Controversy III: Philadelphia Story
by Andrew WalshOn August 21, two mid-level editors of the Philadelphia
Inquirer visited the home of reporter Ralph Cipriano and delivered a letter
terminating Ciprianos 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 Ciprianos 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 couldnt 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 Posts 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
Ciprianos 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 didnt publish that
Ralph wrote that we didnt 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. Its bad for Ralph, bad for Bob, bad for the Inquirer and bad for
newspapering in general."
Ciprianos long bout with the Archdiocese of Philadelphia began
soon after he was appointed the Inquirers 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
Philadelphias population. Church officials responded to stories they didnt
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
Following up on the tips of Catholic dissidents, Cipriano began to
explore charges that Bevilacquas 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 Archdioceses successful $100 million capital
campaign in the early 1990s, and pointed out a pattern of spending on projects like the
refurbishment of the bishops residence and a home for retired priests at the New
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. "Im 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 Ciprianos 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.
Theres 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 Archdioceses 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
couldnt 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
churchs fiscal practices. But it wasnt 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, Macklins 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
newspapers feature section.
The Archdioceses 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 doesnt tell (Catholics) things
we dont want them to know."
The article in AJR quotes official archdiocesan spokeswoman
Cathy Rossi in a similar vein. She suggested that the church leaders werent used to
having their motives or performance called into question. "Theres 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 Inquirers 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, Ciprianos 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,
"Archdioceses Center Gets Little Use. More than $500,000 Went Into
Multimedia Project. Its Envisioned Function Wasnt 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
Despite the story printed by the Inquirer, Cipriano still
expressed frustration that that he wasnt 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
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 Inquirers 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. Hes a poor advocate for his faith. Actually,
hes 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
"The spending and the closings are two separate issues,"
archdiocesan spokeswoman Rossi insisted in the AJR. "You cant 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."
Thats reasonable and maybe even true. But journalism is a form of
moral discourse. Although Ralph Ciprianos 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 Inquirers editors
failed to call the Archdiocese to account.
The Philadelphia City Paper, of course, delights in tweaking
the Inquirers 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
That may be the moral of the story: Its still a risky thing to
mess with the Cardinal Archbishop of Philadelphia.