A 28-year-old guy living in his parents' basement in South Philadelphia just might be one of the foremost experts on the Archdiocese of Baltimore, if not the whole American Catholic Church.
Rocco Palmo facetiously calls himself "The Church Whisperer," and over the past six years, his blog has become a must-read for ecclesiastical insiders. After starting with just three readers a few days before Christmas in 2004, Palmo has built up a audience of roughly 500,000 unique visitors each month. When he attends church conferences, he's treated like a rock star. Archbishops line up to shake his hand.
His most recent scoop occurred last week when Baltimore's own Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien was appointed to the prestigious post of grand master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem. The news broke in Palmo's blog, "Whispers in the Loggia," on Aug. 27 — two days before the appointment was officially announced by the Vatican.
That's not bad for a guy who, unlike his competition in the Catholic press, has managed to develop highly placed sources in the Holy See without ever having lived inRome. It's not bad for a guy with a college degree in political science who learned journalism on the fly. And it's not bad considering that Palmo is covering a notoriously secretive institution whose sources could be excommunicated for slipping him information.
"People always want to know how I find out pontifical secrets," Palmo said during a recent meeting at a Fells Point restaurant.
"I was raised in a large Italian family, and that's a pretty good template for the upper reaches of the Vatican. Everybody knows, but nobody knows. There are things that aren't talked about at the dinner table. But after every family gathering, there's a five-way conference call. Our natural instinct is to share."
Officials at the Baltimore archdiocese weren't thrilled that O'Brien's departure leaked out two days before the official announcement; they would have liked to notify their priests, nuns and parishioners themselves. But they weren't surprised.
"Given Rocco's contacts and access, it's not uncommon for his blog to have these scoops," says Sean Caine, the archdiocese's director of communications.
"I think it's great to have another source of information about the church that is widely respected, accurate and informative. Rocco knows more about the history of the Archdiocese of Baltimore than anyone on the outside that I've ever met, and as much as most people on the inside."
Palmo declined to speculate about the name of Baltimore's next archbishop, saying that it will be at least three months before finalists surface. But he suggested that O'Brien may make some controversial decisions while awaiting his replacement.
"There's a long tradition of desk-cleaning when archbishops step down," Palmo said.
"He will want to leave his successor in the best possible shape and spare him from making unpopular decisions. I would not be surprised if decisions began to be made about whether certain parishes should be consolidated or closed. He has the authority to do it."
Not just any blogger or religion writer could have broken the news of O'Brien's departure.
"It was a dazzling scoop," said Patricia Rice, a longtime, freelance religion writer based in St. Louis. "Nobody seemed to know about it. Nobody. It's a very nice assignment, very desirable, and there were a lot of rumors. Someone else was expected to get it. O'Brien's name was never mentioned."
(The ancient order of knights that O'Brien will head currently supports schools, health care and humanitarian relief in the Holy Land.)
Palmo wasn't born church-obsessed. He grew up in South Philly with his mother, who was employed in the office of a trucking company; his father, who worked in the circulation department for the Philadelphia Daily News; a younger sister — and 31 first cousins.
"I wasn't into the church as a kid," he says. "I had to get dragged to Mass. I thought it was boring and flat."
That changed in July 1991, when Anthony Bevilacqua celebrated his first Mass at home after having been elevated from archbishop to cardinal. While greeting a line of well-wishers, the prelate got down on one knee to chat with 8-year-old Rocco.
The boy later wrote a thank-you letter, a correspondence began, and the family was invited to visit Bevilacqua in his office. The cardinal started mentoring the young boy with the inquisitive mind, and before long, Rocco had the run of the archdiocese. He began almost unconsciously to absorb the fine points of ecclesiastical history, canon law and a subject even more byzantine — the inner functioning of the church bureaucracy.
"I got to know people," he said. "We began to talk about what was going on. And, it just captivated me. The expectation was that I was going to become a priest."
How could they help but open up to him, given the widespread news of priest shortages, the ever-dwindling number of young men studying to be ordained?
