02/27/2013 11:41 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Papal Internet Inquisition

At times it has seemed like retiring Pope Benedict XVI was facing a media inquisition as powerful as any Spanish one ever was. The pendulum swung back and forth as the mainstream media initially treated his retirement announcement as it would any public relations exercise and then unlocked the door to any speculation, even cross-dressing.

It would take a full Monty -- Python that is -- to come close to reflecting how much the story seemed like the Edgar Allen Poe novel, "The Pit and the Pendulum."

Of course there is no French soldier extending a hand to Benedict before he plunges into the pit.
Given how easy it is for the media, on Facebook, Twitter or wherever, to update its reports, there can be no excuse for those who insist the Vatican was ignoring the reports. The Vatican, in fact, issued one its strongest denials ever.

CBS said, "lurid reports in the Italian press have spoken of a gay lobby of homosexual priests whose activities have not only gone against church teaching but have left them, and by extension the Vatican, open to blackmail."

CNN paraphrased Vatican Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone as saying "it was 'deplorable' that as the time for the Roman Catholic cardinals to elect a new pope approaches, a rash of 'often unverified, unverifiable or completely false news stories' has appeared."

The Vatican spokesman, Rev. Federico Lombardi, said on the Vatican Radio website that people were using "gossip, misinformation and sometimes slander" to discredit the church. In a belated statement, he said these stories "cause serious damage to persons and institutions."

Lombardi predicted "all of this will not change the attitude of believers; it will not erode the faith and the hope with which they see the Lord, who promised to accompany his Church."

But Lombardi and the church had broken the first rule of public relations: Do not ignore negative stories that can hurt your client.

The church said nothing for at least 24 hours.

In this Internet era, the bigger the target the harder it falls. Often claims are made and posted without ever being read by an editor. In the name of freedom of speech, anything can be said.
As in Poe's novel, published in 1842, a sentence of death might be the most merciful the pope can expect.

Unlike a Monty Python skit, there is no poking with cushy pillows.