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Associated Press correspondent offers insights into Vatican

Nicole Winfield spoke April 4 in Whitley Auditorium about the men who have led the Catholic Church in recent years, the challenges facing the church, and how she maintains neutrality in her coverage as a Catholic herself.

Nicole Winfield

As an Associated Press correspondent to the Vatican, Nicole Winfield has covered three popes—John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis—and several defining moments for the Roman Catholic Church, and she shared stories of those men and the challenges of her job during an April 4 campus lecture.

The Whitley Auditorium program was co-sponsored by Elon’s Society of Professional Journalists, the School of Communications and the Truitt Center for Religious and Spiritual Life.

Winfield told her audience that her job is often frustrating because there are no open records laws at the Vatican. She often has to fight for information and dig through Latin texts in the Vatican library.  The Vatican does not particularly like reporters, she said, and there was a time when all members of the press had to submit question as much as week in advance before press conferences.

“The AP refused to submit questions," she said. "It goes against our ethical standards. That’s not a press conference in my book."

For Winfield, there are far more significant sources than the official Vatican line. Some of the most poignant and memorable moments of Pope Francis’ papacy so far have been chance encounters and offhand comments.

“What seems to make news isn’t scripted speeches, but unscripted moments,” she said.

One of Winfield’s most difficult assignments was covering the sex abuse scandal. She said it was heart-wrenching to hear the stories of those who had been abused. Winfield noted some of the steps the Vatican took to improve the situation and hold priests accountable. Under Pope Benedict XVI, nearly 400 abusive priests were laicized.

While she had plenty to say on the frustrations and difficulties in covering the papacy, there are some perks to the job. 

Winfield was on the plane with Pope Francis when he uttered his now famous “who am I to judge” line on gay marriage. She warns not to misconstrue or read too much into that line.

“Don’t let Francis’ positive appeal mislead you—he’s a conservative Catholic,” Winfield said. “He doesn’t care a lot of ‘small minded rules,’ but there are some rules that form the core of church doctrine. Those won’t change. He is still against abortion and gay marriage.”

The slant in coverage of Pope Francis often leads people to believe he is a new type of pope—one that may shift the church’s stance on gay and women’s rights.

As a Catholic, Winfield said she has a lot of respect for the papacy, but she does not let her personal connection interfere with her reporting. “I cover the Vatican as I would cover any other institution," she said. "I treat it as a bureaucracy, but I go at it with an incredible amount of respect for my readership and the person I am covering."

- Story by Elon University freshman Stephanie Lamm; photo courtesy of senior Caroline Olney, photo editor of The Pendulum

Eric Townsend,
Staff
4/7/2014 12:00 PM