Former publisher clarifies Zenit's history, finances

ppthomasjesuscna121011 Fr. Thomas Williams and Jesus Colina

Former Zenit publisher Fr. Thomas Williams has provided financial and historical details about the news agency in the wake of the recent resignation of Zenit's founder and six editors.

In an Oct. 17 interview with CNA, Fr. Williams, a Legionaries of Christ priest who served as Zenit's publisher for 10 years, responded to concerns raised by the agency’s founder Jesús Colina.

Colina stepped down in late September after a decision was made by the Legionaries of Christ to enhance the Legion identity of the agency.

Zenit, established 14 years ago as an independent agency, publishes in seven languages and sends its daily service to some 450,000 subscribers.

Colina explained in a Sept. 29 interview that he resigned due to a growing mistrust in the Legion, what he felt was a lack of financial transparency within Zenit, and an unfulfilled desire for the news agency to be economically and editorially separate from the Legion.

In response, CNA contacted Fr. Williams, who gave insight into Zenit's history and finances and discussed the details surrounding Zenit's founding, the Legion’s role in the agency, and plans for the agency's future.  

The full interview with Fr. Williams follows.

CNA: Mr. Colina has said, and it has been confirmed to us by sources from Aid to the Church in Need, that it was this Germany-based organization, not the Legion, who provided the seed money for Zenit.

We have confirmed this with an ACN person who also said that the money was provided on the condition that Zenit would not be an organization owned by any particular movement or congregation. Would this new stage for Zenit mean a departure from its origin? 

Fr. Williams: Aid to the Church in Need did indeed help Zenit early on and this was tremendously important in getting Zenit off the ground financially. In our files we still have the letter they sent, which accompanied their first of two gifts of $50,000 each. There are two noteworthy aspects of this letter. The first is that it was addressed to Father Evaristo Sada, LC, which indicates that ACN was clearly aware of the Legion’s involvement in Zenit. The second is that the letter is dated September 2, 1998, more than a year after Zenit’s founding. The second check for $50,000 arrived in February 1999, accompanied by a letter dated February 4. I am sure that ACN has kept records on this as well, so the historical record should be clear for all to see. This means that during the entire year prior to receiving this gift, Zenit depended completely on the Legion for its financing, and the Legion paid all Zenit’s expenses and salaries, including that of Jesús Colina. Jesús’ first contract, in fact, was with the Legion of Christ (through the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenaeum) rather than Zenit, since Zenit did not as yet exist as a separate legal entity or have its own bank account.

Zenit also paid the salaries of subsequent employees of Zenit, such as Antonio Gaspari and Stefano Magnaldi. Zenit only opened its first bank account on February 3, 1999.The Italian bishops’ conference also came to Zenit’s rescue, with two installments of 15 million liras each (about $7,500 at the time). Jesús Colina solicited this help in a letter dated March 24, 1998; the first installment arrived on April 15, 1999 and the second on June 9, 2000.  This is why since 2006, Zenit’s website has included a section of frequently asked questions. In the answer to question number 7, one reads “In ZENIT's first three years, important donations from the group Aid to the Church in Need, the Italian bishops' conference and the Legionaries of Christ enabled the agency to grow” (

So while Aid to the Church in Need did offer an invaluable help to Zenit’s financial beginnings, for which we are most grateful, this in no way detracts from the fact that the Legion assumed all of Zenit’s financial burden at the beginning. As of July, 2000, however, Zenit became financially viable on its own, thanks to the donation campaign orchestrated principally by Stefano Magnaldi, Zenit’s business manager. The campaign that year brought in $103,000.

CNA: Why did you—specifically in an Oct. 11 interview with Our Sunday Visitor—refer to Mr. Colina as “co-founder” of Zenit? Who are the other co-founders?

