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STOP the PRESS: The inside story of how a cardinal and his publicity agent cowed a great newspaper

Editor & Publisher

February 05, 2001

By Joe Nicholson

Three high-ranking Philadelphia Inquirer editors and a reporter sat at a wooden conference table across from three of Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua’s top advisers. It was near the end of 1996, one of several occasions when Inquirer editors went to the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s 13-story North 17th Street headquarters for private scoldings.

Brian Tierney, then 39, owner of the leading public-relations and advertising firm in Philadelphia — and the cardinal’s confidante and point man — held the floor, railing angrily at the notably silent editors. He declared that the 42-year-old reporter sitting across from him, Ralph Cipriano, was biased and contended the newspaper’s coverage of the archdiocese and its cardinal was unfair.

During one stretch of several months in late 1996 and early 1997, Tierney berated Inquirer editors, including Robert J. Rosenthal, now the paper’s editor and executive vice president, at three meetings at the archdiocese headquarters, according to court documents recently obtained by E&P and accounts of participants who were interviewed. At a time when churches and schools in poor neighborhoods were being closed by Bevilacqua, Tierney was alarmed by Cipriano’s efforts to report that the 73-year-old priest was spending several hundred thousand dollars to renovate his 30-room mansion and $500,200 to fix up an oceanfront house in Ventnor, N.J., where he spends summer vacations.

Archdiocese officials had refused to reply to Cipriano’s questions, and Tierney told the editors to come see him if they wanted some answers. Tierney demanded the right to select which reporters would cover the archdiocese, one editor recalls, and warned that Bevilacqua, spiritual leader of 1.45 million Roman Catholics, was prepared to launch a public campaign against the circulation-challenged Inquirer.

Robert J. Hall, the Inquirer publisher and chairman, today denies that Tierney bullied his paper away from a full rendering of the Cipriano story.

But in an interview last week with E&P, Bevilacqua praised Tierney as “a great help to us” and, recalling the three meetings with the Inquirer in 1996 and 1997, declared flatly: “He stopped the story. That was the important thing.”

The cardinal added that ever since Tierney dealt with the editors, “The Inquirer has been very positive in their stories, much more than they have ever been.” In fact, a lot of Inquirer coverage now looks like it was taken straight from the Catholic Standard and Times, the archdiocese’s weekly, he said. “Yeah,” added the Brooklyn-born priest, laughing, the Inquirer does “a better job, almost, at times,” than his own paper.

The $7-million blunder

Much of what happened in the aftermath of those meetings in 1996 and 1997 has become well-known. Reporter Cipriano contended his editors refused to publish substantial parts of the information that his months-long investigation turned up. Cipriano wrote a lengthy story for the National Catholic Reporter, an independent weekly based in Kansas City, Mo., that included spiked material, such as the amount of money spent by Bevilacqua on his mansion and summer house.

When Washington Post reporter Howard Kurtz asked Rosenthal about Cipriano, the popular and respected newsroom leader blurted out, “There were things we didn’t publish that Ralph wrote that we didn’t think were truthful. He could never prove them.” Cipriano then sued Rosenthal, the Inquirer, and parent Knight Ridder for libel and slander — and later was fired.

Last month, the Inquirer announced the suit had been settled for an undisclosed sum, reportedly as much as a staggering $7 million, and issued a statement that quoted Rosenthal saying, “I regret having made my comments to the Post. They were intemperate, and I apologize for them.”

After the settlement, E&P obtained case documents, including portions of closed-door testimony in depositions by Rosenthal, Cipriano, and Phillip Dixon, now the deputy managing editor, that have never been made public.

In his testimony, for example, Cipriano called his editors “spineless gentlemen” and claimed they were intimidated by Tierney. Dixon, in his deposition, explained that he had “instructed Mr. Cipriano not to submit any more stories about the Catholic Church because I concluded he had become biased and inappropriately obsessed about the Catholic Church in Philadelphia.”

