News stories this week shouted that a vial of the late Pope John Paul II’s blood was stolen by Satanists! While the story contains a nugget of truth, media outlets from NBC News to The Daily Mail have sensationalized the story, changed facts, and used questionable, if any, sourcing.
Most eye-catching in the reports is the claim that Satanists wanted the Pope’s blood. But, very few news outlets actually listed a named source for those claims, and those that did quoted an organization that runs a hotline “to free your family from charlatans and cults.”
The New York Times just reported this afternoon that the relic case — but not the cloth — was found.
So what do we know, what’s made up, and where did the media go wrong? Read the backstory on how the media reported on this theft.
Fact! A Relic with Pope’s Blood WAS Stolen
This is what happened: A relic — a small piece of cloth that has the blood of the late Pope John Paul II on it — was stolen this past week from a small Italian church, San Pietro della Iena, which has a sanctuary for the late Pope.
The relic was given by Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz — now the Archbishop of Krakow — to the church, according to CBS News. Dziwisz was the pope’s secretary. The Irish Independent added that the relic was “a blood-soaked piece of cloth, most likely from the cassock John Paul was wearing on May 13, 1981 when he was shot in an assassination attempt, the office of Monsignor Slowomir Oder, the official in charge of John Paul’s sainthood cause, told Reuters.”
The relic and its theft are especially noteworthy as the late Pope will be declared a saint April 27, the Vatican said.
The church confirmed the theft with a Jan. 27 statement on its website. According to a Google Translate, church officials said they discovered the theft Jan. 26. All that was stolen was the relic containing the pope’s blood and a “small crucifix,” so the church believed the thieves specifically wanted the relic and the crucifix, as opposed to the money in its collection box or other church valuables. Below, see an image of the relic, which was posted on the church’s website.
That it was “a bit of blood-soaked cloth kept inside a painted metal cross” was confirmed by Carabinieri paramilitary police Col. Andrea Ronchey to the Associated Press, which commendably used named sources in its reporting.
Today, the New York Times reported that the crucifix and the relic’s case were found.
1st Problem: It was NOT a vial
As the picture above shows, the relic wasn’t a vial. And the vial wasn’t filled with the pope’s blood. The relic that was stolen was housed in a small box and contained cloth that had blood on it. That is a distinction and a difference to note. To get an idea of the size of the stolen relic, see the item in comparison to another religious marker.
Therefore, Time was wrong with its story headlined: “Vial filled with Pope’s blood was taken from a church in mountains east of Rome.” The story said the missing item was “a vial filled with his blood,” an entirely different item evoking entirely different imagery than the actual relic stolen.
What other news sources were wrong?
Fox News, the Washington Post, and the Agence France Presse. And, we’d be remiss to not include this pun-laden headline from the Irish Independent: “Vial thieves steal Pope John Paul’s blood from Italy church.”
2nd Problem: Satanists stole the relic? Claim based on ‘Anti-Occult’ website
The most exciting stories claimed that Satanists might have been responsible for the theft. But, as mentioned earlier, that claim doesn’t seem to hold water.
Everyone from NBC News to the Daily Mail reported the claim, either saying unnamed “police” claimed Satanists were involved. But the only NAMED source given for any of the Satan claims that iMediaEthics could find was an organization called Osservatorio Antiplagio, listed by Times Records News, the Telegraph, and Yahoo News.
iMediaEthics went to the organization’s website, which promotes calling its phone line “to free your family from charlatans and cults.” It certainly is’t a media watchdog organization.
Giovanni Panunzio, the group’s national coordinator, is quoted as saying, “It’s possible that Satanic sects are behind this theft.” He added:
“There are dates celebrated by Satanists that begin on January 25 and end on February 1 with the Satanic ‘New Year.”
Below is a round-up of some of the outlets that reported the bogus Satan claims.
Newser took things to the dramatic. Its article, which was published on USA Today‘s website said: “A vial of Pope John Paul II’s blood has been stolen … by Satanists? The first part is fact, the second speculation.”
The Wire didn’t give that much distancing, though, reporting:
“A religious relic containing some of Pope John Paul II’s blood was stolen from an Italian church over the weekend. Police believe it may be the work of Satanists, as, while the relic is rare and valuable, ‘resale would be highly difficult.'”
