Fall 1998, Vol. 1, No. 2

Contents Page,
Vol. 1, No. 2


Quick Links
to other articles
in this issue:
A New Establishment?

Race and Disgrace

Submission in Salt Lake

Church, Lies, and Polling Data

Catholic Controversy I:  Jesus Off Broadway

Catholic Controversy II:  Handling Pedophilia

On the Beat:  "Irreligion" in Denmark

The Oklahoman's Bible Belt

Catholic Controversy III: Philadelphia Story

by Andrew Walsh

On August 21, two mid-level editors of the Philadelphia Inquirer visited the home of reporter Ralph Cipriano and delivered a letter terminating Cipriano’s 11-year career with the newspaper. The letter charged Cipriano with, among other things, "breach of a duty of loyalty" to the newspaper, insubordination, and refusal to turn over notes on Cipriano’s long-running investigation of Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua and the Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

The firing came after an embarrassingly public wrangle between Cipriano and the editors, a dispute that included charges by Cipriano that the Inquirer had repeatedly knuckled under in the face of tenacious and aggressive efforts by the Church to control news coverage. Last spring, Cipriano was so frustrated that he took his story outside the Inquirer, writing a 10,000-word profile on Bevilacqua in the National Catholic Reporter (NCR), a lay-edited weekly. The June 19th story carried the headline Cipriano wanted and couldn’t get from the Inquirer: "Lavish spending in archdiocese skips inner city."

"I went to National Catholic Reporter because I thought Cardinal Tony Bevilacqua was not above examination and I thought my newspaper had given this guy a free pass for years," Cipriano told Frank Lewis of the Philadelphia City Paper, which published a gleeful expos_ of the dispute inside the Inquirer headlined "Holy War" on June 11.

Howard Kurtz, the Washington Post’s media reporter, jumped on the story on June 13, in an article headlined, "Crossed Agenda: Church vs. Reporter." Kurtz asked Inquirer editor Robert Rosenthal about Cipriano’s claim that his efforts to hold Bevilacqua accountable for self-indulgent spending while shutting down 15 inner-city parishes had been consistently watered down, held, or suppressed.

Rosenthal rejected the charge passionately and told the Post that Inquirer editors acted cautiously because Cipriano "has a very strong personal point of view and an agenda. There were things that we didn’t publish that Ralph wrote that we didn’t think were truthful. He could never prove them."

Within a month, Cipriano had filed a libel suit against Rosenthal and the Inquirer, and had been fired.

"This is one of those situations that lurched out of control," William Marimow, managing editor of the Baltimore Sun and a former Inquirer editor told Alicia Shepard of the American Journalism Review (AJR), which anatomized the case in its October issue. "Now it has the makings of a true tragedy. It’s bad for Ralph, bad for Bob, bad for the Inquirer and bad for newspapering in general."

Cipriano’s long bout with the Archdiocese of Philadelphia began soon after he was appointed the Inquirer’s religion writer in 1991. In the course of two years on the beat, he either encountered or provoked intense resistance from the Archdiocese, which includes 1.4 million people, or almost 40 percent of metropolitan Philadelphia’s population. Church officials responded to stories they didn’t like with barrages of faxes and, increasingly, demands to meet with senior editors. Most aggressive of all was Brian Tierney, a leading Philadelphia advertising and public relations man retained by the Archdiocese in 1990.

In 1992 Cipriano began to write frequently about one of the most controversial issues of the 1990s, the closing of inner-city parishes and parochial schools affected by the rapid fall in the Catholic population in inner cities. In the 1980s and early 1990s, the number of Catholics registered at Philadelphia parishes fell by 180,000. In the early 1990s, Bevilacqua began to consider the consolidation of some parishes and closing of others, especially in largely black and Hispanic North Philadelphia.

Following up on the tips of Catholic dissidents, Cipriano began to explore charges that Bevilacqua’s fiscal management was poor. Sources reported his record of deficit spending while bishop of Pittsburgh in the 1980s, questioned the allocation of the fruits of the Archdiocese’s successful $100 million capital campaign in the early 1990s, and pointed out a pattern of spending on projects like the refurbishment of the bishop’s residence and a home for retired priests at the New Jersey shore.

Tierney responded with maximum vigor, charging in meetings with senior Inquirer editors that Cipriano was biased, systematically anti-Catholic, and engaged in a personal vendetta against Bevilacqua. "I’m not going to get hit over the head without responding," he told the AJR.

Assigned in 1992 to write a profile of Bevilacqua, Cipriano struggled to persuade editors to print a story strongly critical of the cardinal. For Cipriano, the situation demanded a story that called Bevilacqua to account, a story about inner-city parish and school closing framed clearly in the light of lavish personal spending by the cardinal. His high concept was a story about hypocrisy in high places.

A reasonable case can be made that Cipriano was overreaching from the beginning. Sooner or later the Archdiocese had to respond to changing demographics that left many inner-city parishes almost deserted. Whether the Archdiocese or Bevilacqua was being cavalier was certainly a good question. But even the National Catholic Reporter, so noted for its willingness to take shots at the Catholic hierarchy, was careful to emphasize in its introduction to Cipriano’s 1998 piece that church closings are a painful issue nationwide. Bishops who refuse to close some parishes may actually be creating worse problems for their successors.

There’s no question, however, that the Philadelphia Archdiocese stands out in its hostility to a probing press. Its refusal to acknowledge that legitimate questions might be raised about its policies or conduct is notable. "There were in my experience in Philadelphia two organizations that were the most energetic and active in criticizing almost any coverage of them, said James Naughton, executive editor of the Inquirer for much of the 1980s and early 1990s and now president of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. "They would find fault with everything. One was the Philadelphia Electric Co. and the other was the Catholic Archdiocese. For their part, the Archdiocese was suspicious of the motivation of the paper, the editors, and the reporters."

