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Roy Larson, Sun-Times religion reporter on Cardinal John Cody investigation, dead at 90

He put his background as a Methodist minister to use as a journalist on the religion beat, working on stories probing possible misuse of funds by Chicago’s Catholic leader.

Roy Larson was a Sun-Times religion editor and columnist for 16 years and later editor and publisher of the Chicago Reporter.
Roy Larson was a Sun-Times religion editor and columnist for 16 years and later editor and publisher of the Chicago Reporter, which investigates poverty and racial issues.
Sun-Times file

After serving in Methodist churches as a minister, Roy Larson served the public as a journalist who investigated the powerful for the Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Reporter.

Mr. Larson, who was living at the Monarch Landing senior community in Naperville, died Tuesday at Edward Hospital in the far west suburb, according to his son Mark. He was 90.

In the early 1980s, during Mr. Larson’s tenure as the Sun-Times’ religion editor, he worked on an explosive investigation into possible misuse of funds by Chicago’s then-Cardinal John Cody that became must-read journalism and prompted denunciation by church officials and some subscription cancellations.

Working with reporters William Clements and Gene Mustain, he probed whether Chicago’s cardinal diverted as much as $1 million in tax-exempt church money to benefit his step-cousin Helen Dolan Wilson.

The cardinal died in 1982 before the completion of a federal investigation by then-U.S. Attorney Dan K. Webb.

Recapping the Sun-Times series in 2003 for Nieman Reports, Mr. Larson said the stories started out reporting “Cody provided the money for a luxury vacation home for his friend, Helen Dolan Wilson, in Boca Raton, Florida and that in earlier years he had helped Wilson get a job in the administrative offices of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. Louis where Cody was the chancellor.

“Cody had put Wilson on the payroll of the Archdiocese of Chicago while she was living in an expensive apartment on the city’s lakefront,” Mr. Larson wrote, but the Sun-Times reported chancery workers couldn’t recall seeing her in archdiocesan offices.

Mr., Larson told Nieman Reports, “Cody had steered insurance contracts to his friend’s son, David Dolan Wilson, and that Wilson was the beneficiary of a $100,000 insurance policy on Cody’s life.”

The reports rocked the archdiocese and a city where church, labor and politics are tightly entwined.

Ald. Edward M. Burke (14th) attacked the reporting, saying: “One could conclude that the only difference between what the Sun-Times did to Cardinal Cody in this instance and what the Ku Klux Klan did to the Catholic church in the early 1900s is that the Sun-Times leaders did not wear hoods and white, flowing capes.”

Earlier, in a 1970 column, Mr. Larson wrote about Illinois poet laureate Gwendolyn Brooks being mistaken for a coatroom attendant at a Loyola University event. Before appearing onstage, “She looked through her notes in the cloakroom. While she stood there, two participants ... handed Miss Brooks their coats.”

Roy Larson’s Jan. 7, 1970, report.
Roy Larson’s Jan. 7, 1970, report.

She declined and “dashed off on a scrap of paper a short prose-poem” about the encounter.

“There was a kindness that he had that was a gift,” said former Sun-Times photographer John White, who traveled with Mr. Larson to Mexico for a 1979 visit by Pope John Paul II. “When he was talking to you and communicating to you, you felt the humanity.”

He was an early ally of the LGBTQ community, said Albert Williams, a critic, associate professor at Columbia College Chicago and former editor of GayLife newspaper. “He offered counsel on how to generate support in religious establishments for civil rights, for gay rights.”

After working for the Sun-Times from about 1969 to 1985, Mr. Larson was editor and publisher until 1994 of The Chicago Reporter, which investigates issues of race and poverty. He also helped found Catalyst, covering education and school reform.

Roy Larson, editor and publisher, examining an issue the Chicago Reporter.
Roy Larson, editor and publisher, examining an issue the Chicago Reporter.
Sun-Times file

Sun-Times columnist Laura Washington, who succeeded Mr. Larson at the Reporter, said he “brought the Reporter new credibility and prestige.”

Author Martin E. Marty, a University of Chicago emeritus professor of religious history, said Mr. Larson’s work continues to influence journalists. “He and numerous colleagues covered religion so consistently and forthrightly that I’d have to call them representatives of, yes, ‘good old days,’ ” Marty said. “And his career, record and achievement inspire models and hope for ‘good new days.’ ”

Mr. Larson grew up in Moline, where his father was a longtime employee in the mailing department of John Deere.

Roy Larson and his wife Dorothy would have celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary this June.
Roy Larson and his wife Dorothy would have celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary this June.
Sarah Elizabeth Larson

He and his future wife Dorothy met as eighth-grade classmates. They would have celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary this June.

After graduating from Augustana College, Mr. Larson studied at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. His son said he was a minister at churches including Taylor Ridge United Methodist Church, Mayfair United Methodist Church in Chicago, Good Shepherd United Methodist Church in Park Ridge, Covenant United Methodist Church in Evanston and First United Methodist Church of Elmhurst.

Mr. Larson was outspoken in opposing the Vietnam war and supporting civil rights and racial equality, which led to pushback at some churches.

“He was disillusioned by organized religion,” his son said. “But he occasionally continued to attend church.”

Besides his wife and son, Mr. Larson is survived by his daughter Jodie Larson, seven grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.

Arrangements are pending.

Roy and Dorothy Larson and family.
Roy and Dorothy Larson and family.
Sarah Elizabeth Larson
Read 1981 reports that rocked archdiocese