FRONTLINE documentary “Secrets of the Vatican”

I have just watched the PBS Frontline hit piece “Secrets of the Vatican”.

The objectives of the show are to pin all responsibility for every case of clerical sexual abuse not just on local authorities but on “the Vatican”, to detach sexual abuse from homosexuality, to undermine a celibate clergy, and to convince you that there are more homosexual priests than there really are.  Finally, Pope Francis is the most wonderfullest Pope ehvurrr.

NB: Do not watch this show with any children around.  Just don’t.  Some of the stuff about the abuse scandal is pretty horrible and explicit. 

Some notes I made as I watched this hit piece follow:

It is beautifully filmed, and the production values are very high.  That will make this seductive, especially for the low-information viewer.  Second, they tapped heavily a writer from The Tablet, and from the National Schismatic Reporter, Fr. Thomas Doyle in a suit, the Church-hating lawyer and now incredibly wealthy Jeff Anderson, aetheistic Communist Eugenio Scalfari, etc.  What could go wrong?

As you watch it, if you watch it, listen carefully, consciously, to how they use music.  You are being manipulated at nearly every moment.

Next, sadly some of the issues brought out are true: it delves into the Legionaries scandal and Maciel.  There are still a lot of unresolved questions involving what John Paul II knew and when he knew it, who was giving information to him or keeping it from him.  I have no interest in defending anything having to do with the Legion.  I still believe it should be disbanded.  If we could still feasibly practice damnatio memoriae, I would apply it to Maciel.  The documentary spends a lot of time on this topic, because – I think – it is so ugly that they can hurt the Church with it more.

They treated Card. Ratzinger’s role with some sympathy, noting that, as Prefect, he was in a tough spot.  John Paul II had given the Legion – and Maciel – a lot of support.

Robert Mickens of The Pill claimed that Joseph Ratzinger had “absolutely zero” pastoral experience, which is false, and that he should “never ever have been a bishop”.  No baggage there.  Doyle says that Ratzinger was “a creature of the institutional church”, which is in keeping with those like the Fishwrappers who pit “institutional” against the “prophetic church”, which they themselves embody (rather like gnostics).  They show one clip of Doyle addressing “Voice of the Faithful”, which is an extremist dissident faction on the left.  That’s the crowd the producers of the Frontline show seem to be enmeshed with.

Then there are gross statements like “when THE CHURCH chose to suppress stories of clergy sexual abuse it was to silence people like…”.  NO.  THE CHURCH did not choose to suppress this.  Individuals in the Church did, and they should be held accountable.

Remember: an objective of the show is to pin all responsibility for every case of clerical sexual abuse not just on local authorities but on “the Vatican”.

They spent a lot of time in Milwaukee, which is pretty fertile ground for dissent in the Church. Alas, it also had many cases of abuse.  The documentary goes into the transfer of $57 million dollars during the time of Archbp. Dolan to a cemetery fund.  The claim is that that transfer was made to avoid paying victims.  This comes right after showing victims talking about their pain.  However, they cut to a brief shot of the Vatican’s Secret Archives… get it?  [cue ominous music – not kidding] SEEEEECRET!  And then they show a copy of a letter from Cardinal Hummes, once Prefect of Clergy, to Archbishop Dolan, and zero in on the words nihil obstat for the transfer of the money.  They make a big deal out of nihil obstat meaning “nothing stands your way”, as if to say that Hummes (=”The Vatican”) thinks nothing of the victims.  Get it?  They then cut to Jeff Anderson interpreting nihil obstat for us.  Nihil obstat is, of course, a technical term, which doesn’t seem to have occurred to the makers of the docudrama.

They look at what Pope Benedict did about filtering out homosexuals from seminary formation and they Church’s teaching on homosexuality as an objective disorder.  One expert claims that the number of priests who abuse by far outnumber Protestants.  I have no idea if that it true or not.  That doesn’t sound right.  The expert connects this to repressed sexuality.  He rightly attaches this to the 60s-80s, but for reasons that I agree with.

