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A Media Circus in Rome

Coverage: Vatican and U.S. bishops' officials disagree on how to deal with a deluge of reporters.


ROME — As American reporters looked on, a tense turf battle broke out Tuesday between a Vatican official and a spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in the courtyard of the North American College here.

The Vatican security official was adamant and angry, saying the small group of reporters and photographers had to leave the area immediately. The American bishops' spokeswoman held her ground, saying the reporters needed to stay to meet a cardinal. One spoke Italian, the other English, but each knew exactly what the other was saying.

The brief dust-up reflected the differing views between the Americans and the Italians over how to best deal with the throng of American media that has descended on this city.

The American Roman Catholic officials are attempting to manage the reporters as best they can, while the Vatican wishes that everybody would just go home. There are so many players and reporters here--200 foreign media representatives, by one account--that spin control has been replaced by a loss of control.

Just beyond the barricades at St. Peter's Square, a stage has been erected for television reporters' stand-ups, TV trucks are parked every which way, and a couple of large satellite dishes are aimed toward the 17th century statues of the saints.

The scene resembles a kind of old-world Camp O.J. One Vatican official, looking out an office window, sniffed that at least the media setup is located on City of Rome property rather than Vatican City property.

"The cardinals have found all the major American networks awaiting them as if they were Hollywood stars," said the Italian newspaper Il Giorno.

Tuesday's and today's meetings between American prelates and Vatican officials over a growing sex abuse scandal are closed to the media, of course, but the bishops conference has set up one main briefing a day for reporters. The briefings are being held in the shadow of the Vatican grounds, at the North American College, the seminary where many of the American clerics are staying.

Some media-savvy cardinals and bishops, including Los Angeles Cardinal Roger M. Mahony and Detroit Cardinal Adam Maida, are holding their own briefings for their hometown reporters. Others, including embattled Boston Cardinal Bernard Law and New York Cardinal Edward M. Egan, are staying out of public view.

With the meetings closed to the media, reporters mill around, interviewing English-speaking tourists, and sometimes one another.

A People magazine reporter, eager for a story on Mahony, attempted to interview fellow reporters about the cardinal before his afternoon briefing. Among her questions: whether they had lunch with him and where.

Reporters who regularly cover the Vatican found themselves as pundits with microphones jammed in their faces. Even the Italian media, which have mostly stayed away from covering the sex abuse crisis, are being asked for interviews. Marco Politi, a Vatican expert and reporter for La Repubblica newspaper, has barely written about the scandal but was nonetheless interviewed Tuesday.

The cardinals have set somewhat contradictory ground rules for the media, saying on the one hand that they need to be open about the sex abuse scandal and on the other that they would not release written texts of their remarks. Further, they decided Tuesday to discuss with the media the general proposals coming out of their meetings--but not to reveal the cardinals who made them.

So when Mahony was asked about a suggested national panel to review sex abuse cases, he said only that it was a proposal "I had not thought of."

Mahony has said the problem of clerics abusing children is worldwide rather than a strictly American issue. The cardinal said he believes the crisis is more open in the United States because, in part, the media are freer to report such incidents.

John L. Allen, the Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, agreed, saying in an article that newspapers and broadcast media in much of Europe tend to be "beholden, directly or indirectly, to political interests."

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