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Editors' jobs at stake when bishops decide what's news.

Bless me, father,out I haven't sinned. And I'm growing weary of being treated as if I have.

In February, I was dismissed as editor of the weekly Arkansas Catholic. I bad been the only female editor in the 82-year history of the newspaper for the Little Rock diocese. After more than five years of nationally recognized work at the statewide publication, I was given walking papers by Bishop Andrew J. McDonald, who refused to tell me why I was being dismissed.

Alone, this story might appear to be an ad hominem swipe at a former employer. But grouped with a growing number of similar stories around the United States, my experience helps to profile an increasing iron-fistedness of the hierarchy trying to recoup pre-Vatican II power. One of the fastest and easiest ways to protect one's power (and hide one's skeletons) is to control the press.

The bishops knew this. Indeed, Bishop Raymond A. Lucker of New ULM Minn., writing in the Prairie Catholic, recently criticized Catholic bishops "who for so long have carried the trappings of feudal lords with all of their titles and dress and privileges that go along with it." He suggested that when bishops are called to account for church scandals, "attempts at damage control have taken the form of manipulation of the press."

The ecclesial landscape is littered with Catholic journalists - "the press" - who have been fired by bishops who want Catholics, like children, to be seen and not heard. The national pattern is ominous. The week of my firing. Texas Catholic editor in chief Joe Michael Feist, a former Catholic Press Association "Best Columnist" winner, was summarily fired.

In a May 28 NCR editorial, Feist was quoted as saying his bishop refused to talk to him directly, until his firing. Like McDonald, Dallas Bishop Charles Grahmann refused to comment on the severance of a top-notch Catholic journalist. Shortly afterward, several editors and editorial writers at the Catholic Transcript in Hartford, Conn., "resigned" after complaining that Archbishop Daniel Cronin had compromised their journalistic integrity and that their managing editor, a priest (always a priest), had turned their newspaper into a house organ.

In my case, the diocese made sure that "I' didn't happen again. Applicants for the position of editor later told me that their interviews, as one put it, "mimicked the Inquisition." They reported being indirectly warned that stories about priest sex abuse, homosexuals, feminists and other troublesome topics were not to be published. Diocesan-level editors hear these warnings every day.

Such warnings, direct and indirect, made up an informal Index of Forbidden Topics when I went to work for the diocese in 1987. I was hired by the managing editor, a Jesuit who has since left Arkansas, to retool the diocese's obscure, virtually unread house organ. Upon my dismissal in 1993, I left a collection of journalism awards and dozens of national articles referring to stories first appearing in the Arkansas Catholic. As a writer, those awards were important to me, but my readership was more interested in the metamorphosis taking place at the Arkansas Catholic.

Always upholding church teaching, I treated every reader the way I wish to be treated - as a faithful Catholic who can read, question and discuss issues intelligently without being told what to think and say. Readers know when they're being patronized, recognize dodge and stall, and appreciate being respected. Published letters to the editor reached an all-time high at the Arkansas Catholic, and, although readers were occasionally angry that I reported church news that was embarrassing or scandalous, they trusted me to tell them the truth.

But the truth can be a hard thing to deliver. Like hundreds of Catholic journalists serving "at the will of the bishop" (outside the control of federal hiring practices), I was paid to hide or rewrite awkward truths until the original item was safely camouflaged. It is a sellout that many Catholic journalists must suffer to keep their jobs.

I lost my job after a cover-up backfired. In November 1992 McDonald approved a visit to a parish church by civil rights activist Jesse Jackson and then-President-elect Bill Clinton, two people antiabortion activists love to hate. When the visit hit the press, the activists raised hell, catching the bishop between his Petrine rock and a hard place. After the visit, he told me to retract the news story he bad originally given me about his participation, I attempted to convince him that retracting the truth is never a good idea, even for a bishop.

The truth set me free, even when I tried to cover it up. The episcopal boot came after I carried out the bishop's instruction to publish his retraction on Page 1 of the annual Christmas issue. The disastrously timed and placed retraction left readers nonplused at the bishop's about-face.