They interview a priest, living in Rome, who became disillusioned about the Church (shock!) because of the terrible priests he encountered in Rome (more shock!).  So he quit to get married.  They showed him as so happy with his wife, they are in luv, but they are soooo misunderstood.  But wait! There’s more!  At the end of that section we learn, amost as an aside, that they broke up and he has left Rome!  Perhaps the problem was not THE CHURCH in ROME, but rather him and his ability to commit?  Just wondering.

After that they interview an anonymous priest (they claim) about the “gay” priest scene in Rome.  They use video from an Italian journalist who claimed that he investigated this slimy underbelly. Some pretty wild claims are made at this point.  From what I saw, the disgusting videos could have been entirely falsified or unrelated to anything clerical.  I am not denying that this sort of thing goes on, but I have a strong level of suspicion about that whole section of the documentary.  Again, they play on emotions (follow the music) as they interview priests who are in pain about being so conflict, so misunderstood.  Boo hoo.

Back to the Roman Curia. They associate the “Vatican Bank” (IOR) with the mafia.  Look.  There are problems with the “Vatican Bank” and I can’t say they were far off the mark.  This part made me sick to my stomach, especially at interior shots of the bank where I have been forced to waste hours of my life standing in lines.  How I hate that room.  But enough about me.   They go after Card. Bertone, which is when I was tempted to make popcorn.  Again, follow the music.

They made an interesting comment that Benedict found out by watching TV that the head of the bank, Gotti Tedeschi, had been dismissed via Bertone from his post.  That says a lot.

Then they get into Vatileaks, and we are now about 55 minutes into this endless thing.  Remember?  The butler did it.  Or did he?  They present the Pope’s butler as a scapegoat: it wasn’t really the butler who did it and his trial was a “show trial”.

I found the section about what was done to the intrepid Archbishop Viganò to be dead on.  They really got on Bertone’s case.

When they talk about the internal investigations in the Vatican about the vatileaks and corruption, they had a laughable dramatization of an interrogation, which reinforced my suspicion about the videos of “gay” priests earlier.

When they get to the election of Francis (again, follow the music) they present him as the only Pope who has ever thought about the poor, the marginalized, ehvurrrr.  He is the outsider who will roll back the corruption.  One commentator, Barbie Nadeau of CNN, said “he is already the best Pope anyone can remember”.  He’s taking on the Curia!  At this point we hear from Card. Rodriguez Maradiaga.  Enough said.

Here is a quote from the voiceover in the documentary, thus, from the makers of this show: “Francis has said that the Catholic Church will fall like a house of cards if fails to balance rules on abortion and homosexuality with the greater need to be merciful.”  This conflates the Pope’s comments about small-minded “rules” with the Church’s clear doctrine.  They also quote “Who am I to judge?”, but without context, instead saying that he said that in relation to homosexuality.  That is a gross distortion.

Shift now to Francis on capitalism.

Okay, I am tired of this.

Bottom line: There was/is corruption in the Vatican!  There were/are careerists and bad people!  Some men are homosexuals! What a shock!

Keep in mind that Lent and then Easter are on the horizon and that is when the MSM likes to start bashing the Church.  Also, the canonization of John Paul II is in April.  What better time to run “documentary” like this.


Another view of the Frontline piece HERE.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in Biased Media Coverage, Clerical Sexual Abuse, Liberals, The Drill, What are they REALLY saying? and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. James C says:

    “There are still a lot of unresolved questions involving what John Paul II knew and when he knew it…”

    Presumably they’ve been resolved, considering he is getting *canonised* next month?!

  2. Magash says:

    My opinion is that John Paul was deceived in the case of Maciel, but that he was predisposed by his personal history to be deceived. Accusing priests of homosexual abuse of minors was an old trick of the KGB, used against clerics in the Soviet Union and their satellites. That being the case John Paul was therefore probably suspicious of charges against Maciel and might even have been told by him or his corrupt supporters that the charges were being made up to discredit him.
    Not enough be done by others to point out to the Holy Father that the situation was not comparable. I’ve read, and perhaps Fr. Z knows if this is true, that Cardinal Ratzinger was for many years a voice calling out for the Vatican to take a more interventionist stand on abuse due to the failure of local bishops to address the problem. Not everywhere, but in certain places, such as Boston in the U.S.

