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Diocesan Newspapers: What Is Reported and What Is Ignored?

November 08, 1986|JANNY SCOTT | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — Early this year a group of Roman Catholic bishops and the editors of diocesan newspapers gathered in an unusual conference to discuss, among many other things, how best to cover scandal, embarrassment and dissent within the church.

Out of the conference emerged a 13-point consensus endorsing such high-minded goals as full and fair reporting, conveying the Christian meaning of human events, reflecting the unity and diversity of the church and explaining church teaching.

But on one subject--how to cover scandal, embarrassment and dissent--there was no consensus.

'Age-Old Argument'

"It's an age-old argument," Tim McCarthy, a staff writer for the National Catholic Reporter and a former editor of a diocesan newspaper, remarked recently. "It's essentially an argument between journalists and bureaucrats."

Now the question of the appropriate role of a diocesan paper has surfaced in San Diego, where the weekly Southern Cross is under new leadership. In a diocese dogged by reports of scandal never aired in Southern Cross, "the bishop's newspaper" is being re-examined. Circulation is about 20,000, just a fraction of the diocesan membership, and only part of the circulation is in paid subscriptions.

The new editor, a career journalist turned public relations man, held his first meeting last month with a new editorial board appointed by Bishop Leo T. Maher. By January, he said, he intends to redefine the goals of the paper, which some contend has failed in its mission.

"Certainly the dilemma here is whether we want to put out a newspaper or a newsletter," said editor Bill Finley, whose own position reflects the dilemma--a former reporter, now spokesman for the diocese, with an advisory board full of monsignors.

"There is a certain number of people who think that the vitality of the church is the debate within the church, and that any kind of discussion of theological issues and issues of the day within the church are healthy," Finley said. "And there is a certain number of conservative elements within the church who feel that all those sorts of controversial debates are somehow unhealthy for the church."

Diocese Controversy

The San Diego diocese has not been starved for controversy.

First, there was a June, 1984, report in The Reader, a local weekly, alleging that a prominent priest was being treated for a cocaine habit acquired during a long homosexual love affair. Then came newspaper and television reports of homosexuality in St. Francis Seminary, murky financial accounting and the transfer of diocesan property by Maher to his private secretary.

Meanwhile, the diocese silenced a University of San Diego religious studies professor after she signed a public letter calling for a dialogue within the church on abortion. During most of that time, Maher declined to address the charges, except to condemn "these sordid attacks by the press."

Never did any spokesman for the diocese or the Southern Cross, which purports to cover the church, publicly address the misconduct allegations.

But last month, the diocese hired Finley as a full-time communications director, superseding a priest who had held the job part time.

About the same time, there was muffled upheaval at Southern Cross. The priest who was editor, Father Louis Copestake, quietly stepped down. His name vanished, unexplained, from the newspaper's masthead. His home telephone was disconnected.

The diocese will say only that Copestake has taken an "administrative leave of absence" for medical reasons. He has left San Diego, said Finley, who added that he did not know where Copestake had gone.

'Bishop Is the Publisher'

Finley has moved into Copestake's office in the little newspaper wing behind the diocese's headquarters. Whether the paper's content or coverage will change remains unclear. But Finley noted recently: "I think we need to remember at all times that the bishop is the publisher of the newspaper. In that respect, it's no different from your publisher, in that he had better be pleased with the product."

Nationwide, editors and observers of many of the 157 diocesan newspapers say their quality depends on each bishop's willingness to tolerate editorial independence. The history of many Catholic diocesan papers is one of recurrent tension over coverage of troublesome topics such as scandal and dissent.

The National Catholic Reporter, a large, privately owned paper, emerged out of a diocesan newspaper that had angered its bishop. According to editor Tom Fox, the bishop withdrew funding for the paper after it published an editorial opposing the bishop's stand on birth control.

The editor of the San Bernardino paper recalled a disagreement with his bishop over his publishing a wire service report of the drunk-driving arrest of the archbishop of Minneapolis-St. Paul.

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