After the Globe
By Andrew Walsh
It must be aggravating to have to compete with the Boston Globe
on the Catholic clerical scandal. The Globe, which broke the most
recent phase of the long-running crisis in January, has certainly covered
itself with glory.
And yet, it has not entirely eclipsed its local competitors.
Kristen Lombardi of the weekly Boston Phoenix, whose stories on
Cardinal Bernard Law and the pedophile priest John Geoghan in March of 2001
arguably set the stage for the storm that broke last January, has kept up a
steady stream of sharp, outraged pieces.
The Quincy Patriot-Ledger, whose circulation area south and
southwest of Boston overlaps the "Irish Riviera," has produced
outstanding stories about the impact of the scandal at the parish level in
what is now the heartland of the Archdiocese of Boston.
And, most of all, the Globe’s tabloid rival, the Boston
Herald, has turned in a very creditable performance, drawing strength
from its identity as the UnGlobe and its willingness to identify
itself strongly with Boston Catholicism.
One can’t argue that the Herald has driven the story. But it has
mobilized its resources commendably, kept pace with the movement of the
story, and broken a number of important stories along the way.
The Herald rose to the occasion by assembling its own six member
team: reporters Eric Convey, Tom Mashberg, Jack Sullivan, Marie Szaniszlo,
and Robin Washington, and editor Jim MacLaughlin. Together, according to
Lexis-Nexis, they have produced more than 400 stories since January.
Partly because of its tabloid personality, and partly because its
relationship with the Archdiocese of Boston has always been far less
strained than that of the Globe, the tone of the Herald’s
coverage has been distinctive. If the Globe—and even more the Phoenix—has
covered this story as a catastrophe in the Catholic church, the Herald
has covered it as our catastrophe. Its news stories, columns,
editorials, and op-ed pieces have reverberated, not simply with anger, but
with grief for the victims and for the institution. And coverage has
conveyed a poignant sense of what the scandal feels like on the inside,
especially to middle-aged and elderly lay Catholics.
When the Herald called for Cardinal Law’s resignation on March
13, it did so in the language of insiders: "It’s not just the abused
children and teenagers and their families who feel victimized. Probably
every member of a parish who trusted such a priest feels that the trust was
horribly violated. Probably every altar boy, every student, every CYO
basketball player who looked up to these priests as guides and as models of
what it means to be Christian, to lead a moral life, to struggle against
sin, has been reeling in emotional shock and pain over the disclosures of
the past two months."
The sense that the Herald took it personally wasn’t simply a
tabloid pose. Herald columnists like Margery Eagan and Joe Fitzgerald
identified themselves openly as Catholics, and without the distanced demand
for general reform of the Catholic church that has characterized the work of
engaged Globe columnists like Eileen McNamara and Joan Vennochi.
Herald publisher Patrick Purcell, a man who had been close to
Cardinal Law before the story broke, has radiated an outrage at the
hierarchy’s practice of shuffling predatory priests from assignment to
assignment that has been heightened by a sense of personal betrayal. It
turned out that Purcell’s wife had worked as a secretary for John Geoghan
when Archdiocesan officials shipped the priest out to suburban Weston
despite full knowledge of his long record of predation.
And, although this is difficult to judge, it often seemed that the Herald
had better sources inside the church than the Globe or other outlets.
The Herald’s best performance came in a realm where other
journalists consistently had real trouble gaining traction: the question of
the Archdiocese of Boston’s financial resources. With hundreds of victims
clamoring for compensation and very little solid information on the table,
the Herald’s work has been very important.
For example, on May 10—a week after the Archdiocese abrogated a $30
million settlement with plaintiffs abused by Geoghan on the grounds that it
couldn’t afford the settlement—the Herald’s Jack Sullivan
revealed that the Archdiocese had unfettered access to $31 million in liquid
assets in its subsidiary Boston Catholic Television. While the story did not
name the source of the original tip, it reeked of insider information.
Sullivan and Eric Convey then spent much of the summer in Massachusetts’
land registry and tax assessor’s offices compiling a complete picture of
the Archdiocese of Boston’s real estate holdings. That led on August 27 to
a comprehensive and enlightening set of stories running under the headline:
"Land Rich: Archdiocese Owns Millions in Unused Property."
"A three-month Herald review of state, county, and local
records found more than $160 million in land and buildings that are not
being used by the church in the archdiocese’s 144 cities and towns,"
the story reported. "‘This seriously undermines their assertion that
they do not have the financial wherewithal to go through with the
settlement,’ said Frederic L. Ellis of Ellis & Rapacki, a civil
litigation attorney who is not involved in any suit against the church. ‘Their
credibility is undermined by these findings.’"
The Herald’s coverage of the scandal also conveyed a unique
voice, the truculent Joe Fitzgerald, who has often stood alone in the public
defense of Cardinal Law and of Boston Catholicism as it was and is.
Last spring, with the whole world—including his employer—calling for
Law’s resignation, Fitzgerald turned out columns with headlines like:
"Priest Scandal: Cardinal Should Brave This Unrelenting Storm" on
April 10 or "If Nothing Else, Law Proves He’s No Coward" on
April 13. "It may not be popular to point this out," Fitzgerald
wrote, "but many of the voices condemning him now have been railing
against him for years over issues that have nothing to do with predatory
priests. Listen to them, read them, and it soon becomes obvious that they’re
not covering this mess as much as they’re frolicking in it."
In a long string of columns, Fitzgerald gave voice to many priests and
lay folk who hated the way the scandal was damaging the church, and yet didn’t
want the sort of fundamental change that many outspoken critics of celibacy
and the hierarchy have been seeking. He also became one of the earliest
actors to pin blame for the scandal on homosexuals in the priesthood. On
March 6, he published a column headlined, "Priest Fears Gays in Ranks
Pose Threat to Church," quoting an anonymous priest leading a
"bustling suburban parish" who reported the existence of a
"subculture of gay priests and everyone knows it. I went through
seminary with a lot of them and got hit on."
In response to the agitation of reform groups like Voice of the Faithful,
Fitzgerald published an August 7 column ("She’s a True Believer and
She’s Keeping the Faith") profiling a 67-year-old grandmother who
works as a cook and housekeeper at St. Patrick’s Church in Lawrence. Carol
Farrell, Fitzgerald announced, still clung "to the unfashionable belief
that her Church is still worthy of her trust and support." What kind of
person, she asked, "would want to bankrupt the Church? I’ll tell you
the answer: It’s either someone who has a personal stake in the
settlements, which certainly includes the lawyers, or it’s someone who was
upset with the Church long before this scandal erupted."
While Fitzgerald has often danced around the flame, raising but not
addressing the question of what Cardinal Law knew, and when he knew it,
there are, undoubtedly, many American Catholics who share his general
reaction to the scandal. Their views are an important part of the story and
should be covered. So it’s probably a good thing that Joe Fitzgerald is
out there counterpunching.
On November 16, for example, he celebrated the career of 90-year-old
Monsignor John Dillon Day, who stood up at a recent meeting of priests and
told Cardinal Law that the church was "playing too much defensive
baseball." Dillon then put the emphasis right where Fitzgerald wants
it. "The fact is, the great majority of priests remain faithful to