate sources in this extremely secretive culture?

ROCCO PALMO:  At least for me, it feels like second nature. When you know how to speak the language, it's not hard because when somebody can talk to me and know that I understand when they talk about Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Vatican II document which allowed the mass to be celebrated in vernacular languages, that alone opens up a lot of doors.

It's also just a sense of, of knowing how the system works. And, you know, one concern of mine going into this Conclave is that religion reporters, in general, major outlets in this country, whether broadcast or print, are an endangered species. And you can't be a GA reporter throw into this story, ‘cause you’re not gonna understand the basics of the Catholic Church, let alone the, the nuances.

BOB GARFIELD:  You mentioned that you came up kind of under the wing of the man who would become Cardinal, a man who eventually came under a tremendous amount of criticism for the way that his diocese covered up the accusations of sexual abuse against children by priests. The cardinal died. How did you cover the story?

ROCCO PALMO:  Bevilacqua retired in 2003. By that point, of course, the national sex abuse scandal had erupted. There had already been a first grand jury in 2005 that levied no charges but was very damning in terms of Bevilacqua's handling of sex abuse cases and his administration's handling of them. And then there was the second grand jury in February 2011, which did levy criminal charges for the first time in the English-speaking world against one of his deputies. And the grand jury came just short of charging the Cardinal.

But even for my bond with him, the role of the journalist is to be honest, so amidst this very tumultuous scene, almost a year since the grand jury, I get a call late one night from a newsroom here in Philly and an aide in the newsroom said, can you confirm to us that Bevilacqua is dead, out of nowhere, you know, the person who changed the course of my life. I almost dropped the phone and started screaming.

But the second thought was, all right, you got to write this, and you got to write it honestly, and I could show or imply my bond with him, but what the grand jury said I can't change.

BOB GARFIELD:  In the, the press box at, let’s say, the Phillies' game, the local reporters are not permitted to root for the Phillies. Your roots in the church are so deep, what kind of tension does that create for you in trying to cover the church as a newsbeat?

ROCCO PALMO:  Even if you’re a beat writer for the team, you can’t come in hatin’ the team, you can’t come in talking about changing the rules of the game. You have to cover what happens on the field. And if your team lost 15-0, you can’t say, well, they won 8 to 7. You got to say what it is. It may drive you crazy sometimes, it may, you know, make you cry, because sports and religion, and especially coming from a town like Philly, they’re almost the same thing.  

BOB GARFIELD:  Conclave or no conclave, if you were to somehow get a hold of the name before it was announced to the world, do you break that story?

ROCCO PALMO:  That's the scoop of a lifetime. Don't expect me to do it. In that moment, you step back, you give it five minutes. It would be a golden scoop but, you know, it’s the kind of thing I’d give up. If there should be one scoop-free moment in the world, it’s when the senior Cardinal Deacon comes out and proclaims Habemus Papam and tells us who the Pope is.

BOB GARFIELD:  You’ve mentioned Pope Benedict's isolation. I’m curious first whether you think that his papacy was damaged by that isolation and whether you believe that his successor, whoever that may be, will be more exposed to the outside world and the outside world have a more transparent view of him?

ROCCO PALMO:  You can take it to the bank that the Catholic Church is going to emerge from this Conclave with a Pope who, for the first time is going to be used to having a computer on his desk and probably a smart phone in his pocket and quite possibly an iPad on the coffee table. When the Pope himself knows how to go on the Internet and knows how to read comment boxes or Twitter, he sees the world without a filter, and that takes the world’s last great gilded cage and shatters it.

BOB GARFIELD:  Do you think that the digital revolution is going to fundamentally change how the church as a whole interacts with the outside world?

ROCCO PALMO:  I grew up in the newsroom. My father worked for the Philadelphia newspapers for 30 years. And what I see in my father and, intriguingly enough, I’ve seen in many priests, that kind of cataclysm, that kind of severe stress because the demands and the, the changing nature of things are not what they signed up for. And it’s, it’s intriguing because, you know, the press and the church are traditionally seen as being at loggerheads with each other. But, you know, both in terms of the nitty-gritty of the day today but in terms of the concepts of what both do, they’re really the same. They’re both lookin’ for the truth.


BOB GARFIELD:  Rocco, thank you very much.

ROCCO PALMO:  Anytime, Bob. Thank you.

BOB GARFIELD:  Rocco Palmo will be covering the Vatican Conclave from Rome on his blog, Whispers in the Loggia.


Rocco Palmo

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