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Vatican Squelches Columnist Title : Murdoch Forced to Retire Pope's Byline in N.Y. Post

September 15, 1985|PETER H. KING | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — On Page 2 of Rupert Murdoch's New York Post last Monday, a quintuple-decker headline trumpeted the tabloid's signing of three new columnists. "September," the headline proclaimed, "is sizzling in The Post--the paper with the red-hot writers."

Pictures and brief descriptions of the three were stacked beneath the headline. Topping the journalistic totem pole was Suzy, a New York gossip columnist who, readers were told, "joins The Post today with a startling scoop . . . and the latest on sexy actress Nastassja Kinski's love life." A grinning Henry A. Kissinger was at the bottom, poised to hold forth on "Star Wars" and summit talks.

And sandwiched in between was a newspaper novice. Readers were urged to turn to Page 23, where they would find "the first of a weekly series of columns by the pontiff." By all appearances, His Holiness, Pope John Paul II, spiritual shepherd of a flock of 620 million Roman Catholics, had joined the ranks of Murdoch's "red-hot writers."

Appearances, however, were to prove a lot less than accurate.

What unfolded last week is a sensational tale in its own right. It involves Vatican diplomacy and journalistic hustle, with characters that include an assortment of media dealers, a host of cardinals and archbishops and a papal ghost-writer from New Jersey who introduces himself as Fred. Even the Titanic gets a bit part.

The debut column, sold by Murdoch's syndicates to 200 newspapers worldwide, provoked a weeklong flurry of denunciations and denials, clarifications and compromises, ending with a pledge by the syndicates on Thursday to retire the papal byline. With this assurance, a Vatican official, in turn, declared that there would be no complaint with future packaging and circulation of the Pope's public utterances in column form.

However, Archbishop John P. Foley, president of the Pontifical Commission for Social Communications at the Vatican, said in a telephone interview Friday: "There should be no impression given that the Pope is writing a column for newspapers."

This stipulation stripped a bit of the luster off the idea for at least some newspaper editors, who had paid what was described as a "premium price" for a column on current social issues entitled "Observations by Pope John Paul II." Emphasis on the word "by."

'We've Had It'

"We've had it with this," William German, executive editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, said by telephone Friday. German said he bought the syndicated column, thinking it was "going to be a column by the Pope or the Pope's office. . . . I was astonished by the notion, but who am I to tell the Pope what to do?"

Now, he said, it's clear that the column will not be pounded out on the papal typewriter and will consist instead of a compilation of comments already in the public domain. He ordered the column canceled in his newspaper.

"For all I know," German said, "it might be remarks he made 10 years ago during a stickball game in Krakow."

The extraordinary merger of the papacy and Murdoch's journalistic empire began last spring with a telephone call to Richard S. Newcombe, Irvine-based president and chief executive officer of both Murdoch's News America Syndicate and Times of London Syndicate.

Photographs of Titanic

Arthur M. Klebanoff, a New York lawyer, literary agent and merchandiser, wanted to know if the syndicate would be interested in purchasing photographs of the sunken Titanic.

Newcombe wasn't. "I was just about to hang up with him," he recalled in an interview, "and then he said: 'Would you be interested in anything involving the Vatican?' I had stood up, and I sat down and said: 'Yes, by all means.'

"Anything to do with Pope John Paul II is of significance," Newcombe said. "In my opinion, Pope John Paul II is the most influential person alive today." He said he had once described the Pope's crowds as "making 'Beatlemania' look like a tea party."

Klebanoff's company, EAV Associates Inc., already had an agreement with the Vatican library to serve as its "worldwide licensing representative," Klebanoff said in an interview. The company, he said, was appointed to market publishing and "paper products" such as Christmas cards, other cards, calendars, diaries and the like. He said he also has an agreement to market Vatican Christmas ornaments and to bring special travel tours to the library.

A Self-Described Scholar

His point man with the Vatican was Dr. Alfred Bloch, a 64-year-old, self-described scholar and Vatican expert. A somewhat rumpled-looking Polish native, Bloch goes by "Fred" and works on the papal column out of his home in New Jersey.

He said in an interview that he wrote his doctoral dissertation at the University of Paris and taught political philosophy at a state university in New York. Bloch said he has made several trips to the Vatican library, translated the Pope's early writings for a philosophy book--"it sold a glorious 1,800 copies," he said--and compiled an extensive index of the Pope's public statements.

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