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Spotlight Report

Timing keeps Law resignation off front pages of Catholic press

By Mark Jurkowitz, Globe Staff, 12/18/2002

In its upcoming issue, The Vermont Catholic Tribune, the biweekly paper of the Burlington Diocese, is running a two-page spread on the resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law. One story covers the resignation itself, another samples reactions from members of the clergy, and a third examines the new administrator of the Boston Archdiocese, Bishop Richard Lennon.

But Law's dramatic denouement won't make page one for several reasons, explains editor Pat Gore. A week-old resignation is not exactly fresh news. And ''this is our Christmas issue,'' she adds. ''Wouldn't that make a delightful page-one story for the Christmas issue?''

For the mainstream press, Law's departure after a yearlong sexual-abuse scandal that rocked the Boston Archdiocese was top-of-the-newscast and banner-headline news. (Last Friday, it garnered the most air time of any story on the network newscasts.) But for a number of reasons - including bad timing, the holiday season, and a bit of scandal fatigue - the cardinal's downfall isn't making the same kind of loud splash in much of the nation's Catholic press.

The weekly National Catholic Reporter has aggressively covered the sexual-abuse scandal, and in April it sounded an early call for Law to resign. Its next issue will contain a package of stories on the subject, including a retrospective on Law's career, speculation about what will happen next, coverage from Boston, and an interview with former priest and psychotherapist Richard Sipe, who's written books on clergy sexual abuse.

But the cover story, says editor Tom Roberts, will ''be something light'' on the Magi.

''We do do things other than sex abuse,'' he notes.

Roberts, like many editors in the Catholic media who publish on weekly or biweekly schedules, says the resignation broke at an inopportune time between deadlines.

Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, the outgoing editor of the biweekly Commonweal, says the magazine went to press last Tuesday, when ''there were lots of rumors,'' but no hard facts about Law's status. Even so, Commonweal ran an editorial headlined ''After Law,'' expressing concern that even ''Law's resignation is no guarantee that the church will embrace greater accountability and transparency.''

The Rev. Thomas Reese, editor-in-chief of the weekly Jesuit magazine America, put the latest issue to bed a day before Law's resignation. ''We didn't have it,'' he says. ''We had him in Rome.'' Still, the next cover story will be about a Mexican-American parish in Los Angeles.

''I think we'll basically report what has happened [to Law] and pretty much leave it at that,'' says Reese. ''All of our readers know Cardinal Law has resigned.''

One publication that featured dramatic coverage before the resignation was The Pilot, the Boston Archdiocese paper. The front page of the Dec. 13 issue, published while Law was in Rome, included a large photo of a statue of Mary outside Law's Brighton residence atop a pained editorial headlined ''Mary, Mother of the Church, pray for us.''

''In the life of the Church, nothing happens by chance,'' it stated. ''The humiliation the Church in Boston is experiencing is a purification. It is precisely in times of trial that our faith is tested.''

Officials of The Pilot, which is published every Friday, did not respond to phone calls yesterday seeking comment on how the story will be treated in the next issue.

Some diocesan papers clearly have less of a stake in the story. Dennis Heaney, executive publisher of The Tidings in Los Angeles, says the next issue will include a story on the resignation somewhere inside the paper. ''We're not giving it a lot of inches because it's not a strong impact for us,'' says Heaney, who is also president of the Catholic Press Association. ''It's a judgment call every week.''

Because of limited resources, conflicts between journalistic impulses and religious beliefs, and, in some cases, financial and structural ties to the church itself, Catholic publications scrambling to keep up with fast-breaking news face daunting obstacles.

Then there's the basic desire for relief from an enormously draining and painful scandal.

Asked if he thought Law's resignation might slow the tide of bad news, Reese says, ''Oh God, I hope there's a pause. I talk to a lot of reporters who say, `When is this going to be over?'''

Mark Jurkowitz can be reached at

This story ran on page D1 of the Boston Globe on 12/18/2002.
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