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Philadelphia reporter settles lawsuit

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

When a lengthy article about the Philadelphia archdiocese by Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Ralph Cipriano appeared in the National Catholic Reporter in 1998, Cipriano’s boss was not pleased. Given a chance to vent his displeasure, Inquirer editor Robert Rosenthal took it, telling The Washington Post that he had long since decided that Cipriano could not be trusted to report fairly on the Catholic church.

These remarks, Cipriano claimed, cost him his reputation as an ethical journalist. The defamation suit he would later file cost him his job. But last week, Rosenthal’s comments cost the Inquirer’s parent company, Philadelphia Newspapers Inc.

Philadelphia Newspapers settled the suit, which had charged Rosenthal with libel, for a sum said by reliable sources to be between $3 million and $7 million.

Cipriano expressed satisfaction. In a statement released Jan. 5 by Philadelphia Newspapers, he said, “I’m pleased that we’ve been able to settle this matter. From the beginning I felt very strongly about my case, and I feel no less strongly about it today, but I’d like to get on with my life, and this settlement is a way to end this chapter and move on.”

The statement included a blunt apology from Rosenthal: “I regret having made my comments to the Post,” he said. “They were intemperate, and I apologize for them.”

Though Cipriano’s suit was prompted by Rosenthal’s June 1998 comments, it had its origins in his days as the Inquirer’s religion reporter from 1991 to 1993. Cipriano, a non-practicing Catholic at the time, annoyed the Philadelphia archdiocese from the start. His first story was a feature on a man serving as a self-styled spiritual guide for gays dying of AIDS. The man, since deceased, had once helped organize a demonstration at the Basilica of Ss. Peter and Paul as Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua led a worship service for people with AIDS. One of the protesters, not the man Cipriano wrote about, dumped condoms on the altar.

The story provoked an executive of the public relations firm retained by Bevilacqua to allege that Cipriano harbored an anti-Catholic bias. The allegation of bias from the archdiocese would not be the last.

Cipriano had been off the religion beat for three years when he was asked, in 1996, to write an in-depth profile of Bevilacqua for the Inquirer’s Sunday magazine. In the course of that reporting he received documents pertaining to archdiocesan spending during a period in the early to mid-1990s when several parishes in poor, minority neighborhoods were being closed.

The subject matter was deemed too sensitive for the magazine, and news editors took over.

Cipriano suggested working the information into a larger story, or series, on Catholic Life 2000, the archdiocese’s early ’90s $100 million fundraising campaign. A team of Inquirer reporters and editors began meeting with archdiocesan representatives, including executives from The Tierney Group, a public relations firm, to discuss access to information. But when the archdiocese learned in fall of 1996 that Cipriano had visited the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections to review building permits, negotiations over access broke down.

“[Brian] Tierney himself told me he would run a campaign against me and the Inquirer” if the paper continued to pursue matters of spending, Cipriano told Philadelphia City Paper in 1998. Tierney denied making any threats.

The series on Catholic Life 2000 was never completed, though Cipriano, acting on advice of a sympathetic editor, wrote an article based on information he had already gathered. The long piece, on archdiocesan spending within the context of the parish closings, prompted an internal debate at the Inquirer that raged for months.

Cipriano said later that various editors adamantly opposed publishing the story, for reasons that -- to him, at least -- were never entirely clear. A lengthy editing process whittled the story down to a single element: the archdiocese’s $500,000, state-of-the-art conference room. The story, published in April 1997, made no mention of parish closings, but it rankled archdiocesan officials. Bevilacqua blasted the paper, and Cipriano specifically. In his monthly newsletter, Bevilacqua wrote, “Despite what I believe to be clear and convincing evidence concerning the bias of this writer, the Inquirer chose to print this distorted article.”

One of Cipriano’s sources suggested he pitch his story to the National Catholic Reporter. Intrigued by the reporter’s one-and-a-half-page query, which noted that he had obtained hard-to-get archdiocesan records, NCR editors began a vetting process that would take more than a year. The result, “Lavish spending in archdiocese skips inner city,” a 10,000-word investigative report on archdiocese spending and Bevilacqua’s leadership, was published in June 1998.

The article won top honors from the Catholic Press Association in 1999 in the investigative reporting category of its competition.

The NCR report itself became the subject of a story. The Philadelphia City Paper published an account of Cipriano’s run-ins with Inquirer editors, and his decision to take the material to NCR. The following day, Washington Post media columnist Howard Kurtz called Inquirer editor Rosenthal for comment. And that’s when Rosenthal delivered his now-infamous assessment of Cipriano’s integrity:

Rosenthal described Cipriano as a reporter with “a very strong personal point of view and an agenda. … There were things we didn’t publish that Ralph wrote that we didn’t think were truthful. He could never prove them.”

Rosenthal eventually sent a letter to the Post in an attempt to clarify his statements, but it stopped short of a retraction. (Rosenthal said in a deposition in 1999 that the letter had been written by the Inquirer’s attorney.)

Cipriano filed his libel suit in August 1998, almost two months after Rosenthal’s comments appeared. Cipriano was promptly suspended, then fired.

Cipriano, who teaches journalism at Temple University and freelances for Philadelphia City Paper, has declined to discuss the settlement. Rosenthal’s executive assistant said Rosenthal would have no comment.

National Catholic Reporter, January 19, 2001