E&P has put together a portrait of the sometimes contentious relationship between the archdiocese and the Inquirer, using the case documents and interviews with many of those involved. Some of principals were interviewed when the case was filed in 1998, some were interviewed after it was settled last month, and some were interviewed both in 1998 and again in recent weeks.

Few archdioceses still battle the secular media as aggressively as the one in Philadelphia, according to Tom Roberts, editor of the National Catholic Reporter. “Philadelphia is one of the real remnants of an old kind of church, very authoritarian, a very imperial church where you can kind of dismiss the questions if you don’t want to answer them,” he explains.

Some consider this stonewalling quite proper: the church is not City Hall. Nevertheless, a close examination of the Bevilacqua/Inquirer relationship sheds light on conflicts faced in most major cities when the local paper considers taking on any local institution.

The 1970s and 1980s

The conflict between the Inquirer and the archdiocese, which was led by Cardinal John Krol before Bevilacqua was installed as archbishop on Feb. 11, 1988, goes back decades.

Gene Roberts, the legendary Inquirer editor whose paper won 17 Pulitzers during his 18-year tenure up to 1990 (and who later served as managing editor of The New York Times), recalls “two rather formal meetings” with church officials, including a “get- acquainted” meeting he attended at the archdiocese headquarters when Bevilacqua became archbishop. Bevilacqua used the occasion to express “a complaint,” and “gave us a sense of what he felt about a recent article,” says Roberts.

The archdiocese “complained many, many, many times,” recalls Roberts, now a journalism professor at the University of Maryland, and church officials sometimes attacked some of the Inquirer’s reporting in the archdiocese’s newspaper. Roberts also remembers: “There was a period in which the archdiocese press officer would not talk to anyone from the Inquirer. … Basically, he said he wasn’t going to send us press releases and he wasn’t going to return our calls.”

Roberts says he doesn’t feel he was ever cowed by fear of the archdiocese. “When people are under attack, they react in different ways,” he says. “You either choose to be intimidated by it or not. … It may work with some people. … You either bend or you don’t bend. I don’t feel I did.”

The Inquirer’s Knight Ridder sibling, the tabloid Philadelphia Daily News, also warily watched the archdiocese over the years. F. Gilman Spencer, editor of the Philadelphia Daily News from 1975 to 1984 and later editor of the New York Daily News and The Denver Post, says, “I don’t remember us being banged around by the (Philadelphia) Archdiocese,” but he recalls he got an ecclesiastical roughing-up during his stint at a Pennsylvania TV station: “I got in more trouble with the archdiocese … when I was in TV. They came down on me like a ton of bricks.”

The archdiocese wielded a PR strategy of frequent complaints that employed a stance of being “hypercritical” and “aggressively offended by the coverage,” says James M. Naughton, a practicing Catholic who served at the Inquirer from 1977 to 1996 and left as executive editor five years ago to become president of the Poynter Institute. He says that Philadelphia’s electric company, like the archdiocese, used similar attacks to “put a reporter in a tough position.”

Naughton recalls listening to Bevilacqua’s complaints about “a range of things he was bothered about” in the Inquirer. No matter what Naughton told Bevilacqua, he recalls the cardinal’s attitude toward the Inquirer remained “unhappy” and “didn’t change in the course of the conversation.” Like the leaders of some other institutions, Catholic leaders will be content with newspaper coverage only if it is limited to their point of view, Naughton contends. “It’s almost impossible for (Catholic archdioceses) to be pleased if the coverage is even-handed and independent,” says Naughton, who explains that “merely acknowledging there is another perspective on an issue can be offensive to those
institutions and their leaders.”

Philadelphia editors must realize that pressure and “animosity” from the archdiocese comes with their jobs and “is likely to wear people down — no question about that,” says Naughton. “When the institution has the ability to denounce you from the pulpit — which did occur — it can be a fairly ominous kind of pressure.”

