Boston’s Cardinal Bernard F. Law was not the first member of the Roman Catholic Church’s elite College of Cardinals to be the target of a major investigation by a newspaper in his own metropolitan area. That distinction belongs to Cardinal John Patrick Cody, archbishop of Chicago from 1965 to 1982 at a time when his archdiocese, with 2.4 million members, was the nation’s largest.

On Thursday, September 10, 1981, the Chicago Sun-Times splashed across its front page a three-tiered headline that jolted the city: “Federal grand jury probes Cardinal Cody use of church funds.” A subhead read: “Investigation centers on gifts to a friend.” The first in an extended, multifaceted series of investigative stories did not appear until a team of three Sun-Times reporters had completed an 18-month search for sources, documents and other substantiating evidence. And this investigation took place at a time when reporters still shared information with federal authorities, including the Internal Revenue Service. (In December 2002, Chicago magazine, in a story about the Cody investigation, revisited the retired Internal Revenue Service agent who had cooperated with the reporters two decades earlier. Referring to the Cardinal, the agent, who did not want his name to be published, declared, “I believed then and I believe now that he was guilty.”)

Investigating a Cardinal

Fully aware that they were dealing with an explosive issue in a metropolitan area where the Catholic Church was a powerful institution with members at the top levels of the city’s political, judicial, business and labor establishment, the tabloid’s publisher and editors were not in a rush to get into print. When the reporting team was first assembled, Publisher James Hoge told the investigative unit: “We’re going to have to do as careful and as in-depth reporting as anyone’s ever done, because this is dynamite.”

The team’s painstaking approach made it difficult to dismiss the paper’s findings casually. Soon after the series was published, Illinois Governor James Thompson, in the fourth year of what was to be a 14-year reign as the state’s top official, was asked to respond to the Sun-Times’s stories. “I wouldn’t touch that with a 1,001-foot pole,” Thompson replied. But a month later, Thompson, who had been elected governor after building a reputation as a tough prosecutor as U.S. Attorney in Chicago, told the Chicago Conference on Media Practices and Investigative Reporting that the stories represented an “extraordinary piece of journalism.”

Expanding on this, Governor Thompson said: “It occurred to me … when I read the preface of the series, would the Sun-Times or the Tribune or Channel 7 or any other news organ in the city, or indeed in the country, had been quite so delicate, quite so careful, had been at such pains to assure its readers that they had gone the extra inch, or indeed mile, before they brought this story to the front page if the subject were not a cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church of one of the largest Catholic archdiocese’s in the country, indeed in the world, but were a Chicago alderman?”

Unlike The Boston Globe’s investigation into sexual abuse of children by priests and Cardinal Law’s handling of priests accused of this abuse, the main issue in the Chicago investigation was money. Carrying the bylines of investigative reporters William Clements and Gene Mustain and me (then religion editor), the lead story on September 10th began: “A federal grand jury in Chicago is investigating whether Cardinal John P. Cody illegally diverted as much as $1 million in tax-exempt church funds to enrich a lifelong friend from St. Louis.” It went on to report: “The grand jury has issued a subpoena for Cody’s personal banking records as well as one seeking financial documents of the Archdiocese of Chicago dating back to the mid-1960’s.”

Other related stories in the same edition of the paper demonstrated that the paper was “all over” the exclusive story. These accounts, illustrated with photographs, reported that Cody provided the money for a luxury vacation home for his friend, Helen Dolan Wilson, in Boca Raton, Florida and that in earlier years he had helped Wilson get a job in the administrative offices of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. Louis where Cody was the chancellor. For the next several days the Sun-Times produced new revelations. The paper reported that Cody had put Wilson on the payroll of the Archdiocese of Chicago while she was living in an expensive apartment on the city’s lakefront; that Cody had steered insurance contracts to his friend’s son, David Dolan Wilson, and that Wilson was the beneficiary of a $100,000 insurance policy on Cody’s life.

