A Frontline documentary exposes the Vatican's 'secrets' under Pope Benedict

The World

When Pope Francis became head of the Roman Catholic Church nearly a year ago, many Catholics around the world were expecting change. Pope Francis was even named Time Magazine’s 2013 Person of the Year.

Last week, Pope Francis announced a major overhaul of the Vatican's outdated and inefficient bureaucracy, including a package of reforms and economic policies to monitor the Vatican Bank, long seen as an institution wrought with corruption and scandal.   

A new Frontline documentary exposes just how bad things had gotten in Rome. “Secrets of the Vatican,” which airs Tuesday night, looks in depth at Pope Benedict’s papacy. 

The documentary examines the years of scandal over clergy sex abuse, corruption at the Vatican Bank, power struggles, and cronyism within the Holy See. It finds that clergy in Rome were frequenting gay bars.

The director, writer, and producer of the documentary, Antony Thomas, spent a year investigating the secrets of the Vatican. He believes the mounting problems, combined with the ailing health of Pope Benedict, led to Benedict's dramatic resignation — an action not taken by a pope in 600 years.

“They happened on his watch, and it was very unfortunate,” Thomas explained. “He just couldn’t cope with it anymore.”

According to Thomas, Pope Benedict had considered resigning in early 2012, but was pressured into postponing his resignation by his secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone. That decision, Thomas said, was “before the 'Vatileaks' thing got really serious and before these scandals came out.”

Italian investigative reporter Gianluigi Nuzzi received the classified documents now known as Vatileaks. His book, “Your Holiness: The Secret Papers of Benedict XVI” was released in mid-2012, and revealed extensive confidential information, including documents from the pope’s personal office.

“It just revealed one thing after another," Thomas said. "Cronyism, pedophilia, financial misconduct, all kinds of things within the Vatican curia, the Vatican bureaucracy."

His documentary also looks at the church’s historical response to sexual abuse cases, a matter Thomas wanted to examine more critically.

“If you are a young, believing Catholic and you are abused by a priest, how much more terrible that is than abuse by any other adult,” Thomas said. “I just wanted to express the state of mind and the feelings of these people who had gone through that experience, because it’s often overlooked.”

The final act of the documentary explores the repercussions for Pope Francis, who inherited these problems and was tasked with solving them. Thomas believes one of the main differences between the two popes is strength.

“[Pope Benedict] was a good man. He was a pious man, but he just didn’t have that strength, which I think Francis has,” Thomas said. “I think [Pope Francis] has got amazing vitality. And it’s not just talk. He’s created all kinds of changes within this first year.”

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