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Are jarring details fit for obit?

I CAN understand why people who knew the Rev. Gilbert Phinn were upset by the Globe's handling of his Feb. 22 obituary. It's unsettling to see a beloved priest, especially one as dedicated as Phinn, linked with the Catholic Church sexual abuse story.

There, in the ninth paragraph of an otherwise positive account, was a description of how Phinn, as archdiocese personnel director 23 years ago, reportedly told a priest with a history of sexual abuse to keep his past a secret from the pastor when assigned to a new parish. The exchange was originally reported in 2002.

Those who knew Phinn were hurt and angered by what they saw as a very cheap shot. It dominated conversation at his wake and standing-room-only funeral, attendees reported. Here in the ombudsman's office the issue sparked far more outcry than any other obituary during my three-year tenure, with most complaints from Milton, where Phinn served most recently at St. Elizabeth's.

The issue became more than just one obituary; it was, some readers said, fresh evidence of anti-Catholic bias. For them, it deepened a troubling divide.

''People were looking for a little comfort in that obituary, and instead this was a slap in the face," said Joseph Coughlin. Whatever Phinn may have once said to an errant priest ''had nothing to do with his life's work and there was no point bringing it up in an obituary," said Barbara Bacci. Said Ken Foscaldo, ''The Globe did a good job exposing the priest scandal, but at some point it goes beyond the bounds" -- in this case by needlessly hurting ''a good man." They spoke for many others.

I sympathize with readers bothered by the reference; it was jarring. But I am also bothered by the prospect that the Globe would return to the days when obituaries were just eulogies in print.

Obituary editor Scott Helman says he is sorry if readers were offended, but ''first and foremost . . . obituaries are news stories" and it would have been dishonest not to include the reference.

''Father Phinn played some role in a clergy abuse scandal that has touched countless people within the Boston Archdiocese and Catholic community. Had we not mentioned it, wouldn't that be an affront to all those hurt by the scandal?" he asks. To ignore pertinent details about someone's past, he says, ''would undermine the mission of the paper."

Yes, but if this particular abuse reference was worth including -- and it's arguable -- more sensitivity and context were required.

The obituary should have noted that Phinn, as clergy personnel director, first urged the archdiocese to restrict the accused pedophile priest, the Rev. Robert M. Burns, to duty as a convent chaplain, so he would not be near children. When Burns was assigned to a parish anyway and, sources said, Phinn told Burns to keep his past secret from the new pastor, Phinn was following archdiocesan direction. (Asked in 2002 about that exchange, Phinn said simply, ''I prefer not to discuss it.")   Continued...

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