National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  January 9, 2004

Bishop fires diocesan editor

Newspaper's interview with Catholic historian provokes decision

Raleigh, N.C.

Some people argue that the Catholic church is broken and wounded and in need of some healing. John Strange found out there can be severe consequences for saying so in print -- especially if you’re the editor of the NC Catholic, the bimonthly newspaper of the Raleigh diocese.

Raleigh Bishop Joseph Gossman, who is publisher of NC Catholic, walked into Strange’s Catholic Center office a week before Christmas and notified his editor he was being immediately terminated from the position he has held for almost a decade.

The decision was the result of an interview with Chapel Hill, N.C., author William Powers that Strange wrote and published in the Dec. 14 issue. The story was mostly about Powers’ new book, Tar Heel Catholics: A History of Catholicism in North Carolina.

A retired sociology professor who served as a priest in New York before leaving the active priesthood, Powers approached Gossman in 1997 about writing the history. Gossman authorized the book and gave Powers full access to diocesan archives to do his research. The book was published in October.

In the article, Strange asked Powers some general questions about the state of the church. Powers said the church was “sick” because it was unable to recruit enough priests to serve its flock.

“No organization has trouble finding key workers unless there is something wrong with it,” Powers said. “God’s giving us a message here; something’s got to give.”

Powers said opening the priesthood to women and married men would continue to be an issue in the church. He also said the U.S. church may be “following the pattern emerging” in nations such as France, Italy and Ireland where Mass attendance has declined and “the church no longer seems relevant.”

“It will change. It has to. The show is over unless it does change,” Powers told Strange in comments that were not taken from the book.

Gossman’s decision sent a chill among some Catholic Center staff. None of those reached were willing to comment on the record about Gossman’s decision to fire Strange.

“What it also did is it put an incredible pall of anxiety over the whole Catholic Center where everybody there now feels they could have the same experience if they step out of line in the slightest,” according to Powers, who said he spoke with several of his Catholic Center friends he made while working on the book.

Fr. J. Paul Byron, a Chapel Hill priest with more than 50 years of service to the diocese -- including the last 28 years that Gossman has been at the helm -- said he read the article, and he could see no reason why it led to Strange’s termination.

“I read it carefully, and I couldn’t figure out why the editor would be fired for Bill Powers’ opinions,” Byron said.

“This has been said over and over, not in those exact words, but it was a nice clear statement of the reality that the church is sick,” Byron said. “It’s got a fever. There’s something the matter with it. It needs to be healed.”

Retired NC Catholic editor Guy Munger said Gossman’s action was “a rather drastic move to make.” A great admirer of Gossman, Munger said the bishop’s actions were “not in his character. It’s not a humane thing to do or a kind thing.”

In a statement, Strange, father of two children, said: “I was surprised and saddened by the decision. However, publishers always have the option to take their newspapers in a different direction, and I wish the NC Catholic and the diocese of Raleigh well. The bishop was a good employer, and a man for whom I have great affection. Today, I am focused on my family and our future.” Strange said he received a severance package.

Strange confirmed that his firing was related to the Powers article. He also did not deny a claim that he ignored the advice of two coworkers who suggested he “tone down” Powers’ comments about the church. He disputed a claim by some that his firing was connected to a series of problems with stories he had published in the past. Strange said his work was not censored by the bishop, nor had he ever received a “formal” reprimand.

A spokesman for the bishop said he could not discuss a personnel matter with the media.

A native of Maine, Strange came to Raleigh from the diocese of Manchester, N.H., where he served as director of communications and editor of the diocesan paper.

During his tenure in Raleigh, Strange dramatically increased coverage of the diocese’s growing Latino community. The paper provided front-page coverage of the priest sexual abuse scandals, and he ushered the paper into the digital age. Strange also maintained a lively letters to the editor page that often included missives that were highly critical of himself, the paper, Gossman and the church.

On the same day he fired Strange, Gossman distributed copies of Powers’ book as a Christmas gift to all the priests of the diocese.

Patrick O’Neill is a freelance writer living in Raleigh, N.C.

National Catholic Reporter, January 9, 2004

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