1991: The Cipriano saga begins

In the fall of 1991, when Rosenthal was the metropolitan editor, he assigned Cipriano, a former reporter with the Los Angeles Times and the Albany, N.Y., Times Union, to the religion beat. According to Cipriano’s suit, “Rosenthal told Cipriano that he was looking for an independent thinker who would take a different view of what had become a dull subject in the newspaper.”

Cipriano is known for his zeal and, some would say, the self-righteousness of a investigative reporter who takes the pursuit of truth, along whatever perilous path it may lead, as a mission.

When Cipriano learned Bevilacqua had approved construction of an expensive video-conferencing center, he pursued the story aggressively. Instead, Rosenthal told Cipriano to write a profile with “flattering coverage” of Bevilacqua, according to the reporter’s legal complaint. Nevertheless, PR exec Tierney “accused Ralph Cipriano of bias and prejudice toward the archdiocese and demanded that he be taken off the religion beat,” according to the complaint.

Bevilacqua’s advisers met with Inquirer editors. This came at a time when the newspaper was hemorrhaging readers, on its way down from a weekday high of more than 500,000 (during the 1980s) to 400,385 daily (according to Audit Bureau of Circulations figures of last Sept. 30). A remarkable 39% of Inquirer readers are Roman Catholic, according to a 1994 Sunday readership survey, the paper’s most recent data.

During a meeting at the Inquirer, Cipriano walked in and found that archdiocese officials had copies of his stories marked in different colors to indicate which portions they considered objectionable, according to the complaint.

When Cipriano’s profile ran on Feb. 7, 1993, it described budget deficits and the new Multimedia Conference Center, along with references to Bevilacqua having “revitalized the role of archbishop.” It appeared under a large photograph (which dominated the front page) of the cardinal kissing an elderly woman who was in a hospital bed. “This was done to soften any perceived criticism contained in the article,” argued Cipriano’s complaint. After the profile ran, Cipriano was replaced on the religion beat by veteran reporter Bill Macklin. But Macklin, too, immediately ran into the same deep suspicion and hostility at the archdiocese.

‘The two-year’ story

Archdiocese officials were “constantly critical” and maintained an attitude of “We don’t approve of what you are doing. We don’t like it,” recalls Macklin. Asked if he received threats from the archdiocese, Macklin replies, “Well, again, so what? Who cares? … There was no effect on my reporting whatsoever,” he says, although it “affected my attitude toward the beat.”

A year after the archdiocese closed a number of parishes in poor neighborhoods, Macklin drafted a long story, describing the consequences in those communities. But Macklin’s story about the hypersensitive subject of parish closings lingered for months in the newsroom, and it became known internally as “the one-year” story. “Everybody knew it was there,” recalls Lillian Swanson, who is now the paper’s assistant managing editor, its ombudsman, and a columnist. As a year passed without publication, newsroom wags began to refer to it as “the two-year” story.

Why did the story never appear? Macklin, who switched off the beat at his own request, declines comment. He was interviewed by E&P in 1998 and recently said he doesn’t want to discuss the matter further.

Archdiocese officials “saw (Macklin) as out to get them — as hostile — when in fact they would say now that they were probably a little too sensitive,” says David O’Reilly, who got the religion beat after Macklin and still holds it.

Asked who in the archdiocese viewed Macklin as hostile, O’Reilly says he understood it was Bevilacqua himself and his vicar general.

But Bevilacqua played no role in blocking Macklin’s long article, according to Swanson and Poynter’s Naughton.

“The story had structural problems. … To my knowledge, there was no effort on the part of the archdiocese to squelch that story,” says Naughton, who was still at the paper at the time and recalls that the unpublished story was so widely known that members of his parish asked him why it never surfaced.

Philadelphia fiefdom?

Like some other Inquirer reporters with a knack for it, Cipriano (after leaving the religion beat) occasionally wrote articles on various subjects for the paper’s Sunday magazine. In 1996, the magazine editor asked him to write a profile of Bevilacqua. Cipriano went to work, and it wasn’t long before he learned about Bevilacqua’s plans to renovate his mansion and the summer house, which is also used by retired priests. He also obtained documents describing an $87,500 settlement with a former employee of the cardinal who claimed, among other things, that he had been subjected to “rude and abusive treatment” by Bevilacqua.

