Journalism Italian-style and church-state relations
For the past few days, a highly personal and often below-the-sash battle has been waged in Italy between two newspapers — Il Giornale, owned by the family of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, and Avvenire, the daily of the Italian Bishops Conference. The generals in the battle, which has riveted Italy and has resulted in one of the worst periods for years in relations between church and state here, are the editors-in-chief Vittorio Feltri of Il Giornale and Dino Boffo of Avvenire.
It all started on Friday, Aug. 28 when Il Giornale published a front-page, banner headline story purportedly revealing that that Boffo had accepted a plea bargain in court in 2002 after being accused of harrasing a woman. The paper said Boffo had a homosexual relationship with her husband. The headline read “The Super-Moralist Was Condemned for Molestation” (see image above). Feltri, one of Italy’s more unorthodox journalists, attacked Boffo because he had written a spate of editorials criticising Berlusconi over the prime minister’s private life. The fact that ultimately Berlusconi’s family is Feltri’s boss was not lost on Italian readers.
Another element in the background was the fact that Berlusconi has been under the spotlight for anything but government recently, including accusations of cavorting with teenagers and prostitutes. For the record, Berlusconi says there was nothing “spicy” in his relationship with an 18-year-old aspriring model and that even if a call girl spent a night in his house, he never paid for sex in his life. What’s more, Berlusconi is also going through a messy divorce. His wife Veronica says she wanted out because she couldn’t take any more of his “lies”.
Hours after the first Il Giornale story came out, the Vatican announced that a long-planned dinner between Berlusconi and Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone had been cancelled. The dinner was to have taken place in L’Aquila during the annual “feast of forgiveness” in the city that was devastated by an earthquake last April. The official Vatican explanation was a nice try, but hard to swallow. It said the local bishop had decided (five hours before the start of a dinner that had been planned for weeks) that the money would be better spent if donated to reconstruction efforts.
(Photo: Berlusconi on Italian television, sign says “And Veronica asks for a divorce,” 5 May 2009/Remo Casilli)
Boffo called the Il Giornale attack “journalistic assassination” and rejected the accusations “absurd”. Here’s our story about the first day of the battle.
If this sounds like a soap opera, it is. And like all good soap operas, it gets better.
Boffo did indeed have some judicial problems in 2002, but he says he was the victim not the perpetrator of “telephone harassment” and agreed to a plea bargain just to put it all behind him. Avvenire colleagues say he did indeed fly off the handle and have some kind of altercation with a woman in 2002, but it had nothing to do with him being homosexual. They say she had been pestering him by phone to hire her son.
The homosexual angle was found on a one-page report which Il Giornale implied was part of the police record. But Boffo’s defenders say that page was fabricated to look like an ammendment to a police report and sent anonymously years ago to Italian Catholic Church leaders, all of whom saw it as a smear campaign and binned it. The next day Il Giornale ran the following banner headline: “The Rage of the Unmasked Moralists”. And Tuesday it was “The Bishops Knew Everything For Some Time.”
Avvenire has been putting most of its responses to Il Giornale on its back pages and editorial pages, one calling the charges “a colossal worthless fake.” It has also run pages and pages of letters from readers in support of Boffo.
For days, the Vatican did not weigh in on the dispute even though it was blazing all around the walls of the city state. When it did on Tuesday, it got out the big guns, issuing a statement that Bertone — the number two man in the Vatican after Pope Benedict himself — had called Boffo and expressed his “closeness and solidarity.” This seemed to put aside rumours that Boffo might resign for the good of the Church.
For his part Berlusconi has kept a low profile. He issued a statement disassociating himself from the positions of his family newspaper on the first day, but has refused to make any further comments. “Everything I want to say, I have said already,” he declared on Tuesday, Sept 1.
(Photo: Berlusconi wipes face during conference in Milan, 30 July 2009/Alessandro Garofalo)
The fact remains that the whole episode – sometimes slow drip, sometimes percolating – has brought relations between the Italian Catholic Church and the Vatican on the one side and the Berlusconi government on the other side, to one of their worst levels, if not the worst. And the sometimes buffa soap opera continues. Tune in next time for the latest episode.