Breslin Unloads, roars back at Washington Post

Just months after a minister accused him of fabricating quotes,

Jimmy Breslin is in hot water with a clergyman again. This time, a Roman

Catholic priest Mr. Breslin quoted-unnamed-in his most recent book says the Newsday columnist put words in his

mouth.

The Reverend Patrick Fitzgerald of Mary Immaculate Church in

Bellport, Long Island, told The Observer that he never discussed

abortion at a baptism earlier this year, nor did he say that Presidential

candidate John Kerry “talks crap,” as Mr. Breslin reported on page 2 of his

book about the Catholic Church’s sexual scandals, The Church That Forgot Christ . “That is a pack of lies,” Father

Fitzgerald said. He said he moved to Long Island in 2003 after living in Zambia

for 21 years and has never heard of Mr. Breslin. “I’m an Englishman, as you may

detect from my accent,” he told The

Observer . “I haven’t come across Jimmy Breslin.”

In April, The Observer

noted that the Reverend Lou Sheldon, the founder of the Traditional Values

Coalition, had accused Mr. Breslin of fabricating quotes. Mr. Breslin had

quoted him saying that “homosexuals are dangerous.” In response, Newsday published an editor’s note in

which it said that Mr. Sheldon’s words were “not precise quotations” but were

nevertheless “an accurate reflection of the essence” of his conversation with

Mr. Breslin.

The new flap began on Aug. 1, when the Washington Post Book World published a scathing review of Mr.

Breslin’s book by Kenneth Woodward, a contributing editor of Newsweek and the magazine’s religion

editor for 38 years. In his review, Mr. Woodward called the book “a columnist’s

rewrite job” and accused Mr. Breslin of sloppy reporting and possessing a

limited knowledge of church history. Mr. Woodward honed in on an incident in

the book’s opening pages. The scene is a baptism “on a Sunday afternoon on Long

Island, at the beginning of the Hamptons.” Mr. Breslin said he “stood way out

in left field” during the ceremony, which he attended with a friend of the

family.

In Mr. Breslin’s account, an unnamed priest-”your usual

white-haired Irish”-addressed the baby, saying that he must “stand up against

abortions.” Afterward, Mr. Breslin writes, the priest told his friend that

priests “have been ordered that at every liturgical ceremony, we must make a

statement against abortion.”

Mr. Woodward was, to say the least, skeptical. He wrote: “I’ve

covered the Catholic church for as long as Breslin has been writing, and I

don’t believe this ever happened.”

This sparked Mr. Breslin’s ire. On Aug. 2, a letter identified as

Mr. Breslin’s reply to The Washington Post appeared on the

Poynter.org media news Web site. Jim Romenesko, who runs the Web site’s

media-news page, said Mr. Breslin had sent him the letter to post on Aug. 2.

The following day, however, the editor of The

Washington Post Book World , Marie Arana,

said the paper had received a slightly different, shorter version of the

letter, which she provided to The Observer . “Of course, we’ll consider

publishing it in Book World ,” she

said.

In both letters, Mr. Breslin filled in details that were missing

in the book. He wrote: “On February 8, 2004, in Mary Immaculate Church in

Bellport, Long Island, Father Patrick Fitzgerald baptized Peter Joseph Verity.

Upon finishing the blessing, Father Fitzgerald announced that the infant had to

fight against abortion. Was he going to hand the kid a sword and tell him to

crawl out and slay people? … He also announced, ‘Kerry talks crap. All

politicians talk crap.’”

Father Fitzgerald said he has “never referred to abortion” at a

baptism.

“My concern is the 30,000 children who are dying needlessly

inAfrica because the world doesn’t care enough,” he said.

Both in the book and in his letters, Mr. Breslin said that he had

attended the baptism, and that afterward his friend, Ed Ward, had questioned

Father Fitzgerald about whether it was appropriate for the priest to discuss

abortion and politics on such an occasion. Mr. Ward, who is the spokesman for

the Republican minority leader of the Nassau County legislature, told The Observer that Father Fitzgerald’s

denial was “an outright lie.”

Mr. Ward said he had spoken privately to the priest in the

sacristy after the baptism and that Mr. Breslin wasn’t in the room for the

conversation. Yet in the book, Mr. Breslin wrote, “At the finish, I heard Ward

say to the priest, ‘Don’t you think it was a little out of context to be

criticizing a politician like Kerry and then yelling about abortion?” If Mr.

Breslin wasn’t there for the conversation, how could he have heard it? “I don’t

know,” Mr. Ward said. “You’d have to ask him that.”

Mr. Breslin didn’t seem eager to discuss the issue. “If you want

to check on me, you can spend your life [doing it] and make an enemy very

fast,” Mr. Breslin told The Observer .

“What the hell do I care? You’re sneaking around. Do me a favor, leave me the

fuck alone.”

An Advertisement?

Mr. Woodward seemed rather ruffled by Mr. Breslin’s letter on

Poynter.org. “He has every right to write The

Washington Post a letter, but I can’t

imagine why he’d post it on a Web site, unless, as I suspect, like his pal

Norman Mailer, this is an advertisement for himself,” Mr. Woodward told The Observer . “What are you supposed to

do with a letter in which he ignores the eight or so errors I found in his

book? He will not acknowledge it,” Mr. Woodward continued. “I would say his

letter is angry, maudlin, self-absorbed, defensive and dishonest, just like the

book.”

But beyond the he-said/he-said, beyond Mr. Breslin’s righteous

anger at the Catholic Church, there’s another level to the controversy, which

has more to do with who best understands outer-borough, middle-class Catholics

and captures them most clearly. “If you’ve never visited Jimmy Breslinland,

you’ll need directions,” came the opening salvo of Mr. Woodward’s review. “It

is centered in the borough of Queens, N.Y., where Breslin grew up, and extends

to the Hamptons on eastern Long Island and west to Manhattan, where Breslin now

lives and writes a column for Newsday .

Everyone in Breslinland talks a lot, and they all sound like Jimmy Breslin.”

In his letter posted on Poynter.org, Mr. Breslin turned the

debate into one of Queens versus Westchester, blue collar versus white collar.

“That he writes about a Queens that has not existed for a half century, shows

that he has detested it from first scorn and never looked again,” Mr. Breslin

wrote. “Woodward says he can’t conceive of such a church scene. Of course he

can’t. If he didn’t instantly feel that the ceremony is one of these sad,

laughable tales from every church, then he stands on his lovely rich suburban

lawn and lives in blind dislike of a place called Queens that doesn’t even

exist anymore.”

But just what is irking Mr. Breslin? That Mr. Woodward has

savaged his book, that a reporter is questioning his reporting, or that the

Queens of his youth doesn’t exist anymore? Or perhaps everything combined.

After all, as fellow Queens native Mario Cuomo writes in a back-cover blurb,

Mr. Breslin’s book is a “real cri de

coeur by a forever Christian, badly wounded by the church’s betrayal of the

religion he clings to.”

Even as he fanned the flames on Aug. 3, Mr. Breslin acknowledged

that the controversy couldn’t have come at a worse time. His daughter,

Rosemary, recently died after a long battle with a rare blood disease. “I lost

a daughter. I don’t use it as an excuse,” Mr. Breslin said. “Now you make the

priest look bad, you make him lie in public.”

He called back later in the afternoon, clearly upset. “I never

thought the priest would wind up in a freaking international scandal,” he said.

“He’s an old man, a retired priest! When the guy’s telling a lie, I’m trying to

protect him. He’ll kill himself! Give the man a break. Goodbye.” And with that,

Mr. Breslin hung up the phone.