“We all feel very hurt for him and for what was done,” he said of the butler’s leak. “That’s the common sentiment of all us here, because it was a hard thing to accept. But it’s a difficult thing for the whole church.”
The Vatican’s reaction to the leak scandal was not to address its inner flaws but to burnish its outer image.
Enter Twitter and Fox News.
Claire Diaz-Ortiz, Twitter’s liaison to religious institutions, wrote the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See looking for a Vatican contact. Soon after, she and Paul Tighe, the No. 2 official at the church’s social communication department, started talking about the possibilities of a Twitter account for the pope. They racked their brains for the perfect handle, but the Vatican’s main concern, Diaz-Ortiz said, was: “ ‘Is there any chance this account is going to get hacked?’ ”
At about the same time, the Vatican hired away a Fox News reporter. In June, Bertone’s office rang Gregory Burke, a veteran correspondent in Rome and member of Opus Dei, a conservative and influential Catholic lay organization. They wanted him to bring a “common-sense journalistic view of how things are going to play out” to the church, Burke said, adding that they needed someone to “help craft the message.”
Burke, well-liked and respected by reporters, doesn’t look like a Vatican operative. On a rainy afternoon, he showed up late at a restaurant near the Pantheon in a trench coat, swinging a long umbrella. With his thicket of auburn hair and ruddy complexion, he looks more corn- than cannelloni-fed.
“I’m within the 15-minute Roman grace period,” he said in Italian. Burke’s approach to media, like his Italian, bears a strong American accent. “I would love to bring some Roger Ailes into this job,” he said. “The difference is Roger Ailes has a lot of power, and I have very little.”
Since joining the Vatican, Burke has sought to make the Vatican media operation less reactive. He said there remains within the Vatican a view that the church will survive another 2,000 years regardless of scandals, and while that might be true, “you can do a lot of harm in the meantime.” He organized a field trip for reporters to the Vatican Bank, housed in a round 15th-century fortress that sits below the Apostolic Palace like a footstool. He has proposed embedding a virtual tour of the bank on the Vatican Web site. “From a normal press point of view, it’s not thinking outside the box,” he acknowledged.
Burke and company developed a two-pronged damage-control strategy to confront the leak scandal: heap blame on the butler as a simpleton suffering delusions of grandeur and use the Vatican trial that convicted the butler as evidence of the church’s commitment to transparency.
“I don’t think we got enough credit for what we’ve done,” Burke said. “It might not have been perfect. But 10 years ago, would there have been an open trial?”
The Vatican pointed back to the butler’s day in court and the pool of eight reporters taking notes as exhibit A for openness. “There was a sense of great responsibility to guarantee the transparency,” said head judge Giuseppe Dalla Torre, noting that the defense wanted to keep the trial private. “The entire international press would have said, ‘What is this?’ They observed it, saw it, heard it.”
They didn’t hear everything. During the trial, Dalla Torre relied on the Vatican’s 19th-century penal code to forbid Gabriele from discussing his contact with assorted cardinals. According to the law, Gabriele hadn’t disclosed the substance of those conversations before trial and so couldn’t do so in the courtroom.
Some church officials acknowledge that there needs to be greater commitment to openness among the Vatican’s leaders. Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli runs the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, which has been on the forefront of the church’s engagement in social media. Celli pointed to his lips: “You see, what I say here,” he said, moving his finger to his temple, “starts here.” But here, he added, as his finger lingered, “has to enter a new culture. And the new culture is sharing.”
But even with the trial over, the Vatican’s focus has remained on the message, rather than on changing the culture. In December, reporters packed into a Vatican briefing theater for a news conference to introduce the world to the Twitter account @pontifex, meaning both “pope” and “bridge builder.”
The pope’s Twitter followers went from single digits to 2,000 in 30 minutes. (@pontifex currently has more than 1.5 million followers.) The panelists made the case for Benedict using Twitter to drop “pearls of wisdom,” and they answered questions about the account’s infallibility (“it’s a papal teaching”) and its durability (it would be used after Benedict’s departure).