Some argue that the Catholic Church is broken and wounded and in need of healing. John Strange found out there can be severe consequences for saying so in print--especially if you're the editor of the NC Catholic, the semi-monthly newspaper published by the Catholic Diocese of Raleigh.
Diocese of Raleigh Bishop Joseph Gossman, who also is publisher of NC Catholic, walked into Strange's Catholic Center office a week before Christmas and notified his editor he was being immediately terminated from the position he'd held for almost a decade.
Strange's demise was the result of criticism of the church expressed in an interview with Chapel Hill author William Powers that Strange wrote for the Dec. 14 issue. The story was about Powers' new book, Tar Heel Catholics: A History of Catholicism in North Carolina (University Press of America).
A retired sociology professor who served as a Catholic priest in New York, Powers approached Gossman in 1997 about writing the history. Gossman authorized the book and gave Powers full access to diocesan archives to do his research. The book was published in October.
In the article, Strange asked Powers some general questions about the state of the Catholic Church. Powers criticized the church for being unable to recruit enough priests.
"To me, the Catholic Church is sick," Strange quoted Powers as saying. "No organization has trouble finding key workers unless there is something wrong with it. God's giving us a message here; something's got to give."
Powers said opening the priesthood to women and married men would continue to be an issue. Powers also said the U.S. Church may be "following the pattern emerging" in nations such as France, Italy and Ireland, where Mass attendance has declined and "the Church no longer seems relevant."
"It will change. It has to. The show is over unless it does change," Powers told Strange.
Gossman's decision to fire Strange shocked and surprised many people connected with the Church. It also sent a chill through the Catholic Center staff. None of those reached were willing to comment on the record about the decision.
"What it also did is it put an incredible pall of anxiety over the whole Catholic Center, where everybody there now feels they could have the same experience if they step out of line in the slightest," said Powers, who spoke with friends he made while working on the book.
A spokesman for Gossman, asked about Strange's dismissal, said the bishop would not comment on personnel matters. On the day he fired Strange, the bishop--who's known as a liberal-minded prelate--distributed copies of Powers' book as a Christmas gift to all the priests of the diocese during his annual Christmas party.
Strange, the father of two children, 11 and 14, said in a statement: "I was surprised and saddened by the decision. However, publishers always have the option to take their newspapers in a different direction, and I wish the NC Catholic and the Diocese of Raleigh well. The bishop was a good employer, and a man for whom I have great affection. Today, I am focused on my family and our future."
Strange confirmed that his firing was related to the Powers article, and said it was not connected to any problems with stories published in the past. He said he received a severance package and that his work had never been censored by the bishop, nor had he ever received a formal reprimand.
The Rev. J. Paul Byron, a Chapel Hill priest with more than 50 years of service to the diocese--including the last 28 years that Gossman has been at the helm--said he read the article and could see no reason why it should have led to Strange's termination.
"I read it carefully, and I couldn't figure out why the editor would be fired for Bill Powers' opinions," Byron said.
Byron said he didn't think Powers' personal views were appropriate in a story about the book, but that he agreed with them. They are common complaints about a Church still reeling from scores of allegations of sexual misconduct by priests and subsequent cover-ups by bishops, he said.
"This has been said over and over--not in those exact words, but it was a nice clear statement of the reality that the Church is sick," Byron said. "It's got a fever. There's something the matter with it. It needs to be healed."
Former NC Catholic editor Guy Munger said Gossman's action was "a rather drastic move to make." A great admirer of Gossman, whom he called the best publisher he ever worked for, Munger said the bishop's actions a week before Christmas were "not in his character. It's not a humane thing to do, or a kind thing."
Strange, a native of Maine, came to Raleigh from the Diocese of Manchester, N.H., where he served as director of communications and editor of the diocesan paper.
During his tenure in Raleigh, Strange ran the paper with a small staff. He dramatically increased coverage of the diocese's growing Latino community, and the paper provided front-page coverage as the Church and diocese confronted the priest sexual abuse scandals.
Strange also maintained a lively letters-to-the editor page that often included missives that were critical of himself, the paper, Bishop Gossman and the Church.
Powers said he feels bad that his comments led to Strange's termination, and is disappointed by Gossman's action. "It upsets me that an employee can be dismissed so abruptly, especially by the Church," Powers said.