NBC News reported: “Italian police speculate the thieves may want it for satanic rites….As the late pontiff’s blood would be difficult to sell, Italian police said it is possible the thieves may plan to use it for satanic rites.”
The Daily Mail also went with the satanic angle: “Police are investigating the possibility that a Satanist sect could be involved, as the theft coincided with an important date in the Satanist calendar.
ABC News got in on the game as well, listing unnamed “experts.” ABC News’ report, “Dogs Sniff for Late Pope’s Stolen Blood,” read:
“Some experts are even suggesting that this theft could be linked to a satanic cult. Objects like this relic, with a special symbolic value, are particularly sought after by the flourishing trade in religious objects.”
3rd Problem: New York Daily News uses photo of WRONG relic with story
The New York Daily News reported on the theft in a Jan. 27 story, “Vial of Pope John Paul II’s blood stolen in Italy.” Its report was accompanied by two photos of the priceless relic, but here’s the kicker: They used pictures of the wrong Pope John Paul II relic!
The relic shown does not match photos provided by the church from where the relic was stolen.
The Daily News’ photos were credited to the Associated Press and showed a circular glass object apparently containing drops of blood.
But, when iMediaEthics searched the Associated Press’ Images website for a pope photo taken by William Fernando Martinez, we found the photo used by the Daily News. It was taken in Bogota, Colombia, and is of a different relic.
Interestingly, that relic was also stolen, back in 2012, but quickly recovered. According to an August 2012 Associated Press news report, the relic was in a priest’s backpack, which was stolen on a Rome-bound train. That relic was found “after a few hours of searching,” the AP reported.
See below the AP photo of the relic, dated Jan. 20, 2012.
The AP’s caption states:
“The blood of Juan Paul II sits on display in a reliquary during a Mass in honor of Pope Juan Pablo II at the Cathedral in Bogota, Colombia, Friday Jan. 20, 2012. The silver reliquary of blood taken from John Paul II during his last hospitalization before his death in 2005, arrived in Bogota on Thursday night on a flight from Rome, where it will return on Monday. (AP Photo/William Fernando Martinez)”
4th Problem: Pope assassination attempt was in 1980, not 1981
The attack was on May 14, 1981 in Vatican Square.
Real or fake? Dogs sniffing for the relic?
This one, we’re not sure of. Numerous news outlets, including the BBC and ABC News, reported that the Italian police are using “sniffer dogs” to try and track down the relic.
The claim is oddly specific, with Newser/USA Today and the Daily Mail saying there were exactly 50 police and dogs on the hunt. While we don’t know if this is real or exaggerated, iMediaEthics did find it unusual to say the least. iMediaEthics has asked the church and the Italian police for confirmation of the report and will update with any response.
Below is a selection of news outlets and how they reported the dog claim. The Daily Mail threw in a nice little detail to include Mussolini in its report.
- Irish Independent: “Dozens of police with sniffer dogs were still scouring the remote, snow-blanketed area for clues on Tuesday.”
- Newser/USA Today: “Now, some 50 police and sniffer dogs are combing the area (a favorite ski destination of the pope, who liked to quietly pray in the church, reports Reuters) looking for the missing vial.”
- The BBC: “Dozens of police officers are now searching the area with sniffer dogs.”
- The Wire: “Dozens of police officers are currently searching the area with sniffer dogs, the BBC reports”
- ABC News: “Dozens of police with sniffer dogs searched the area around the church of San Pietro della Ienca in the central mountainous Abbruzzo region of Italy for a stolen relic containing a fragment of cloth stained with the blood of the late Pope John Paul II.”
- New York Post: “About 50 Italian policemen with sniffer dogs searched the area around a tiny mountain church for a religious relic stained with the late Pope John Paul II’s blood — amid intense speculation that it was stolen by a Satanic cult.”
- Daily Mail: “Fifty carabinieri and sniffer dogs were yesterday combing the mountain where fascist dictator Mussolini was rescued by SS commandoes after his capture by Allied forces in 1943.
iMediaEthics has asked the Archbishop of Krakow, who gave the relic to the church, and Msgr. Oder, who leads the pope’s sainthood cause, for more information and comment. We’ll update with any response.
UPDATE: 1/30/2014 2:26 PM EST Added NYTimes report