After Inquirer editors discussed Cipriano’s scoop, supervision of his reporting was transferred from the magazine editor to Enterprise Editor Jonathan Neumann, an experienced hand with hard news and investigative pieces.

Of course, Cipriano’s efforts set off alarm bells at archdiocese headquarters, and that led to the summoning of Inquirer editors to the three meetings in late 1996 and early 1997 that were dominated by Tierney, the cardinal’s PR and alter ego.

Tierney is a major player in Philadelphia. His firm, Tierney Communications, has four divisions that handle advertising, public relations, digital, and direct mail. The ad division claims annual billings of $230 million and handles clients that include Verizon and the Pennsylvania Lottery; it places a substantial amount of advertising in the Inquirer.

Tierney’s publicity clients include McDonald’s and IBM. The “2000 O’Dwyer’s Directory of PR Firms” declares that the phrase “It can be done” sums up Tierney’s “client service culture.”

Last year, Tierney served in the presidential race as national head of Catholics for Bush, and Tierney Digital designed and deployed the official Web site for the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia. Given these contacts and advertising influence, when Tierney talks, it’s no wonder Inquirer executives listen.

In the course of Cipriano’s dealings with the archdiocese, according to the reporter’s complaint, Tierney warned him, “We got rid of you once, and we’ll do it again.” The complaint also contends that Tierney told Cipriano and his editors that he would “ruin” Cipriano and the Inquirer.

One of the editors who was scolded by Tierney, Phillip Dixon, currently deputy managing editor, says the PR/ad executive never gained control of reporter assignments, but adds, “I don’t care to talk about Brian Tierney.” He acknowledges that he has described Tierney’s behavior during the meetings as “venomous.”

Tierney “usually takes the floor and speaks for as long as he can. It could be twenty minutes,” says Neumann. “It’s not like (Tierney) sits there and has a discussion with you. It’s like he sits there and lectures you. There is not much room to respond. … (Tierney) is very insulting, he’s very demeaning, very harsh in this language in criticizing individual reporters.”

Neumann, who recently left the Inquirer to write a novel, says Tierney’s firm had developed a “routine” of contending reporters were “biased or they have an agenda” whenever a reporter began asking questions about one of Tierney’s clients and “suggesting that either those reporters be taken off the stories or the newspaper take a look at whether they should be doing the story. … I found it very offensive that he would basically use character assassination of reporters as a method to influence the newspaper.”

Tierney views it differently, of course. Confronting the Inquirer editors made “you feel like you were going into combat,” says Tierney, who recalls the editors “would just sit there stone-faced” while he denounced them. If the editors viewed his presentation as a threat, contends Tierney, that belief shows “a hypersensitivity to the fact that if you’re aggressive in terms of pointing out to them inaccuracies or going to them and trying to make a factual case, you know, you’re, like, a bully.”

Editors with that view, says Tierney, leave him “thinking, like, you guys are worth about a gazillion billion dollars. You print your paper. You’ve got truckloads of paper coming up. How the hell could I be a bully to you?”

Another Bevilacqua aide who attended the meetings, Communications Director Susan Gibbs, declines to say whether she feels the Inquirer editors got bullied. Like Tierney, Gibbs — now the communications director for the Archdiocese of Washington — was interviewed by E&P in 1998.

Bevilacqua says he recalls that Tierney administered three scoldings to the Inquirer editors, and adds, “I don’t know what he said and all. Strangely, I don’t. But he represented us.”

Asked about the cardinal’s statement to E&P last week that Tierney had “stopped” Cipriano’s original reporting, Editor Rosenthal declines all comment on the archdiocese, citing legal factors surrounding the Cipriano court case.

