FRONTLINE documentary to reveal Vatican 'secrets' nearly one year into Francis' papacy

Pope Francis gives the Angelus blessing from the former papal apartments on February 23, 2014 in Vatican City, Vatican.
Peter Macdiarmid

A little more than a year after an exhausted Pope Benedict abdicated the papacy, the first time a pope had done so in 600 years, his far more popular successor Pope Francis has gained a reputation as a humble but diligent reformer of the Catholic Church.

But as a 90-minute PBS FRONTLINE film scheduled to air Tuesday night reports, the scandals that "undermined" Benedict's papacy remain profound — including widespread child sex abuse, financial corruption and other abuses of power — even as Francis works to reform the church's finances and clergy's engagement with the changing world.

"Secrets of the Vatican" was directed by English documentarian Antony Thomas and co-produced by GlobalPost religion correspondent Jason Berry. Berry is an award-winning investigative reporter who has brought to light key revelations in the church sex abuse scandal beginning in Louisiana in the 1980s and continuing over three decades of reporting around the world.

"[T]he film takes viewers into the Vatican's baroque internal dynamics, and the infighting under Pope Benedict that exploded in the Vatican Bank and Vatileaks scandals," Berry told the Times-Picayune, his hometown newspaper. "No TV network outside of Italy has covered those complex stories in much detail, and few newspapers in much depth. Viewers will get a clear story of the last pope betrayed by his own bureaucracy."

The Roman Curia, the Vatican's administrative body, is characterized by bitter infighting among balkanized groups which have also proven highly resilient to papal oversight of clerical conduct. Meanwhile, the church has taken great care to protect its clergy from justice in thousands of cases of child and adolescent sex abuse — and continues to do so, allege sources including the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests and the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child.

The FRONTLINE documentary, made available to GlobalPost as an advance screener, focuses on the Vatican as the "last absolute monarchy in the world" that has grown increasingly detached from the world's 1.2 billion Catholics amid scandal after scandal. Thomas and Berry coax to the screen some of the ruined lives of those abused by priests including Father Marcial Maciel, founder of the Legion of Christ. Maciel's own son, Raul Gonzalez, has described that both he and his brother were sexually abused by Maciel, who was a close friend of Pope John Paul II.

Pope Francis, a Jesuit and an Argentinian, has made a number of overtures to those left out of the church, including the poor, the LGBT community and victims of sexual abuse. Last month Francis spoke about the misdeeds that have haunted the Catholic Church after a United Nations human rights committee criticized the church's protection of abusive priests. The committee later called for the Vatican to create an "independent mechanism for monitoring children's rights" and to banish abusive priests from the order.

"So many scandals that I do not want to mention individually, but all of us know...We know where they are! Scandals, some who charged a lot of money.... The shame of the Church!" Francis exclaimed at a Vatican Mass in January.

"But are we all ashamed of those scandals, of those failings of priests, bishops, laity? Where was the Word of God in those scandals; where was the Word of God in those men and in those women? They did not have a relationship with God! They had a position in the Church, a position of power, even of comfort. But the Word of God, no!"

Despite Francis' likability, the FRONTLINE film makes clear, the "filth" in the church of which Pope Benedict spoke in 2010 is deeply ground into the fine fabric of the Vatican. Allegations of indulgence including sexual promiscuity by Catholic clergy in and around the Holy See add credence to the image of a decrepit organization mired in hypocrisy, perhaps hopelessly lost in the chasm between Word and deed.

It is within that world that Pope Francis stands, clad in his "sensible black shoes and a white cassock so thin you can see his black trousers through it."

"I do have hope for Francis," Berry told the Times-Picayune. "He is a major presence on the international stage, saying things no president or prime minister will about the gross inequities of our time. A pope reminding us that poor people are not the enemy, but those to whom we are obliged. He's speaking truth to the power of a ghastly international banking system. Francis has likened the Vatican court-like mentality to a form of leprosy. The real question is whether he can forge a new system of justice for the Vatican. The canon law tribunals run by cardinals, always forgiving cardinals, are archaic and unable to prosecute bishops or religious superiors for negligence. Changing that ancient system is the pope's challenge."