  3. Scherzophrenic says:

    I’m surprised they didn’t dig up the rotten corpse of Secret Agent Priest Alberto Ribera (of Jack Chick fame) and interview him.

  4. JKnott says:

    Revolting. Thank you for the commentary on this Father. I couldn’t bring myself to even think about it alone.
    Seeing as how the Legion was so prominent in the show and for the record, and in the interests of the mind of the Church, I would like to include here the very short homily by Cardinal Velasio De Paolis, C.S. at the closing of the LC Chapter this week.
    I know all readers here are praying for our Church which is laboring under such persecution now.

  5. Geoffrey says:

    “My opinion is that John Paul was deceived in the case of Maciel, but that he was predisposed by his personal history to be deceived. Accusing priests of homosexual abuse of minors was an old trick of the KGB, used against clerics in the Soviet Union and their satellites. That being the case John Paul was therefore probably suspicious of charges against Maciel and might even have been told by him or his corrupt supporters that the charges were being made up to discredit him.”

    That is exactly right. I recall hearing once that the KGB had even prepared a “diary” of a woman with all sorts of terrible claims regarding the former Archbishop of Krakow. Thank God that plan never got off the ground in red Moscow.

  6. kpoterack says:

    “One expert claims that the number of priests who abuse by far outnumber Protestants. I have no idea if that it true or not. That doesn’t sound right. ”

    KP: It isn’t right. From one of your own posts:

  7. kpoterack says:

    KP: This was the most important quotation from your post on the matter:

    On June 18, 2007 the Insurance Journal (here) reproduced a report stating that the three companies which insure the majority of Protestant churches in America say they typically receive upward of 260 reports each year of young people under 18 being sexually abused by Protestant clergy, church staff, volunteers or congregation members. The report went on to comment, “the Catholic Church has revealed that there have been 13,000 credible accusations against Catholic clerics since 1950.” This report prompted one blogger here to comment, “Responding to heavy media scrutiny, the Catholic Church has reported that since 1950, 13,000 ‘credible accusations’ have been brought against Catholic clerics (about 228 per year.) The fact that this number includes all credible accusations, not just those that have involved insurance companies, and still is less than the number of cases in Protestant churches reported by just three insurance companies, should be making front page of The New York Times and the network evening news. It’s not.”

  8. Ben Kenobi says:

    I find it telling that these specials on the sex abuse scandals never take the time to identify the particular archdioceses in question, such as Rembart Weakland in Milwaukee, Harryhausen in Washington state, Mahoney in Los Angeles, and Howard Hubbard in Albany.

    The point is not only to smear the church but to cast attention away from the actual source of the problem. They aren’t really interested in exposing the coverage, they are interested in attacking the Vatican, because if they can convince people that the Vatican is the source (and not certain Archbishops), they can attack the authority of the pope, (and get you to ignore the bishops responsible. It’s a neat little trick, really.

  9. NBW says:

    PBS has become so predictable. They are incapable of finding new material so they go back to.. yawn..the sex scandal in the Church. Why aren’t they covering the sexual abuse scandal in Judaism?

    The Catholic League has a review as well and who to contact :

    Let your voice be heard.

  10. SimonDodd says:

    It’s a good tactic that they used—there’s so much wrong with that show, it is so profoundly and pervasively flawed in its concept and execution that it’s very difficult to criticize it for want of anywhere to begin.

  11. pj_houston says:

    5oo years from now, the anti-Catholic bigots will still be distorting the sex abuse scandal to beat Catholics over the head with it. Much as they distort the truths of the Inquisition, Crusades and Galileo today. That’s one reason why it was so frustrating the bishops weren’t more outspoken about the conclusions of the John Jay College study, but what can you do.