Publisher Hall says, “I know of no story stopped by Brian (Tierney), and I’d be surprised if it ever occurred. Certainly Brian has talked to editors and has talked to me at different times about stories. … Now the other part could be that Brian or someone else called us and had more information about a story that changed the premise of that story. That could possibly stop the story.”

Getting personal

Cipriano’s story about the archdiocese appeared April 14, 1997. It was far briefer than the reporter once imagined, although it revealed the $500,000 outlay for the new high-tech media center. Perhaps Cipriano’s editors felt they had stood up to the archdiocese by keeping him on the assignment and publishing a story. But Cipriano did not see it that way — his court complaint describes the result of his months of investigation as “neutered,” with most information considered objectionable by the archdiocese allegedly “deleted.”

His story lacked any reference to the documents that describe the $87,500 settlement and various allegations about the cardinal’s personal life, including his supposed “rude and abusive treatment” of an employee.

In Rosenthal’s deposition, he testifies that, in his comments to Kurtz (which ultimately would cost about $7 million, according to published reports), he was not referring to Cipriano’s printed stories, which he calls accurate and truthful, but to unpublished allegations. “I remembered things (Cipriano) said about the cardinal’s personal life, which we had never, to my knowledge, substantiated,” Rosenthal says in the deposition. “And to me, it showed the depths of how much he was going to go after the cardinal.”

Rosenthal tells E&P, however, that he continues to place a high priority on investigative reporting — and the paper’s enterprise efforts do, in fact, win local and national awards every year.

Bevilacqua says he has never been aware of a reporter investigating his personal life. “That has never happened to me,” he says, declaring that he would look upon that sort of reporting as “most inappropriate.” He adds, “I have nothing to hide. But why should one do that? I don’t know.”

‘The Voice of the Shepherd’

Nonetheless, Bevilacqua launched a two-pronged assault on Cipriano and the Inquirer. Writing in “The Voice of Your Shepherd,” a bulletin mailed to all of the archdiocese’s Catholics, Bevilacqua claimed the Inquirer had run “fallacious” reporting and said that “a current example of its unfair and inaccurate reporting is found in an article by Ralph Cipriano published … under the headline, ‘Archdiocese’s Center Gets Little Use.’”

Bevilacqua also contended, “Given the history of the reporter’s attitude and posture toward the archdiocese, it is difficult to rule out intentional bias.” He concluded that it was “even more disturbing” that the newspaper’s management allowed Cipriano to proceed with his reporting after “several meetings involving the Inquirer’s senior management personnel and archdiocese representatives at which our concerns about bias on the part of the reporter” were raised. “As your archbishop, I assure you that I will not remain silent allowing any reporter or news organization to unjustly malign the Catholic Church,” Bevilacqua declared.

As the second prong of Bevilacqua’s attack, his archdiocese secretary for external affairs asked the Inquirer to publish, in its entirety, a letter calling Cipriano’s article “a disingenuous and erroneous attack” that “contained numerous inaccuracies and distortions” and “violated journalistic ethics.”

The archdiocese’s request that its letter be published in its entirety caused uncertainty at the Inquirer. For one thing, the paper declares that it reserves the right to edit all letters. In an effort to determine how the paper would handle the matter, an internal memo was written by Neumann, the enterprise editor, to Maxwell E.P. King, who had not yet beesucceeded as the top editor by Rosenthal.

Neumann reviewed the archdiocese’s criticisms of Cipriano and concluded they were “false and libelous.” He urged his editors to follow standard policy and refuse to publish parts of a letter that are false unless the letter is accompanied by a substantial editor’s note pointing out the inaccuracies in the letter. “What the archdiocese is trying to do is once again bully the Inquirer,” wrote Neumann. He warned against “caving in” to Bevilacqua and concluded, “By no means should we allow the archdiocese or anyone else to dictate to the newspaper what we will and will not publish. … I hope we have the sense and courage to recognize that this letter is utterly irresponsible, and should be treated as such,” concluded Neumann.

