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Messenger encounters risky rewards of covering church in Philadelphia

NCR Staff

Ralph Cipriano, The Philadelphia Inquirer reporter responsible for the article on Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua and the Philadelphia archdiocese that appears on these pages, was invited to cover religion at the Inquirer in 1991.

Although the Inquirer is known nationally as a crusading paper -- it has won 18 Pulitzer Prizes since 1975 -- editors are ultra-sensitive about criticizing Bevilacqua, said Cipriano, who thinks church leaders should be subject to the same scrutiny as other public figures.

In 10 years, only one profile of the cardinal has appeared in the Inquirer, Cipriano said -- one he wrote just before leaving the beat in 1993. As a result, he said, much of the information in the NCR story will be new even to Philadelphians.

Cipriano comes from a long line of Lebanese Maronite priests on his mother’s side, including a great-grandfather who was a bishop, and from Italian Catholics on his father’s side. Although Cipriano remains a reporter at the Inquirer, he no longer covers religion. He and a religion writer who followed him were both denounced publicly by Bevilacqua and subsequently moved to other beats. Further, according to the Philadelphia City Paper, an alternative newsweekly, efforts by a team of Inquirer journalists to report on the Catholic church and its money in the archdiocese were ultimately squelched.

The Inquirer did run a story on April 14, 1997, by Cipriano describing the archdiocesan multimedia conference center. (The center is described in Cipriano’s story here.) The article got Cipriano and his editors a verbal lashing from the cardinal in his column in the archdiocesan newspaper. In a special mailing, a copy of the column was sent to every Catholic household in the archdiocese. Bevilacqua charged that Cipriano got the facts wrong and harbored bias against the church.

Bevilacqua described his efforts to head off the story before it ran, including “several meetings involving the Inquirer’s senior management personnel and archdiocesan representatives.” At those meetings, Bevilacqua wrote, “our concerns about bias on the part of the reporter as well as a variety of facts related to the renovation of the building itself were discussed. One of the editors received follow-up correspondence from the archdiocese.”

“The Philadelphia Inquirer, by printing this fallacious story, has done a great disservice to all the faithful of this archdiocese,” Bevilacqua wrote, “for the story invites the reader to a belief that the Catholic archdiocese consciously prioritizes material values and corporate life over spiritual values and service to the poor. As your archbishop, I assure you I will not remain silent, allowing any reporter or news organization to unjustly malign the Catholic church.”

On May 19, 1997, the Inquirer printed on its editorial page a long letter from an archdiocesan official criticizing Cipriano’s report. It was followed by a point-by-point rebuttal from Maxwell E.P. King, then the Inquirer editor. The archdiocese alleged a variety of errors; the Inquirer acknowledged only one: that Cardinal John Krol had served as spiritual leader for 27 years rather than the 29 reported, which failed to account for a transition period before power was formally transferred. Otherwise, wrote King, the article was “accurate, fair and responsible,” and he called Cipriano an “objective and ethical” member of the Inquirer’s staff.

Philadelphia City Paper, the area’s alternative newsweekly, reported in its On Media column in the same month, “Sources inside and outside the Inquirer say the paper recently bowed to tremendous pressure from the Philadelphia archdiocese and opted to run only a fraction of the information gathered for a story about archdiocese spending during the period in which it closed parishes in the city.”

Frank Lewis, author of the column, wrote another on May 22, 1997, which began, “Some at the Inquirer will tell you that the paper covers the Philadelphia archdiocese as thoroughly and unflinchingly as it covers any other major institution. Others, however, will contend that the archdiocese has enjoyed tremendous control over coverage of itself for several years, pressuring editors to scuttle articles and reassign writers.”

One of the cardinal’s concerns about Cipriano, according to Bevilacqua’s scolding in The Voice of Your Shepherd, was that Cipriano had once said in an article that he “shuns organized religion.” What Bevilacqua doesn’t know is that as a result of Cipriano’s experiences on the religion beat, a full reading of the Bible and baptism in the River Jordan, Cipriano became a Christian and, along with his wife and two sons, a regular churchgoer.

Partly as a result of his experiences with the archdiocese, Cipriano did not return to his Catholic roots. “What really stuck in my head,” Cipriano said, “was that Bevilacqua said he was going to remake the archdiocese so that at the end of a nine-year spiritual renewal it would be more reflective of Christ.” To Cipriano, much of what was happening in the archdiocese was “the antithesis” of what the Jesus of the gospels was all about.

Cipriano is presently part of a team of reporters that covers the city neighborhoods. He also writes for the Inquirer’s Sunday magazine. Last Thanksgiving, in an investigative story that ran on the Inquirer’s front page, he revealed maneuvers at the University of Pennsylvania to preserve the eligibility of football star Mitch Marrow by arranging an independent study course the day before the season’s final game.

As a result of Cipriano’s story, and a follow-up investigation by the NCAA, the university voluntarily forfeited its 1997 season. Cipriano said league officials told him it was the first eligibility scandal in the history of the Ivy League.

While covering religion, Cipriano was urged by his editors to seek out unusual stories. His first was about a gay hairdresser who drove around town in a beat-up Oldsmobile with a sign that said “Expect a Miracle” on the dashboard. Cipriano took a 10-day trip to Israel in 1993 with faith healer Benny Hinn. In the story that ran in the Sunday magazine, Cipriano wrote that the pastor’s wacky hairdo made him look like Gumby. “He got a haircut after he read it,” Cipriano said. “That probably goes down as my major accomplishment on the beat.”

National Catholic Reporter, June 19, 1998