By Davide Casati November 18, 2014
On October 18, I went to a newsstand in Milan, picked up a copy of the International New York Times and saw the face of Monsignor Nunzio Scarano staring back at me. The Vatican bank has seen its share of scandals, but Scarano is the first Vatican priest to get arrested by Italian authorities after he was charged with money laundering last year. Scarano had agreed, for the first time, to tell his story to a journalist in an exclusive one-on-one interview. That journalist happened to be me.
In the summer of 2013, Scarano’s arrest made the front pages of every Italian newspaper. I was then working at Corriere della Sera, Italy’s most widely read daily, and the story caught my eye: a top accountant at the Vatican accused of trying to smuggle $26 million from Switzerland to Italy, via a private plane. It was a scandal that begged for good story telling. But by the time I started a degree in journalism that fall at Columbia University in New York, thousands of miles away, the newspapers had moved on. It turned out this was an opportunity.
As acclaimed journalist and author James Stewart pointed out to me—he was my adviser at Columbia—people who become the focus of a media blitz often feel hounded at first. But later, after the reporters have gone, they may feel desperate to get their own version of events out. This turned out to be the case with Scarano. It helped that I happened to contact his lawyer about speaking with Scarano during the short window of time when he was out of prison, under house arrest and still able to speak with reporters. The lawyer agreed to let me visit him in person at his home in Salerno for an interview in December. Less than a month later, in January 2014, he was banned from speaking with the press, after a second warrant was issued for his arrest.
I arrived in Salerno on a warm December day. Scarano’s huge apartment was in an historical building that oversees the main cathedral. The Monsignor greeted me coldly at the door, with a formal handshake and an averted gaze. As we entered his vast living room, he traced circles in the air with a finger, just above his head, as if to suggest the room was bugged. He also turned his large TV set to a music channel—which I feared would interfere with my recording of our interview. (It did not, something I only was able to confirm after leaving the Monsignor’s home.)
I wanted to get to know the man behind the scandal. To put him at ease, I avoided the subject of money laundering entirely at first. My very first question was about his first memory as a child. Then I asked him about the town where he grew up, his boyhood. We continued this way for quite a while, talking about his past. Not only was this great material, I could see him relaxing almost visibly as he looked back to a more innocent time. It was almost 45 minutes into the interview when we first touched on the subject of the investigation, and by then, he had begun to feel comfortable with me. I had so many questions: Who did he ask for help when he needed to move money in and out of his accounts? Where did all the money come from? Were the allegations against him true or false? What was he going to do with the millions of euros he had in his accounts? I knew that these questions could make him nervous—that he might even end our interview if he felt pushed—so I decided on a strategy of alternating between tough questions and “easier” personal ones. In the end, I stayed with him for nearly three hours.
As soon as I began going over a transcription of our interview, I realized I would have to work hard to verify what he had told me. Scarano had mentioned the name of the priest who had worked with him before he moved to the Vatican, so I looked him up online, found a phone number, and called him. At first he did not want to talk to me, but when I told him I was considering including in my article what Scarano had told me about him, he agreed to tell me his version of events. He also gave me the names of some of Scarano’s old friends from Salerno. Some of them also refused to talk to me until I told them that Scarano had spoken to me of his childhood there. In addition, I called the medical staff at a hospital where the Monsignor claimed to have been treated as a child. I also talked to prosecutors and lawyers, whose names I found in the court files, and re-read case court filings.
One essential thing I learned is that the reporting process is not linear—you get to know the right questions while you are reporting. I had to call, or meet, several people numerous times, in order to fill out an evolving narrative, and get a full picture of the world Scarano lived in while working in the Vatican.
The reporting process continued long after I turned in a first draft to the New York Times. The editorial staff was predictably rigorous, demanding, and patient. I have lost track of how many times they went through the story, asking questions about every detail, many of which required follow-up reporting. They asked me to look at my story anew, with the eyes of a reader—which made me realize how many things you begin to take for granted when you have been researching a story for weeks, or months. For instance, I am Italian and I know almost every Italian reader is going to know where Vatican city is, and that you don’t have to go through customs when entering St. Peter’s square from Rome—which turns out to be pretty handy if you ever need to take cash from the Vatican bank to another part of Italy. But given I was writing for a global audience, I had to explain this in the piece. They also helped me to restructure the narrative—providing contextualization near the top, so the reader knew immediately why was this story important, for example.
In the end, the Times editors kept editing right up until the day before the piece was scheduled for publication. It takes an incredible amount of stamina to read for the millionth time a story you know by heart, and to keep asking questions about it. But the stamina is worth it. It turns out the details are everything in good story telling.
This entry was posted on Tuesday, November 18th, 2014 at 2:15 pm. It is filed under Behind the Story and tagged with Corriere della Sera, International New York Times, James Stewart, Monsignor Scarano, Vatican. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.
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