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Religion trivialized in Philadelphia coverage


Some 15 years ago, during my 12-year tenure as religion writer at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, I picked up a tip that a theater specializing in pornography was owned by the St. Louis archdiocese. It seemly highly unlikely that such a rumor could be true. But the source seemed reliable. With an editor’s encouragement, I decided to check it out.

Imagine the surprise in the newsroom when St. Louis County property files revealed that the archdiocese was a co-owner of the property with nine other religious and charitable institutions. The institutions were variously operated by five orders of Catholic nuns, the Southern Baptists and the United Church of Christ. Officials of at least two of the groups, Catholics and Southern Baptists, had been outspoken opponents of pornography during the seven years they had derived income from a theater that regularly showed X-rated films.

A story on the front page of the Post-Dispatch proved highly embarrassing, yet ultimately helpful, to the religious groups. The property, with a lease already in place, had been bequeathed seven years earlier to the groups by a couple who wanted to honor their favorite charities but didn’t know what sort of entertainment the new lease would bring. Some of the heirs wanted to sell but found the prospect daunting, given the multiple owners; some rationalized; others forgot over time that the property was theirs.

Within a short time after the article ran, a buyer came forward to relieve the religious groups of an ecumenical enterprise that was unintended and unwanted.

Despite a happy ending, the story about the theater, like a number of other stories I wrote for the Post-Dispatch, caused discomfort in some quarters. Certain readers and religious leaders considered it somehow wrong to make embarrassing information public. I am happy to report that my editors never flinched.

NCR risks similar displeasure from readers week after week when it breaks controversial stories, including wearisome accounts of the now all-too-familiar problem of clergy sex abuse. We don’t necessarily make friends. Too much bad news, some Catholics say. One more sign that the press is out to get religion.

That attitude -- that the press should handle religion with kid gloves lest readers get upset -- is alleged to be at the heart of a controversy currently raging in Philadelphia and peripherally involving NCR. Ralph Cipriano, a reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer until he was recently fired, contends in a lawsuit that his efforts to report on Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua’s spending habits had been rebuffed by Inquirer editors who feared offending the archdiocese and its heavily Catholic readership. Cipriano wrote the story for NCR based on documents showing, among other things, that Bevilacqua had spent heavily and secretly on a variety of projects, including refurbishing his own mansion, during a period when several Philadelphia parishes were being closed. The story ran in NCR’s June 19 issue.

The full story is recounted in the October issue of American Journalism Review. Cipriano was fired after he sued Inquirer editor Robert Rosenthal for libel. The suit stemmed from a comment Rosenthal made to The Washington Post about Cipriano’s work.

Although good journalists can, and almost certainly will, disagree over coverage, one principle has guided my own reporting on religion over some 20 years. It is that religious organizations, like other cultural institutions, should be accountable to the people who support them -- people who include myself, members of my family and many of my neighbors and friends.

I consider myself lucky to have worked at papers where editors shared my instincts about religion: especially that it should not be treated as a sacred cow. Such editors understand that religious organizations wield wide influence in our society and command, often deservedly, wide respect. These are institutions that claim a great deal for themselves. They preach morality, teach values and offer answers to many critical questions, including the most basic question of all: the meaning of life itself.

Our society, if not directly supportive of religion, is gracious, according people freedom to practice their beliefs and exempting religious institutions from paying taxes. Religious organizations are presumed to do what they purport to do: live by high ideals.

Yet history, including recent history, shows that religious leaders sometimes fall short. Like all human institutions, religious organizations are subject to hypocrisy and corruption. Power, wealth and influence can be, have been and will be abused.

That’s where the press comes in. While reporters can’t undertake reform, they can question, probe and challenge. They can exercise watchfulness on behalf of those who care. Editors, for their part, do well to assume that many readers, perhaps most, will be grateful when religion is covered as aggressively as government, business and other cultural institutions.

A newspaper worthy of its readers assures them through vigilant coverage of both good news and bad that it considers religion important. Too important to be left alone.

Pamela Schaeffer is NCR’s special projects editor. Her E-mail address is pamlives@aol.com.

National Catholic Reporter, October 23, 1998