The newspaper went to great lengths to keep the focus of the stories on the issue of money, specifically charges that the cardinal illegally used tax-exempt church funds to enrich his friend. Without implying there was an intimate relationship between the archbishop and Wilson, a divorced mother of two, the reporters still felt it was necessary to explain to readers the nature of the ties that bound the two. The task was made difficult by the fact that Helen Wilson was described in different ways by different people. As a result of news reports in St. Louis and Chicago, some people, including priests, were led to believe she was Cody’s cousin; others thought she was his niece. Cody himself called her his cousin although, genealogically, she was not. At times, in published reports she was described as a widow when, in fact, she was divorced and her former husband was still alive.

Reaction to the Reporting

As Publisher Hoge predicted at the investigation’s outset, the stories were explosive—even before they were published. It was no secret around Chicago that the Sun-Times and, at one stage, reporters for the Gannett newspapers, were investigating the cardinal’s financial dealings. As early as July 1980, more than a year before the Sun-Times first story appeared, the Chicago Catholic, the archdiocesan weekly newspaper, launched a preemptive strike. It accused the Sun-Times of conducting a “journalistic inquisition,” contending that the paper and its editors were not “proper judges of an archbishop, a successor to the Apostles, whose authority did not come from a board of election commissioners.” Subsequently, the church paper declared the Sun-Times was “engaged in a program of clandestine character assassination that perhaps would win the endorsement of the Ku Klux Klan.”

In November 1980, Cody escalated the attack by authorizing his public relations officer to release a statement to the Chicago Tribune in which the cardinal said the Sun-Times investigation was “an affront to all Catholics.” The statement, published on the Tribune’s front page, suggested that the Sun-Times was attacking the cardinal because he and the Church “have enunciated a lifestyle opposed to that of the Sun-Times.”

Given the volatility of the subject it was covering, the Sun-Times, which had a long track record of publishing hard-hitting investigative stories, developed a strategy to present this series in a low-keyed fashion. Instead of breaking the story on a Sunday, as was usually the case with its previous investigative reports, it introduced the series on Thursday. Publication was not accompanied by a promotional campaign. The writing style was simple and straightforward, with no rhetorical flourishes. No cartoons related to the subject appeared in the paper. And, once the stories were published, the reporters were instructed not to be interviewed by other publications or to appear on radio or television talk shows.

Needless to say, that strategy did not ward off criticism. One of the city’s most powerful political leaders, then and now, Alderman Edward M. Burke, said a few days after the story broke: “It would seem to me that one could conclude that the only difference between what the Sun-Times did to Cardinal Cody in this instance and what the Ku Klux Klan did to the Catholic Church in the early 1900’s is that the Sun-Times leaders did not wear hoods and white flowing capes. It is vicious; it is unwarranted; it is clearly … the greatest example of yellow journalism that I’ve seen in a Chicago newspaper in decades.”

A month after the first story appeared, the paper’s public relations department had logged 241 negative phone calls and 223 that were supportive. Sun-Times Editor Ralph Otwell reported that the series had almost no effect on the paper’s circulation figures or advertising revenue.

Before and after publication of this series, the newspaper’s editors and reporters worked under some degree of emotional stress. Mustain learned that Chicago police had looked into rumors that his home was the scene of wild parties, a report that he denied. In one of his classrooms at a Catholic high school, Mike Clements, a son of reporter William Clements, heard his teacher say the Sun-Times reporters would go to hell. A letter sent to Otwell described me as “a fallen away Methodist with an axe to grind” and ended with the threat, “I work in the building, so watch it, Roy.”

In another letter to the editor, a veteran Chicago priest advised Otwell to “get your affairs in order. We pray for your sudden and unprovided death every day.” For several weeks, the Archdiocese’s public relations office answered all phone calls from the Sun-Times with the stock reply, “It is our policy not to speak to the Sun-Times.” One rewrite man was startled to get this robotic response when he called the church office to verify information about a fire in a Catholic school.

