LAUREL, Md.– Jerry Filteau, who was a reporter for Catholic News Service for nearly 40 years before his 2007 retirement, died April 4 after a long illness. He was 78.
Filteau, whose byline became associated with in-depth and authoritative reporting on the Catholic Church, suffered from coronary heart disease and also had esophageal cancer. He was in hospice care at the home he shared with his wife of 49 years, Pat, in the Washington suburb of Laurel.
No funeral was planned but Pat Filteau told OSV News April 5 that she expected to have a celebration of Jerry’s life in the months ahead.
Jerry Filteau would have turned 79 June 6. In February, he and Pat celebrated the 50th anniversary of when the couple first met.
“Jerry was a brilliant journalist, with many valuable contacts throughout the church,” Thomas Lorsung, retired director and editor-in-chief of CNS, told OSV News. “He was courageous until the end in battling cancer, aided by his wife, Pat. Their presence at gatherings for former colleagues at CNS was inspiring to us and obviously uplifting for Jerry. May he rest in peace.”
Lorsung, who served CNS as news editor, managing editor and finally director, first joined the news agency as photo editor in 1972, two years after Filteau started his career at CNS.
Filteau came to the news service, then called the National Catholic News Service, after leaving the seminary. His first job was in the news agency’s clipping service, where he also worked as a proofreader and researcher. In December 1972, Filteau asked to be transferred to the reporting staff and quickly became an integral part of the agency’s coverage of the Catholic Church.
His first big story was the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion nationwide.
“As a cub reporter I subbed for the Supreme Court reporter on vacation. A week later Roe v. Wade was announced,” Filteau told CNS in an interview at the time of his retirement.
He wrote the reaction story in which he reported the high court’s companion Doe v. Bolton decision had a health clause so broad that it virtually allowed abortion throughout pregnancy.
A few years later, in 1976, Filteau became foreign editor, a job he held until moving to Rome, where he was the CNS bureau chief from 1978 to 1981.
Filteau attributed his seminary education for helping him understand the church issues at stake and their nuances.
“This was a big help in covering everything from theological controversies to church trends,” he said.
In Rome, Filteau covered the papal inauguration of St. John Paul II Oct. 22, 1978. He covered the early years of St. John Paul’s papacy, which established the key issues and aggressive style of the new pope, who would lead the church for 26 years. Filteau covered the pope’s first return trip to his native Poland in 1979, which was generally credited with encouraging the formation of the anti-communist Solidarity labor movement and making the pope a major player in the Cold War.
He also covered the May 13, 1981, assassination attempt against the pope and the subsequent conviction of the would-be assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca.
Upon his return from Rome to Washington late that year, Filteau reported extensively on theological, ecumenical, liturgical, interreligious, canon law and social justice issues. Until he retired, he was the main CNS staff member reporting on the semiannual meetings of the U.S. bishops for 25 years.
When the clergy child sex abuse scandal broke in 2002, Filteau added it to his other beats.
In 2003, Filteau won the St. Francis de Sales Award from what was then called the Catholic Press Association “for a career of uncompromising journalism in the service of the Catholic press,” especially in reporting on the abuse crisis. The award is considered the highest honor in U.S. Catholic journalism.
The award nomination for Filteau said that his ability to report on issues of importance to the church with depth and nuance was particularly evident when the U.S. church was engulfed by the clergy sexual misconduct scandal in 2002.
“Jerry cut through the clutter and wrote intelligently and responsibly, sensibly and sensitively about the news as it broke,” said the nomination.
It also cited “Jerry’s deep and wide knowledge about the church and its workings (made) manifest in every bylined article he writes. He brings clarity to many faceted issues in the church, both domestically and internationally. He gets to the heart of the matter for the reader.”
Filteau told the luncheon audience at which the award was announced that in writing about the clergy sex abuse crisis or any other difficult events in the life of the church, Catholic journalists must, as their guiding principle, “speak the truth in love.”
“As the primary agents of mass communication in the church, if we do not do what is needed to provide our Catholic readers with the information they need to participate intelligently in the conduct of church affairs, by default we will have ceded to secular media the role of communicating to our people what is happening in their church,” he said May 30, 2003, during that year’s Catholic Press Association convention in Atlanta.
Filteau was always a strong defender of the importance of the Catholic press in a multimedia world.
“The print media is still the best and cheapest mass media for the church,” he said.
It also is a “counterbalance to congregational Catholicism,” he said. “It helps people understand the universality and diversity of the church; that they are part of a larger reality than their parish.”
Among his contributions at CNS, Filteau was a key contributor to the “CNS Stylebook on Religion,” a reference guide and usage manual found in newsrooms throughout the world, both religious and secular.
Filteau was born in Rapid City, South Dakota, and grew up in Minnesota. He studied at Crosier Seminary in Onamia, Minnesota, before moving to the Washington area as a seminarian to study at The Catholic University of America’s Theological College.
He earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Catholic University, where he did graduate studies in theology.
During his time at CNS, Filteau served as a vice chair of the news agency’s unit of Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild (now the Washington-Baltimore News-Guild), a labor union. In the late 1970s, before going to Rome, he served as treasurer of the guild.
In addition to his wife, Filteau is survived by two sons, Joseph and Frank.