Sat, Aug 14, 2004 - Page 16 News List

Jimmy Breslin: Man of faith or bully?

REUTERS , LOS ANGELES

Some people call him a saint of American journalism -- a man who walks, talks and breaks bread with the homeless and the afflicted, a man who doesn't hesitate to take on city hall or march into a riot.

Others call Jimmy Breslin a bully, a braggart and a misquoter, the sort of fellow who'll yell at anyone regardless of race, creed or national origin.

A colleague once combined both ideas: Breslin, he said, talks like Archie Bunker, the loudmouth bigot of TV's All in the Family, but writes like Charles Dickens.

Now the columnist for New York's Newsday newspaper, who has had TV series built around his life and is credited with revolutionizing journalism with his unique in-your-face writing style, says enough with all that "saint/sinner" stuff.

In The Church that Christ Forgot, his 14th book, 75-year-old Breslin says he has finally learned that he is in the wrong business and now it is time for him to do nothing less than save the scandal-plagued Roman Catholic Church, of which he claims to be a devout and loyal member.

So he says please now call him "Bishop Breslin," and he jokes that it is time to change jobs, to make a career move. No more books with titles like Can't Anybody Here Play This Game and The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight, Breslin has a church to save.

But to talk to him about why he should become a bishop is to be reminded of Groucho Marx's dictum that here is a man who would never join a club that would have him as a member.

Breslin, a Pulitzer Prize winner whose stories consistently champion the little man, and the church are not in the same pew, let alone the same cathedral.

He says that he has found himself at the intersection "of two faiths, the Roman Catholic Church and the Catholic religion" and adds, "They are separate and not nearly equal."

Outraged at the sex abuse that has engulfed the church, Breslin says, "I qualify for the rank of bishop because I am not a pedophile."

Although he says he seldom misses a Sunday mass, Breslin has long been at odds with his church, opposing its stands on abortion, homosexuality and women in the priesthood, as well as being outraged by its failure to crack down on the priest sex scandal.

"The present Pope has four subjects on his mind: abortion, abortion, abortion and Poland," Breslin says in his book before launching into an imaginary conversation with the pontiff.

"For me the sex scandal highlighted what was wrong. You can't have a church without women and married priests. The church has been in office too long. It needs an infusion," Breslin said in a telephone interview.

While some critics declare themselves delighted by Breslin's stand and his stream-of-consciousness manner of presenting his conclusions, not all are happy with his approach.

Former New York governor Mario Cuomo, a long-time Breslin friend, calls the book "an anguished and stunningly real cri de coeur by a forever Christian, badly wounded by the religion he clings to. Brilliantly written as only Jimmy Breslin could."

But veteran religion writer Kenneth Woodward, writing in the Washington Post, says, "Breslin has produced an incoherent rant that tells us nothing new about the abuse crisis, much that is demonstrably false and more than anyone would want to know about his loss of a very literal and childish faith. In chapters that read like a string of his newspaper columns, his rage erupts in spasms of paralysing bathos."

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