How the Cody Case Ended

Legally, the investigations by the paper and the federal prosecutors ended inconclusively. In that sense, the legal tactics followed by Cody and his lawyers—chiefly a strategy of delays and stalling—succeeded in preventing any indictments. Eight months before the first story was published, the U.S. Attorney’s office issued subpoenas to Cody and the archdiocese, but the information that was sought was never turned over to the government. Even after the series was published, the stonewalling continued. A new U.S. Attorney, Dan Webb, had taken over the government’s investigation and issued new subpoenas, but Frank McGarr, the chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, did nothing to move the case along. Finally, the Cardinal’s health became an issue. On April 25, 1982, he died. In July 1982, Webb terminated the investigation, stating: “Once the cardinal passed on, the investigation as to the allegations against the cardinal became moot.”

Two days after Cody’s death the vicar-general of the archdiocese at a press conference released a copy of a letter Cardinal Cody had written in the weeks before his death in which he said: “I have forgiven my enemies …. I can turn away because I am a Christian, a bishop, a person. I do so. But God will not so forgive. God’s is another way—he stands before my former enemies insisting forever with good will that they change. If they change, it will be because God has given something to them that they do not now have—a gift, a grace—to renew themselves by turning from a delusion toward truth.”

Cody never publicly stated what the investigators would discover if they did turn “toward truth.” He refused to be interviewed by the Sun-Times, and he refused to turn over any documents to the federal authorities. On the day following the publication of the first stories, Cody’s powerful attorney Don H. Reuben stated that “the Cardinal is answerable to Rome and to God, not to the Sun-Times.”

The Rev. Richard McBrien, then chair of the department of theology at the University of Notre Dame, immediately took issue with Reuben and his client. “As the principal pastoral minister (servant) of the local church, the bishop is answerable not only to Rome and to God, but to his own people as well.”

Reporting on Church Leaders

Two decades later in Boston and at Catholic dioceses across the country and throughout the world, the issue of a bishop’s accountability again has risen to the forefront of debate within the church and in civil society. And so it is perhaps instructive to compare the 1981 and 2002 newspaper investigations of the Roman Catholic Church and understand more fully what has transpired in the coverage of religious institutions in the time between when these two stories were being reported.

The 1981 Sun-Times investigation of the cardinal and archdiocese was unprecedented. A year earlier, the Gannett News Service won a Pulitzer Prize for its investigation of the scandalous financial wrongdoings of the Paulist Fathers, a Catholic religious order based in Pennsylvania. That dramatic and well-researched series, though widely criticized by church officials, did not evoke the kind of outbursts as the Chicago investigation because the Paulist Fathers, unlike the Archdiocese of Chicago, did not have a solid core constituency concentrated in one metropolitan area where its religious and secular power were considerable.

In 1982, the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, the Korean-born leader of the controversial Unification Church, was convicted on charges of income tax evasion and subsequently served a term in a federal prison. Although a number of mainline religious leaders filed friendly briefs on his behalf, Moon’s conviction and the news reports about it elicited fairly mild reactions, to no small extent because Moon’s following in the United States was comparatively small and widely dispersed, and he was disliked by many more people who thought of him as a cult leader.

As director of the Garrett-Medill Center for Religion and the News Media at Northwestern University the last eight years, I have closely monitored the way the media have covered religious issues. In 1981 there still was a climate around newsrooms that tended to treat the church and its leaders deferentially that, instead of reflecting respect, often reflected a kind of secular cosmopolitan condescension. But that climate was starting to change, especially at papers like the Sun-Times, whose editors were firm in their belief that religious leaders should be treated like all other public figures. By 2002, when stories about this sex abuse scandal broke, this point of view had become the conventional wisdom at metropolitan papers across the country, but most notably in Boston.

Until his retirement in 2002, Roy Larson was for eight years the director of the Garrett-Medill Center for Religion and the News Media at Northwestern University. After leaving the ordained ministry of the United Methodist Church in 1969, he was the religion editor of the Chicago Sun-Times until 1985, when he resigned to become editor and publisher of The Chicago Reporter.

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