Lots of talk (but anonymously)

By any measure, it’s been a strange couple of weeks for the Archdiocese of New York. Strange.

An anonymous letter calling for a vote of “no confidence” in Cardinal Egan’s leadership stoked tremendous interest among the priests of New York. Even though many disliked the anonymous nature of the letter and felt uncomfortable with the aggressive language directed at the cardinal, many agreed that the criticisms are widely shared.

Then the Priests Council met with Egan and issued a statement supporting him, promising an abrupt end to the story.

But Egan surprised everyone by sending a letter to all his priests in which he blamed priests who have been found guilty of sexual abuse for stirring up the criticism of his leadership. He didn’t say who the guilty priests are.

I have an “article”:http://www.lohud.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20061026/NEWS05/610260426/-1/WEBHEAD02 in today’s Journal News/LoHud.com about how priests are baffled by the cardinal’s response. None of the priests I talked to would allow me to use their names.

What stands out about the whole episode, from a journalist’s point of view, is all the anonymous mudslinging.

One reader didn’t understand why I wrote about the initial letter criticizing Egan when its author or authors are unknown. It’s a fair question. My answer was that the interest in the letter on the part of priests — everyone was talking about it — had superceded the letter itself as the news of the day.

I also knew, from private conversations, that many priests had problems with aspects of Egan’s leadership (particularly, they say, with his lack of communication and isolated decision-making). I can’t say how many priests feel that way. But it’s more than a few.

A more immediate question: Why did I quote unnamed priests in today’s article? The Journal News/LoHud.com generally avoids using anonymous sources. Exceptions are sometimes made — but not by me. Either the editor & vice president of news or the senior managing editor has to make the call.

In this case, I interviewed or had email exhanges with 14 priests over the past two days. I felt very comfortable summarizing their overall angst and their confusion over Egan’s letter. But no one would let me use their name. It seems clear that the cardinal does not like public criticism and most don’t want to be transfered to the upper reaches of the archdiocese (but, hey, some love it there).

The only way to advance the story was to use a couple of anonymous quotations that represented what the others told me.

It’s a tough call. But there it is.

Gary Stern

Gary Stern covered education in the Lower Hudson Valley for several years during the early 1990s. Now's he back on the beat. He believes that schools are one of the main reasons that people live around here and that educational issues -- from curriculum to financing -- are among the most challenging things that journalists can write about. He continues to be amazed by the complexity of educational jargon. Gary got his B.A. at SUNY Buffalo and his M.A. from the University of Missouri Journalism School (where his master's thesis was about the best ways to cover education). He lives in White Plains with his wife and two sons, who attend public schools.