HARPER: As the voting starts, U.S. media have missed the story in Rome

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Much of what you are reading and hearing this week about the conclave in Rome amounts to utter nonsense — a rehash of sex scandals involving Catholic priests, uninformed stories about an organization “in chaos,” screeds about how the church is out of touch with today’s world and many reports about who’s up and who’s down as contenders to succeed Pope Benedict XVI.

These pronouncements are being made by myriad journalists who have virtually no understanding of how the Catholic Church functions. A Vatican insider recalls the ignorance of one network producer who asked, “So who was this Peter guy anyway?”

The conclave, which begins Tuesday, comes from the Latin, “cum clave,” and means “with key.” The procedure was instituted in 1274 to lock church leaders into a place to elect a pope. It might be a good idea to institute a journalistic conclave during which time reporters cannot say anything until a pope is elected. Here is a good description of how a conclave works at http://bit.ly/Z3tYRZ

I spent five years in Rome as a reporter and bureau chief for ABC News. I remember the good advice of the late Peter Nichols, who covered the Vatican for 30 years for The Times of London, “No one except those on the inside really know what’s going on, and many of them don’t really know, either.”

Let’s start with church-bashing. You will hear over and over again about pedophilia in the church. Pedophilia is rampant throughout the world — not just inside the Catholic Church. The FBI launched the Innocent Images International Task Force in 2004. (See the information at http://1.usa.gov/ZpgxtK.)

The task force has investigated bus drivers, soldiers, business leaders, sports coaches and others. I do not excuse those in the Catholic Church who engaged in these despicable acts or failed to respond to them, but the media tend to give much more prominence to those in the church than those outside of it, with the possible exception of the recent cases at Penn State.

I’m hardly a Pollyanna on the issue. I produced a lengthy report with Tom Jarriel for “20/20” about pedophiles in 1989 — that’s nearly 25 years ago — in which we documented more than 100 cases and a potential cost to the Vatican of $10 billion. We worked with Jason Berry, the first reporter who documented sexual abuse in the United States.

Other issues you will hear: Benedict failed to deal with the issues facing the church. Here it depends how you define the issues facing the church. No pope will endorse women in the priesthood, abortion, the death penalty, euthanasia or same-sex marriages.

The U.S. media tend to view issues through an American prism. The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University (http://bit.ly/ZDVJQG) keeps the most extensive records about the Catholic Church. The center has some numbers you probably won’t see or hear from U.S. media outlets:

• The number of Catholics has grown from 710 million in 1975 to 1.2 billion, or roughly 17 percent of the world’s population.

• While down from historic highs, the number of priests in the United States has actually increased from 404,000 in 1975 to 412,000 in 2010.

• The number of parishes has grown nearly 10 percent to 221,000 over the same period.

Finally, as the cardinals enter the conclave Tuesday, you will hear about the contenders, known at papabili, or papal possibilities. It’s like ranking sports teams at the beginning of each season. The Associated Press hedged its bets so much that 15 cardinals made the list at http://bit.ly/WVLbdZ. It’s conceivable to me that this incredibly long list may not include the next pope — as happened in 1978 when a Polish cardinal was elected as Pope John Paul II.

What will be the only certainty during the days ahead? The new pope’s tailors will get it right with papal vestments available in sizes small, medium and large for whoever is elected.

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