When the archdiocese’s letter was published on May 19, 1997, the Inquirer acceded to the archdiocese’s demand that it be published in its entirety. But the newspaper also published a note of rebuttal from King in which the editor said Cipriano “has been objective and ethical in his reporting.” The headline over the editor’s note read, “From the editor: Article was fair and responsible.”

Indeed, Rosenthal, in the deposition obtained by E&P, cites “many, many stories” that Cipriano wrote about both church and non-church subjects as “fine examples of journalism” that he was “very proud” of.

Truth or dare?

While the archdiocese was unhappy about what Cipriano got into the paper, Cipriano was unhappy about what didn’t make it. The reporter approached the National Catholic Reporter and began additional reporting that ultimately produced a 9,000-word article, which was published on June 19, 1998.

In the days leading up to publication of the article, Cipriano and his editor, Rosenthal, each spoke off-the-cuff in separate interviews about the conflicts swirling around Bevilacqua — and each later regretted his comments.

In an interview with Philadelphia City Paper, an alternative weekly, Cipriano referred to Bevilacqua’s attack on his integrity in the church bulletin, declaring “this guy has condemned me in every house in the archdiocese.” The story, published on June 11, 1998, also quoted Cipriano as saying, “The Jesus I read about in the Bible is the opposite of what Cardinal Tony Bevilacqua is.”

The Washington Post learned about the planned publication of the Cipriano article in the National Catholic Reporter and asked Rosenthal for comment. Rosenthal’s intemperate quotes about Cipriano’s alleged untruthfulness were published in the Post June 13, 1998.

Philadelphia readers of the National Catholic Reporter either despised or loved the Cipriano article, according to the weekly’s editor, Tom Roberts. “Some hated it and said, ‘You shouldn’t have written this way about the archbishop,’” reports Roberts, referring to phone calls and letters. “And there was an awful lot of reaction (from those who said), ‘It’s about time this story was told.’”

Cipriano was fired two months later, with the paper citing a “breach of loyalty to The Philadelphia Inquirer.” His long article in the National Catholic Reporter went on to win top prize for investigative reporting from the Catholic Press Association of North America. Catherine L. Rossi, Bevilacqua’s director of communications, calls the article “extremely unfair” and “mean-spirited.” Although his later court settlement bars both sides from discussing the case, Cipriano’s lawyer, James E. Beasley Sr., let him make one comment to E&P: “Everything I wrote was true. That’s really the bottom line.”

A change of tone

Inquirer staffers differ in their views of the Rosenthal-Cipriano dust-up. Some contend the editors defer to the archdiocese and other powerful institutions to go along with the desire of the paper’s management to avoid lawsuits and boycotts. Critics of Cipriano tend to blame him for the paper’s problems with the archdiocese.

Staffers who blame their editors and executives do not want to be identified by name. One veteran Inquirer journalist says the editors would not publish some of Cipriano’s stories because “they are afraid of the power the church has. They are afraid of boycotts. They are afraid of lawsuits. They are afraid just in general.” The editors’ attitude, says the journalist, extends beyond the archdiocese to an effort to discourage investigative or hard-edge stories. Often, says the journalist, editors convey what they want by saying, “‘This story is too complicated for the reader.’ Or, ‘It’s inside baseball.’”

But Dixon insists, “We cover (the archdiocese) the way we cover anybody else.” As for talk of timid editors, Dixon says, “If people think about me personally that I’m scared — yeah, I’m scared — of the awesome power that we have to do harm. … That means the stories have to be right, and they have to be solid.”

In any case, calm prevails these days between the archdiocese and the Inquirer. “It’s a new and improved relationship, if we can call it that. We’ve come a long way since the mid-’90s,” says Rossi, who became the archdiocese director of communications in 1997. “I have not had to deal with investigative reporters since I’ve been here.”

