Did Pope Francis really tell a 90-year-old atheist journalist that 1 in 50 priests are pedophiles — in an unrecorded ‘interview’?


Pope Francis in Italy on June 21, 2014. (EPA/FRANCESCO ARENA)

No recorder. No notes. Just a 90-year-old Italian journalist’s report that the pope told him 2 percent of priests are pedophiles.

The Vatican said Eugenio Scalfari’s recent discussion with Pope Francis was a “cordial conversation to exchange ideas.”

Does that mean it was on the record?

We’re not sure. And as of Sunday morning — after the Italian newspaper La Repubblica published a whopper of a pope interview that got the global news machine humming — such nettlesome caveats ceased being important. What mattered were the many news bombs the pope allegedly dropped on the white-bearded journalist, a self-professed atheist, in what may or may not have been an interview.

Boom: The pope told Eugenio Scalfari that one in 50 priests — nearly 8,000 members of the clergy — are pedophiles. Boom: The pope said that number even included “bishops and cardinals.” And boom: The pope promised “solutions” — perhaps related to rethinking priestly celibacy.

Later in the day, the Vatican was already pushing back against the purported interview.

“It is important to notice that words that Mr. Scalfari attributes to the Pope in quotations come from the expert journalist Scalfari’s own memory of what the Pope said,” parried spokesman Father Federico Lombardi in a statement collected by Vatican Insider. “And it is not an exact transcription of a recording nor [was there] a review of such a transcript by the Pope himself to whom the words are attributed.” He added that this was not “an interview in the normal use of the word, as if there had been a series of questions and answers that faithfully and exactly reflect the precise thoughts of the one being interviewed.”

So what happened? Are thousands of clergy pedophiles? Will the pope soon change rules on celibacy? Or was the interview — or whatever it was — the product of one nonagenarian journalist’s faulty recollection/overheated imagination?

Who knows. Like almost everything else about Francis’s tenure, there is little precedent and not much is clear beyond the fact that we are witnessing a papacy like few others. Everything about Francis seems a tad impromptu. He seems to rollick through most days speaking extemporaneously — occasionally sending his media team scrambling to walk back whatever he says.

In April, he dialed up an Argentine woman to chat about divorce. He allegedly told her “there was no problem” with her taking communion, and the media took it from there. The next day, Lombardi dispatched a statement saying the woman’s recitation and subsequent “media amplification cannot be confirmed as reliable, and is a source of misunderstanding and confusion.”

There is much more to be confused about than that. Tops on the list are the unusual circumstances under which Francis first met Scalfari, who founded the Italian daily La Repubblica and was its editor from 1976 to 1996.

It began, as many stories do involving Pope Francis, with a phone call. Scalfari described the moment in an October column:

It was half past two in the afternoon. My phone rings and in a somewhat shaky voice my secretary tells me: ‘I have the Pope on the line. I’ll put him through immediately. I was still stunned when I heard the voice of His Holiness on the other end of a the line saying, ‘Hello, this is Pope Francis.’

‘Hello Your Holiness’, I say and then, ‘I am shocked I did not expect you to call me.’

‘Why so surprised? You wrote me a letter asking to meet me in person. I had the same wish, so I’m calling to fix an appointment. Let me look at my diary….”

They eventually did meet — at the pope’s apartment in a small, spartan room empty save a table and five or six chairs. “The conversation we had started with some jokes because that’s his way,” Scalfari told Frontline. “He said, ‘Some of my advisers have warned me to be careful talking to you because you’re a clever man, and you’ll try to convert me.’ Me, converting the Pope!’”

So sparked an unusual relationship that soon spawned a lengthy letter Francis wrote Scalfari in which he said atheists should “abide by their own conscience.” The odd pairing has since culminated in — or perhaps been shattered by — the latest on-the-record/off-the-record and unrecorded meeting/interview.

In several instances, Scalfari didn’t close his quote marks when reporting his conversation with Francis, which Vatican spokesman Lombardi said was “an omission or explicit recognition that this is an attempt to manipulate some naïve readers.”

One source close to the pope told Vatican Insider that this kind of private meeting “takes place following a clear verbal agreement. It is basically a cordial conversation to exchange ideas; the content of such meetings is never published. And Scalfari knew this.”

Terrence McCoy writes on foreign affairs for The Washington Post's Morning Mix. Follow him on Twitter here.
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