KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) -- The National Catholic Reporter, a small, independent newsweekly more than three decades old, prides itself on being ''a place where the forbidden conversations can occur.''
In the 1980s, its investigative work on pedophile Roman Catholic priests drew national attention to the issue for the first time.
In March, the publication used documents compiled by senior members of religious orders to report that priests in search of safe sex in AIDS-ravaged Africa were preying on nuns. The article prompted the Vatican to acknowledge the problem, while asserting the abuse was limited.
The newsweekly has also revealed clergy misuse of parish funds and chronicled the Vatican's refusal to investigate those and other offenses.
''We seek to be a haven for Catholics and to speak for the people who can't speak for themselves,'' publisher Tom Fox said.
In the process, the National Catholic Reporter has won both praise and condemnation within the Catholic community.
''It's a love-'em or hate-'em publication in some sense,'' says Karen Franz, president of the Catholic Press Association, which has awarded NCR top honors for excellence the last two years. ''It has its role. There always needs to be a maverick to challenge the institution.''
Asked to comment on the liberal newsweekly, Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls would say only that it was one of ''hundreds of publications that we receive from around the world.''
The National Catholic Reporter was founded in 1964 in the excitement that followed the Second Vatican Council, which launched modernizing changes for the church that included the use of local languages instead of Latin for Mass and focused attention on religious freedom.
The publication now employs more than 30 people in its Kansas City headquarters, keeps correspondencies in Los Angeles and Rome and draws on the contributions of a half-dozen stringers.
Fox worked at Time magazine, The New York Times and other publications before joining NCR about 20 years ago.
The newsweekly's investigative work is conducted under conditions more challenging than those for reporters covering government or corporations.
''There is no police blotter you can go to, no regular press releases or Sunshine Laws,'' editor Tom Roberts said. ''And there are very few people who are in the position we are to hold the Vatican responsible.''
NCR supports itself through advertising and subscriptions. The publication's readership, which has held steady at about 50,000 for years, consists largely of lay church professionals, nuns and priests. Editor Tom Roberts believes there are also many bishops who ''wouldn't admit to reading it,'' yet do so regularly.
Bishop Joseph Galante of Dallas, head of the communications committee for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, is not among them. He feels the Catholic press should help unify the church and he stopped reading the National Catholic Reporter several years ago.
''I don't think muckraking has a place in any Catholic journalism,'' Galante said, ''because I think it can violate principles of charity and respect for human beings and can often be too heavily weighted with innuendo.''
Fox says dialogue is more important to him than unity, even with the risks that come with the publication's investigative journalism.
''We do have a libel lawyer who we talk to on a regular basis,'' Fox said.
Manufacturer Briggs & Stratton filed a $30 million libel suit against the paper after a December 1994 story accused the company's Catholic executives of ''moral blindness'' and other failings when they decided to move about 2,000 jobs out of Wisconsin.
The case was eventually thrown out of court.
This fall, NCR followed up on a story originally published in The Hartford Courant that alleged the priest who founded the Legionaries of Christ abused children under his care decades ago. Through a Legionaries spokesman, the clergyman, the Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado, denied any misconduct. The theologically conservative religious order has U.S. offices in Orange, Conn.
''I was surprised that NCR would stake its reputation on a story so rife with problems,'' Legionaries communications director Jay Dunlap said. ''The fellows who have written it have introduced these lies to attack different members of the church hierarchy at different times.''
NCR stands by the story.
The newsweekly also has written extensively on priests and nuns who challenge church teachings on homosexuality. International issues, in heavily Roman Catholic Latin America and other regions, are also among the topics addressed.
Roberts said he doesn't see his publication as a threat to Catholicism or the Vatican, even though his critics might. He pointed out that most of the stories in the newsweekly are about Catholics ''on the walk of faith'' involved with the everyday work of the church.
''The church has survived the denial of Jesus by Peter,'' Roberts said. ''It can survive a little light on some of the human foibles of a human institution.''
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