Inquirer editors have consistently denied that they have been influenced by relentless pressure from the Archdiocese. But there certainly has been relentless pressure. And some at the paper think that the Inquirer has indeed bent over backward to accommodate the Archdiocese’s inflamed sensibilities. Some say that Naughton himself was responsible for a pattern of decisions that repeatedly gave Bevilacqua and the Archdiocese the benefit of the doubt. It is not so much, they say, that negative stories were suppressed, but rather that editors making news judgments couldn’t be persuaded to publish stories that put several themes together into a hard-hitting interpretive package.

The result was a chain of events that feed the impression that the newspaper was sensitive to pressure from the Catholic Church, a posture surprising for a newspaper with a tradition of aggressive investigative reporting.

On February 7, 1993, the Inquirer published a page-one profile by Cipriano headlined, "The Shepherd with a Briefcase" that raised many issues about Bevilacqua, his management style, and the lack of public accountability for the church’s fiscal practices. But it wasn’t the hard-hitting piece that Cipriano says he fought for. The page-one spread, for example, included a photograph of Bevilacqua kissing an elderly hospital patient.

Soon afterwards, Cipriano left the religion beat for another assignment. His successor, William Macklin, soon got the same full-court press from archdiocesan officials. In 1994 and 1995, Macklin’s efforts to write a lengthy follow-up story on the impact of the closing of 15 parishes in inner-city Philadelphia and Chester never made it into print.

High-level meetings between Tierney and Inquirer editors continued and Macklin eventually found himself to be the target of an official and personal denunciation from Bevilacqua that was read from the pulpit or distributed at allof the parishes in the Archdiocese. In 1995, Macklin took a job with the newspaper’s feature section.

The Archdiocese’s representatives have consistently displayed remarkable-indeed almost unprecedented-zeal to protect their public image. The Philadelphia City Paper, for example, quoted one unnamed Inquirer editor who said that an archdiocesan public relations official told him in late 1996 or early 1997 that the Church has "a responsibility to make sure the newspaper doesn’t tell (Catholics) things we don’t want them to know."

The article in AJR quotes official archdiocesan spokeswoman Cathy Rossi in a similar vein. She suggested that the church leaders weren’t used to having their motives or performance called into question. "There’s been a feeling that they are making the best decisions and why should anyone question it."

Almost unaccountably, given the background, in August of 1996, the editor of the Inquirer’s Sunday Magazine asked Cipriano-long off the religion beat-to write another profile of Bevilacqua. Cipriano quickly acquired a group of official church documents that revealed spending patterns during the period of parish closings. One focal point was the expenditure of more than $500,000 for a high-tech media center. Because of its hard news value, Cipriano’s story was moved into the regular pages of the Inquirer, where it went through extended editing. In February of 1997, the Inquirer finally published a relatively brief story headlined, "Archdiocese’s Center Gets Little Use. More than $500,000 Went Into ‘Multimedia’ Project. Its Envisioned Function Wasn’t Fully Realized."

Bevilacqua then denounced the piece as "fallacious" in a bulletin mailed to every member of the Archdiocese. Brian Tierney later told the Philadelphia City Paper that he compared Cipriano to a "low-grade infection that keeps coming back."

Despite the story printed by the Inquirer, Cipriano still expressed frustration that that he wasn’t permitted to put all the pieces together forcefully and at length. He had pieced together evidence that Bevilacqua had spent $5 million on renovations to his residence, three office buildings, his vacation home, and improvements to the archdiocesan cathedral in the same period as it was closing inner-city churches.

So in the summer of 1997, Cipriano turned to the National Catholic Reporter and developed a lengthy and hard-hitting profile on Bevilacqua. Last spring, the Philadelphia City Paper got wind of the NCR story, and it quoted Cipriano in ways that suggest the Inquirer’s editors had reason to worry that their reporter had gone over the top. "The Jesus I read about in the Bible is the opposite of what Cardinal Tony Bevilacqua is," Cipriano told the City Paper. "Jesus ate with the Pharisees and tax collectors, and this guy has condemned me in every house in the Archdiocese. He’s a poor advocate for his faith. Actually, he’s a Pharisee."

The central issue was the linkage of parish closings to a simultaneous expenditure of $5 million on six buildings primarily used by the cardinal and his administrators.

"The spending and the closings are two separate issues," archdiocesan spokeswoman Rossi insisted in the AJR. "You can’t let a building standing for 20 years just go without infrastructure improvements. The timing was such [that] it was necessary to do these improvements. Those improvements coincided with the start of a very painful procedure of evaluating the viability of parishes."

That’s reasonable and maybe even true. But journalism is a form of moral discourse. Although Ralph Cipriano’s dogged insistence that The Story was simply about hypocrisy in high places was simplistic, the Archdiocese had a moral obligation to justify its spending choices publicly. The Inquirer’s editors failed to call the Archdiocese to account.

The Philadelphia City Paper, of course, delights in tweaking the Inquirer’s nose. Nevertheless, its barbed observation still holds force: "Whatever the reason, the Inquirer seems to tread lightly when dealing with the Catholic Church in the news. And whether or not the Church does receive special treatment, the Philadelphia Archdiocese is ever ready to use any weapon it can muster, including personal attacks on reporters, to combat what it perceives as unfair coverage."

That may be the moral of the story: It’s still a risky thing to mess with the Cardinal Archbishop of Philadelphia.