Such a faux pas less often occurs in the secular press, where editors are less likely to buy into a dodge and stall.

Witness a harmless but embarrassing dodge and stall in the relatively sleepy little Rock diocese, where a local secular newspaper recently ran an article about three Nigerian missionary priests, who have come to help ease the priest shortage. The journalistic potential was rich: an ever-worsening priest shortage, race relations in a Southern diocese and the sexism of importing priests from Africa while countless women here wait to enter ministry.

A reporter asked McDonald about the missionaries and asked who had conceived the "reverse missionary" idea. (A local pastor had suggested the idea in an earlier article in another newspaper. The Arkansas Catholic missed the story altogether). Ignoring the opportunity to address real issues, the bishop quipped that the reverse missionary concept sounded "pretty good" and that he "must have said it." He added that he hoped the Nigerian priests would retain their custom of addressing their bishop as "my lord."

This is the silly stuff of which the secular coverage of bishops is made and the stuff that makes Catholic journalists sigh deeply. Bishops find it doggedly difficult, on the other hand, to control their own journalists, who are ill-impressed by patronizing remarks and who are concerned with headier stuff than the usual fare of golf vignettes, travelogues and how to address a bishop in the possessive case.

Editors pay a high price for their sensitivities and for trying to give a voice to the people Christ's church should be serving: addicted priests, shuttled from one parish to the next; dying homosexual men; couples who use birth control; black and Hispanic Catholics whose needs can't be met by a pastoral letter; middle-aged persons waiting for Rome to grant marriage annulments; Catholics who question the medieval ban on priest marriage; women who have suffered violence of many kinds; and uncounted Catholics who feel alienated from the church but who remain loyal to it.

Sadly, all these people combined do not have the ecclesial clout of a single backwater bishop. Like many Catholic journalists, I tried to give them clout in the pages of their diocesan newspaper. These are the people who need the Catholic press. But theirs are the kinds of real-life issues that get Catholic journalists fired.

My firing stunned my children, who have grown up watching me work 50-hour weeks with an understaffed, underbudgeted publication; waiting for me in back pews while I photographed liturgies; tromping delta soil while I interviewed black Catholics living in crushing poverty; waiting in hospital wings as I chronicled the lives and deaths of Catholic homosexuals dying of AIDS; hearing late-night conversations among women who suffer the sexism of the church; watching while I constructed an award-winning newspaper, page by page, week by week.

Over the years, my children learned a hands-on Catholic faith that no bishop can take away. But they were deeply disappointed that the bishop refused to tell me why I was being fired and that he suggested sotto voce that if our female-headed household were to develop financial difficulty, I could apply for "some sort of public assistance." They were disappointed, but they knew the score when I was fired by a bishop who earlier admitted to me that he had to be careful because of the antiabortion movement's power.

Unfortunately, my experience is shared by journalists across the country. In addition to those already named, other Catholic newspaper editors lost their jobs this spring, almost as if, by some confluence of bishops, a swollen episcopate had carried them away, leaving behind dry land and a parched Catholic readership.

But spring brings new life. Since the bishop flexed his ordinary muscles, the Holy Spirit has provided me with ample free-lance work, freeing me to return to university studies. I'm enjoying a life in which inquiry poses no threat to loyalty, where being female is celebrated instead of compromised, where critical thought is viewed as pro-human instead of antichurch. Circulation statistics for my newspaper columns and feature stories in the state of Arkansas alone suggest that I reach more people in one week than the bishop reaches in three years.

I miss being a part of the Catholic press and I miss seeing my faith take shape on the published page. What I miss most of all, however, is opening the pages of a diocesan-level newspaper to ordinary people - female, black, homosexual, addicted, alienated, searching, loyal people who need Jesus more than they need a bishop. Those pages have been closed.
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Title Annotation:US Catholic press censorship
Author:Halter, Deborah
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Sep 10, 1993
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