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Fort Wayne native has ringside seat for papal transition

Don Clemmer is helping handle media relations for U.S. cardinals in Rome

Sunday, March 10, 2013 - 12:01 am

Fort Wayne native Don Clemmer is finding that, when in Rome, things don’t always go as planned.

Clemmer, the assistant director of media relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) in Washington, D.C., arrived Feb. 27 in Rome with two other members of the USCCB media relations staff. Their job is to assist U.S. cardinals with media during meetings leading to selection of a new pope.

Cardinals from around the world were called to the Vatican in Rome after Pope Benedict XVI resigned, effective Feb. 28, saying he lacked the strength to carry on as pope.

Late this week, cardinals — the second highest-ranking clergy in the Catholic Church — began meetings closed to the media where they discuss issues facing the church and the qualities needed in a new pope. They voted Friday to start the conclave, or formal process of electing a pope, on Tuesday. Conclave sessions also are secretive and closed to the media.

The meetings have kept Clemmer and other USCCB media staff busy.

“We have office space at the Pontifical North American College, a seminary for American students located on the Janiculum Hill, just a 10-minute walk from St. Peter’s Square,” Clemmer said in an email interview.

“Days are spent largely fielding media requests through our office, though we have contact with the Vatican Press Office and have also worked to arrange photo opps and media availabilities for the U.S. cardinals.”

Clemmer also has been posting sporadic updates to USCCB’s Twitter feed, @USCCB. His boss, Sister Mary Ann Walsh, has been posting daily to the USCCB media relations blog at http://usccbmedia.blogspot.com.

He said he’s seen reports that as many as 5,000 accredited media members have descended on the Vatican to cover the papal transition.

“You don’t see the same throngs of people that you saw with the funeral of John Paul II, but the atmosphere is still electric with a sense of anticipation,” he said.

For USCCB media relations staff, “the strategy is that the media are hungry for stories amid a secretive atmosphere and that plenty of people are willing to fill that vacuum with agendas and narratives that are generally antagonistic toward the Church,” Clemmer said.

“This is why, at the start of this process,” he added, “the U.S. cardinals welcomed the opportunity to speak to media, providing an outline of the proceedings without compromising the confidentiality of their discussions.”

But U.S. cardinals quickly caught flak for that and since have canceled press briefings and interviews.

“One surprise of this experience has been how different the American approach to speaking to media on the record is from the Italian culture of secrecy and unsourced leaks,” Clemmer said. “What we view as simple transparency can be interpreted as an attempt to hijack the deliberations and put an American pope in place.

“I can’t speak to the feelings of the (U.S.) cardinals in terms of the media blackout and related issues, but they have certainly refrained from all speaking to media — interviews and briefings alike,” Clemmer said. “This has, however, not prevented individual cardinals from communicating with his ‘flock,’ such as Cardinal (Timothy) Dolan’s radio show and other cardinals on Twitter. Of course, this communication will also cease once the cardinals go into conclave.”

Regarding reports U.S. cardinals, in this week’s Congregation of Cardinals meetings, pressed for more detailed information about possible corruption and bureaucratic problems in the Vatican, Clemmer said U.S. cardinals just want to make sure they have all of the information they need to select a new pope.

“This includes the state of the church around the world and within the Vatican structure,” Clemmer said.