  12. Robbie says:

    I watched the Frontline piece on Tuesday night and was somewhat surprised by it. I expected it would be nothing more than a hatchet job on Benedict, but I was pleasantly surprised. Essentially, they portrayed Benedict a kind, scholarly man who simply was able to battle the factions in the Curia.

    On the other hand, the first hour was nothing more than a rehash of the sex abuse scandals. I’m not sure what the point of it was other than to just make another attempt to embarrass the Church. That portion could have been produced in 2004 and no one would have ever known the difference. Not to minimize what was done to the victims, but it was old news that had been discussed over and over again.

    The last thirty minutes dealt with Francis and, as you can imagine, the tone changed quite quickly. For lack of a better term, he was portrayed as the Pope of Hope. I did not enjoy the portions that included Cardinal Maradiaga. He provided a very one sided commentary about what was wrong with the Church and how Francis was going to fix things.

  13. acardnal says:

    I watched it when it aired earlier this week. I was expecting to see the “usual suspects”, the usual critics giving their views . . .you know, Fr. Thomas Reese, SJ, Fr. James Martin, SJ, LCWR types, et al, but they weren’t in it. Instead, they chose someone from The Tablet based in Britain and Fr. Thomas Doyle and others. Fr. Z wasn’t interviewed, nor Bishop Bruskewitz nor Archbishop Sample nor Cardinal Burke nor others for their views . . . only the critics and cynics and Church haters.

    I appreciate Fr. Z’s review of the documentary because he went to school in Rome, worked at the CDF and as a parish priest there. He also is aware of the situation and players there more than I am. Although it reported on some things that are factual and sad, I would not call it a fair and balanced documentary.

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  15. MaryMargaret says:

    Well, I just watched it. There were some issues brought out that were reasonably fair. The case against the Legionaries is well known and, frankly, disgusting. The way that some Bishops responded to sexual abuse allegations by transferring priests is also well known, and revolting.

    I really don’t know much about the Vatican bank..wouldn’t surprise me however much malfeasance has occurred.

    I just lost it when they spent much time on a lawyer who has made millions and treat him as if he did this out of the goodness of his heart. Honestly..that was ridiculous.

    And, although I appreciated that they did not make PBXI the villain, they portrayed him as a helpless idiot, who according to somebody who is nobody, should never have even been a bishop? That, I did not appreciate. And that incredibly stupid woman who anointed Francis as the best pope anyone can possibly remember? I guess there is no one over 50 or 70 or 80 or 90 left in the world. I thought John XXIII was the most wonderful pope ever? Nothing against Blessed John XXIII, but this was just stupid.

  16. HighMass says:


    My Wife and I too noticed that the documentary was pretty one sided….and all those you mentioned above,Bishop Bruskewitz nor Archbishop Sample nor Cardinal Burke nor others for their views . . . only the critics, nor did they happen to mention that Pope Benedict set forth a policy on how to handle sexual abuse involving clergy! And he removed over 400 priests during his Pontificate. Not one word was said about that…its one sided and always has been! Pope Benedict thank YOU For all you did!

  17. Lin says:

    My husband and I cannot bear to watch any show that criticizes the Catholic Church! God help us!

  18. sunbreak says:

    I did watch the entire show. My impression was – here we go again – more of the same. I found myself questioning some of the truthfulness of what was presented because some things just didn’t add up.

  19. RichR says:


    What you wrote needs to be shared with every Catholic far and wide. I hope your readers will send emails to all their friends linking to this post. I’d almost consider it a duty.

  20. KosmoKarlos says:

    I think Fr. Doyle needs a lesson or two on “clericalism.”
    He keeps throwing that word around, and now I don’t think he knows what it means… ;)

  21. Dad of Six says:

    Usually these hit pieces are during Advent and Lent. They must have wanted to get it in the February Nielson ratings.

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  23. schmenz says:

    Ben Kenobi:

    Surely you meant to write HUNThausen in Washington state, not the late (and very great) special effects master Ray Harryhausen!

