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Vatican City — For the past two months, the Catholic Church has been overcome by one fairly straightforward question: Why didn’t the pope know that the ultra-traditionalist bishop he welcomed back into the church was a fervent and public Holocaust-denier? Last week, the
pope had an answer. He hadn’t Googled it.
“I have been told,” Pope Benedict XVI wrote to the world’s Catholic bishops on March 10, “that consulting the information available on the Internet would have made it possible to perceive the problem early on.
“I have learned the lesson that in the future, in the Holy See we will have to pay greater attention to that source of news.”
Indeed, anyone with a laptop and a dial-up modem could have gone to the Web site of the Society of St. Pius X and easily found reams of anti-Semitic material, some of it going back a dozen years or more.
The pope’s mea culpa was a high-level recognition of how much the
24/7 information universe has revolutionized the way the age-old church operates. While the Internet makes scandals like this one more preventable, it also makes them harder to contain, posing a challenge that will require the Vatican to transform how it communicates with the press and public.
Though the furor started with a now-notorious interview on Swedish television — in which Bishop Richard Williamson claimed that at most 300,000 Jews “perished in Nazi concentration camps … not one of them by gassing in a gas chamber” — the controversy was spread and intensified largely through so-called “new media.”
YouTube provided unlimited opportunities to review the Swedish interview, as well as an earlier sermon in which Williamson claimed that airplanes did not crash into the World Trade Center or the Pentagon on September 11, 2001.
Independent bloggers, meanwhile, offered links to the bishops’ other embarrassing past statements that denounced women who wear pants and warned of the subversive message of “The Sound of Music.”
Himself a blogger, Williamson posted a highly qualified “apology” for his Holocaust remarks that further incensed his critics.
Yet the Williamson debacle was not alone. Less than two weeks later, an Austrian Web site publicized a 2005 newsletter article by Monsignor Gerhard Maria Wagner, Benedict’s choice for auxiliary bishop of Linz, that blamed Hurricane Katrina on God’s wrath for rampant sexual immorality in New Orleans.
Those remarks immediately drew protests from the United States, and after two weeks of international attention, Wagner asked for his nomination to be withdrawn. The Vatican — in a highly unusual move — granted his wish.
Such missteps are part of a recent pattern of crossed signals from high Vatican officials, and may reflect rumored disorder in the highest reaches of the Holy See, where some observers say the pope is cut off from reliable advice as subordinates maneuver beneath him.
Benedict himself has acknowledged those reports only to dismiss them on Tuesday (March 17), telling reporters flying with him on a flight to Cameroon that “this myth about solitude makes me laugh.”
Whatever the impact of internal politics, a great deal of the Vatican’s recent trouble with public relations is clearly attributable to the increased speed and volume of online information flow.
“We never had control of that message,” the pope’s spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, told a French newspaper about the Williamson matter. Lombardi added that a “culture of communication still remains to be created” at the Vatican.
Observers say the Vatican could have contained the fallout from the Williamson story much earlier with timely statements denouncing the bishop’s Holocaust denial, and an explanation for why he was readmitted in the first place.
Yet for the traditionally secretive Holy See, message control has long meant releasing information in a slow and highly selective way, through carefully worded official documents. But as demonstrated by the Williamson case, the Internet abhors an information vacuum.
As if to underscore the point, the full text of Benedict’s explanatory letter appeared online — a full day before its officially scheduled release.
By Francis X. Rocca
c. 2009 Religion News Service
Copyright 2009 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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