But at age 13, Rocco developed a crush on a girl he met while attending a conference in Denver, and realized he wasn't cut out for celibacy. He also found he could play a vital role in the institution he loved without taking Holy Orders.
Rice first became aware of Palmo in the summer of 2003 when the college student phoned her out of the blue to ask her to find out Justin Rigali's favorite wine. Rigali was then archbishop of St. Louis, but Palmo informed the startled Missouri journalist that he was about to accept an appointment to head the Catholic Church in Philadelphia. Palmo hoped to present Rigali with a gift bottle upon his arrival.
"No archbishop had ever left St. Louis before, and the idea that somebody would was amazing," Rice said. "That was the first time I knew that this kid had incredible contacts."
Palmo started "Whispers in the Loggia" in December 2004, seven months after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania. From the beginning, the blog had a brash, slightly cheeky tone that irritated some viewers while entertaining others.
For instance, Palmo routinely refers to Pope Benedict XVI as "B16" or "His Fluffiness" in reference to the pontiff's cloud-like white mane.
But his teasing apparently hasn't riled the Vatican, which recently invited Palmo to Rome to participate in a panel on social media.
"People who would never speak to a reporter will talk to Rocco," said John Rivera, a former religion reporter for The Sun who now is director of communications for Catholic Relief Services.
"Partly, it's because he clearly loves the church and is writing from the inside. He'll criticize the church, but he's not a critic of it."
That's not to say that Palmo is an apologist for the institution. Far from it. He has spoken out tirelessly against those priests involved in sex scandals, and those accused of protecting the clerics — including Bevilacqua.
A court hearing is scheduled for Sept. 12 to determine whether the retired cardinal is competent to testify as a witness in a criminal trial involving another cleric. The Philadelphia Daily News quoted Bevilacqua's attorney as saying that his client is suffering from prostate cancer and dementia.
Palmo said he tried many times to talk to Bevilacqua about his alleged role in a cover-up. He hasn't seen or spoken to the cardinal since 2007. Bevilacqua was never charged with a crime, and Palmo is aware that he'll probably never know what really happened. So all he can do is to piece together what information he can from court proceedings and from his discussions with abuse survivors.
"He taught me that what's best for the church," Palmo said, "is more important than what's best for any one person."
Palmo hasn't always been right, though he said that both his standards and accuracy have risen in recent years. Nor does everyone like him. He's been publicly shunned by church officials who think that appointments supposedly protected by a papal vow of secrecy should remain just that — secret.
"There are times when I've been introducing myself to someone at a conference, and the other person will whip back his hand, turn on his heel and walk away," Palmo said.
But even his staunchest critics acknowledge that the blogger practices what he preaches.
If he's still living in his parents' basement and not in Baltimore, a city he loves, it's because he has refused almost perversely to profit from his round-the-clock labors.
For instance, "Whispers in the Loggia" is on the verge of getting 20 million page views a year. That's a figure that could translate into a living wage, if Palmo would only agree to sell advertising on his site. (He fears that accepting ads would both compromise his journalistic integrity and cut into his reporting time.)
He has turned down more than one offer of a full-time job that would require him to either cut back on or stop writing his blog.
He only recently has begun soliciting donations to cover such expenses as his cellphone bill, but will accept funding from no individuals or institutions that he covers. When he attended the panel in Rome, he paid his own way.
His growing reputation in the outside world can at time conflict in interesting ways with the realities of his living situation.
In 2010, he received an honorary doctorate from the Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis. His parents beamed from the audience. And then when they got home, his mother told him to clean his bedroom.
"My family is what keeps me grounded," he said.
And, though Palmo hopes one day to marry and have children, he acknowledges that it's hard to find romantic partners when the only women he meets have all taken vows of chastity.
He's 28 now. When asked how long he can continue to avoid becoming financially solvent, he shrugs.
"I'm very blessed to be able to do what I do," he said.
"It's the experience of a lifetime. People always want to know what my next act is going to be, but I want to know why I can't go on doing this one.
"The only person who has a better vantage point than I do on life in the Catholic Church is the pope — and I don't have to wear white."
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