Satisfied that the Inquirer’s coverage of the archdiocese is now “fair and accurate,” Rossi has turned her attention to trying “to educate those in the administration of the archdiocese and, to some extent, the cardinal about how the news media work.” For example, when a reporter asks what might be perceived as a hostile question, “sometimes it just means that they don’t know, or they don’t understand, or that’s what they think the public wants to know. So there should be no offense taken.” Although archdiocese officials retain “an apprehension about (reporters’) motives,” Rossi explains, “There is now what I would call an educated apprehension.”

About the time of the three meetings with Tierney in 1996 and 1997, the Inquirer offered Bevilacqua a regular column. “That was very good of them,” says Bevilacqua, who decided he didn’t have time to do it. Recently, the Inquirer was outbid in a commercial competition to take on the printing of Bevilacqua’s weekly newspaper.

Surely, much of the reason for the changed relationship between the paper and the church lies with David O’Reilly, the longtime features writer with the paper who sought and got the religion beat in May 1995 and who says he has won the trust of Bevilacqua and his staff. O’Reilly brought an interest in theology and philosophy to the beat; he is an accomplished journalist who was chosen two years ago as “Religion Reporter of the Year” by the Religion News Writers Association.

Some Inquirer staffers contend O’Reilly personifies de facto capitulation. O’Reilly readily acknowledges that he practices “explanatory” journalism, as opposed to “investigative” journalism. And he gladly contrasts his philosophy with Cipriano’s approach. In fact, he is among those staffers who contend that pretty much all of the Inquirer’s problems with the archdiocese can be traced to Cipriano.

“You know, Ralph has aspirations to be an investigative reporter,” O’Reilly observes. “So he came at the archdiocese with a particular style of reporting, which was perceived as hostile.” Asked if there are occasions when investigative reporting ought to be used to examine a religious institution, O’Reilly responds, “I would say … when necessary, I would say a Catholic religious institution is, you know, very — can be — at times you need somebody doing investigative work on religious institutions. It’s not as if they should in any way be immune.

“That said, I will also then say that my approach tends to be more explanatory than investigative,” he says. “So it’s a matter of temperament. Temperamentally, I would say I’m not that — I don’t patrol the archdiocese with a rifle, and you can quote me on that one.”

O’Reilly has not undertaken investigative reporting during more than five years on the beat, he says, explaining, “If you mean trying to expose wrongdoing, no.” He declares, “There would have to be a compelling reason why you were singling out the archdiocese.”

Dixon rejects suggestions by some in his newsroom that the editors wanted a non-investigative reporter such as O’Reilly to appease Bevilacqua, and gets irritated with questions about recent coverage of the archdiocese. He demands, “Are you trying to get at, ‘Is the Inquirer afraid to investigate the archdiocese?’ The answer to that question is, ‘No, we are not afraid.’” He asks, “Your (next) question is, ‘If you are not afraid, why haven’t you?’ Is that your question? … I can’t tell you why we haven’t. … There are probably 100 times as many great stories out there (as) we have people to pursue them.”

Despite the trust O’Reilly has built up with Bevilacqua, the reporter says archdiocese officials might frown if he somehow discovered the cardinal was using parishioners’ donations to do another renovation at his mansion.

“Boy,” says O’Reilly, “they would not smile!”

All along the watchtower

“I am sure there are other newspaper companies,” Phillip Dixon points out, “where people from outside the newsroom, the publishers or the corporate chieftains, stick their heads in and dictate the news coverage.”

One reason for the conflict between the two titans of Philadelphia, the Inquirer and the archdiocese, is the strikingly different concepts of the role of the reporter — and the difference between the church and public institutions. Many feel a newspaper’s “watchdog” role does not apply across the board. Rossi, Bevilacqua’s communications director, says reporters should understand “inherently, because of who we are, that we are trying to serve the common good.” Brian Tierney told E&P, “I don’t think religions and other nonprofits should necessarily be covered the way the federal government is covered.”

But former Inquirer Editor Gene Roberts has a radically different view. “In the end,” he says, “with all due respect to religion, you have to cover the church with the same philosophy with which you cover everybody else. You can’t have one set of rules for the archdiocese and another set of rules for everybody else.”