This story has all the drama of a Vatican soap opera, and it’s moving at a breakneck pace. Don’t blink, or you might miss it.
First, the media got wind that Don Patrizio Poggi, a former parish priest once convicted of abusing young teen boys, had filed an explosive complaint with the Italian police. He alleged that a former police officer had been recruiting underage boys living in poverty to sexually service Catholic clergymen in Rome.
According to Poggi, the ex-Carabinieri “pimp” would approach youths at saunas, gyms, gay bars and discotheques. Most of the boys were Eastern European immigrants in need of cash. The unnamed pimp would lure the boys with offers of modelling and acting jobs, opportunities that invariably fell through. Instead, the boys were paid €150-€500 ($195-$650 USD) to engage in a variety of sex acts with Catholic priests, both retired and active.
Granted, the story seemed a little bit funny in places, especially when Poggi alleged that the group also profited from the sale of consecrated hosts for use in Satanic rites. (Those boy prostitutes don’t pay for themselves, you know!) But the disgraced priest was accompanied by Monsignor Luca Lorusso, a highly credible figure in the Vatican, and that gave his allegations some heft. Moreover, three of the clergymen Poggi identified as members of the trafficking ring were placed under formal investigation by the Vatican. On top of all that, the Church has developed a certain reputation for pedophile priests that makes the story sound fairly plausible.
But it turns out that Poggi was lying all along.
On June 28th, investigators in Rome arrested him for aggravated slander (article is in Italian). Officially, prosecutors called the allegations “untrue or based on mere hearsay.” It seems that Poggi harbored animosity against certain Church officials who refused to reinstate him after he served his time for his own crimes against children. He concocted the story out of a desire for revenge. In a wiretapped conversation with his mother, he admitted that if he had the money for it, the priests who wronged him would “get killed and they wouldn’t even know why” (also in Italian).
Catholic apologist blogger Jimmy Akin admonished the people who jumped to conclusions upon hearing about the Vatican’s rentboy ring (a group that can’t possibly be very large, since the story broke in the English press only a few days before Poggi’s arrest):
It is well known that the Italian press is rumor-driven and often contains inaccurate information (even more than the American press). Consequently, one should not disturb the peace of others by rushing to repeat sensationalistic rumors before the facts are clear… We shouldn’t be too quick to take the word of a convicted felon who applies for reinstatement and who then starts making highly inflammatory and, in fact, criminal allegations that reflect on the people that didn’t reinstate him.
Far be it from me to criticize anybody who’s calling for a greater level of critical thinking about the news media. Akin is absolutely right; we should pause for reflection, question our assumptions, and avoid sensationalism. We can acknowledge that the Church has a sordid history of concealing child abuse without assuming that every story about Vatican pedophilia is necessarily gospel truth.
What Akin is less likely to note, however, is that it’s the Church’s sordid history that’s directly responsible for how plausible the story seemed to most readers. (Minus the part about selling consecrated hosts to Satanists.) The only reason Poggi’s plot came close to working was because the Church has been caught dealing in child abuse and lying about it so many times before. A rentboy ring in the Vatican? Priests molesting little boys? It’s happened so many times, it’s hardly even news anymore.
So when a story comes out and people don’t have all the facts, they judge its authenticity based on their prior knowledge about the individuals and organizations involved. They judge the Catholic Church and its leaders by past child-abuse allegations and how the Church handled them.
If the Church wants to prevent people from making assumptions whenever a child-abuse case arises, it needs to start making news for its positive response to victims’ pleas for justice, rather than for its scandals and cover-ups. When readers uncritically assume any story about a pedophilia cover-up at the Vatican is true, the Church is reaping what she’s sown through decades of sheltering abusers at children’s expense.
(image via Shutterstock)