  24. Jenson71 says:

    I thought the documentary actually presented a rather sympathetic view of Pope Benedict XVI, who could easily be made into some ‘God [Vatican] rottweiler,’ and certainly has been in the eyes of numerous critics.

    I have a fondness for Pope Benedict for several reasons, less to do with his theological brilliance (I’m no theological student), but more to do with his personality. Yes, I’m serious. As far as I can gather, Pope Benedict would wake up in the middle of the night, praying for strength and wondering what kind of mess had been thrown at his feet. He didn’t have the social brilliance or charisma of Pope John Paul II or Pope Francis. His holiness was borne out of the unease and struggle he faced daily. His courage to abdicate was incredible. He is more comfortable surrounded by books and treatises and his cats rather than adoring worshipers. I can relate to that and I respect that and I admire that about him given that fact that he still do a tremendous job as Pope, in my opinion.

    I think the show did a good job of giving the non-insider that impression of Pope Benedict. I think its criticisms of other situations (the sexual abuse, most importantly) were also fair, but their commentators were distinctively critical of the Church and weren’t quite challenged at all.

  25. Ben Kenobi says:

    Yes, Schmenz. I meant Hunthausen in Washington State.

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  27. Kindspirit says:

    I am amazed at how many people think that almost any criticism of the Catholic Church is Catholic bashing. While I would not hold Jeff Anderson in high esteem, nevertheless, if it were not for him and others like him, who would be holding people in the church accountable? What priest, bishop or cardinal is gong to tell us what evil, what wrong=doing, what sin has been committed by someone in the church? It is strange that while Jesus and the Apostles were so transparent, since the 4th. century, the institution of the Church has been so dominated by secrecy. It is secrecy that allows the institution of the Church to protect and cover=up sin and evil as though it doesn’t exist. While the Church is divine, it is also human. It is time for us to be mature enough to acknowledge and to admit wrong-doing in the Church and in this way be able to properly root it out and overcome it. Let’s stop burying our heads in the sand.

  28. CrimsonCatholic says:

    @ Kindspirit, most of the sex abuse scandals happened in the 70’s and 80’s, why does it continued to be rehashed? Why are the Protestants, Muslims, Jews, and public schools not held to the same standards? It is clear to most of us that the MSM has an anti-Catholic agenda to push.

  29. Kindspirit says:

    It continues to be hashed because it still has not been properly handled by the Church. Likewise, it is still on-going as you can see in many places where it is still in the court……and as several new cases have recently been reported. Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Winnona, Los Angelos, Philedelphia, Kansas only to name a few places where it continues to be prominent in the news. Likewise, Pope Francis has just named a Cardinal to be in charge of this Church problem world-wide and we have not yet heard from him or his office. As the Catholic Church we need to be held to the highest standards without any comparison to any other religious or non-religious organization. There is no valid excuse for it to be swept under the rug or ignored just because it likewise happens in other groups or places. We do not have to continue to support the evil of secrecy in the institution of the Church.

  30. gjp says:

    One expert claims that the number of priests who abuse by far outnumber Protestants.

    I saw this portion of the show and I wasn’t impressed with the expert or what he was implying, that a married clergy would have prevented the abuse crisis. If he is right, he was basically saying this:

    1. All men are evil and will rape little boys and girls unless they have wives or girlfriends they can gratify themselves with from time to time to get over the urges they have.

    2. Women are essentially sex toys with legs who serve no greater purpose other than to prevent little boys and girls from being raped by taking one for the team by lying down and thinking of England.

    Clearly, the issue is more complicated than he puts it, and the matter cannot simply be solved by making one change.

    Also — those who advocate for married priests in the Catholic Church are unaware of the tradition from the first 1000 years of the church, where even married priests lived with their wives as brother and sister and were celibate even though married. I refer all those interested in that little tidbit to the very well written “Priestly Celibacy” by Msgr. Peter MJ Stravinskas of the Newman Center.

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