Fr. Williams: In referring to Jesús as cofounder of Zenit, I would never want to call into question Jesús’ unique and central role in Zenit’s founding and development, both internally and as the public face of Zenit. Nevertheless, from the get-go Zenit was a collaborative effort. In early 1997 a group of Legionary priests had begun an apostolate called Sensus Ecclesiae, which gathered news from the Church and sent it around electronically. They were unprepared, however, to take the next step as a true news agency. Jesús had similar aspirations and time to dedicate to the project, and in discussions between him and the Legion the initiative of Zenit was born. In the summer of 1997, the Legion provided Jesús with an office on the second floor of the Legion’s General Directorate building in Rome, a computer, an internet connection, subscriptions to major news sources, and a salary. Legionary priests helped with some research, though Jesús did the vast bulk of the production work himself. At the beginning, Legionaries managed the email distribution lists, and once the website was designed and launched, Zenit’s first webmaster was also a Legionary named Mark Bylander.

In fact, Father Bylander oversaw all of Zenit’s technical operations, since he had been a sort of computer geek prior to entering seminary, and was the logical choice to manage this sector of Zenit’s operations early on. Originally, the official liaison between the Legion and Zenit was Father Evaristo Sada, but on September 8, 1998, Father Sada met with Jesús Colina informing him that the Legion had named me as publisher of Zenit, news which Jesús happily embraced. From that point on and for some ten years, I occupied that oversight role. Prior to that date I had eagerly followed Zenit’s startup and contributed however I could, but September marked my first official role in the agency. Jesús and I always worked very well together, since we shared a common vision and I was very appreciative of Jesús’ journalistic skills. I don’t want to exaggerate my role, since on a day-to-day basis Jesús was working full time while I only intervened occasionally, participating in strategic planning sessions and presiding over weekly editorial meetings.

CNA: What was the Legion’s role in the English edition of Zenit?

Fr. Williams: In January 1998, when Zenit ventured into English, the first editor was a Legionary priest named James Mulford, and the subsequent two editors of the English edition were also Legionaries: Fathers Mark Bylander and Edward McIlmail. Because of Zenit’s limited funds, having a Legionary as editor made good business sense, since he drew no salary. Nonetheless, we were constantly on the lookout for a layperson who could assume the role. This finally happened in 2006 when Zenit hired Karna Swanson as English editor. I had known Karna as an accomplished writer from when she had been consecrated in Regnum Christi, and she began collaborating with the English edition as a journalist in 2004, moving into the editorial position two years later. Back in 1998, we were able to hire an extraordinary woman named Virginia Forrester, who at the time was working for Sacerdos, a Legionary apostolate reaching out to diocesan priests. Initially the English edition depended almost exclusively on content provided by the Spanish language edition, and Virginia translated a huge amount of material into English on a daily basis. Without her, Zenit would not have been able to start an English-language edition as early as it did. None of this takes away from the incredible work Jesús did, and I would never want to take credit away from him. The Legion’s direct presence in day-to-day operations of Zenit was necessarily more intense in the early days, since we lacked funds to afford a full staff of lay persons. Little by little that changed, however, and as Zenit grew, the Legion’s direct involvement diminished

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CNA: Mr. Colina contends that as publisher, you were always very coherent and consistent in your desire for plurality within the fidelity to the Church. But that perspective ended two years ago when Fr. Luis Garza, then Vicar General of the Legion, explained that some top positions should be under the exclusive control of Regnum Christi members. Do you agree with this description?

Fr. Williams: Jesús participated in most of the meetings of Zenit’s board during the period when Father Luis Garza was president of the board. During those meetings—which officially determine Zenit’s actions—no one ever proposed firing someone who was not a member of Regnum Christi or hiring someone just because they were. In fact, the question never came up. In hiring decisions we of course consider a person’s religious affiliations, but have consistently looked for the most competent person for the job, as long as they were faithful to the Church. In fact, during Father Garza’s tenure, when the time came to hire Zenit’s new CEO, the decision was made to hire Alberto Ramírez, a supernumerary of Opus Dei, rather than someone from Regnum Christi. 

It is true that historically it has been helpful to have several members of Regnum Christi among those on Zenit’s staff, since they were assumed to share in the Legion’s commitment to serve the universal Church, but they have always been a minority in Zenit and most probably always will be. The universality of the Church is beautifully represented in the Zenit team, whose members hail from a broad diversity of charisms and spiritualities. This has always been a true richness for Zenit in its mission. I believe that anyone who regularly reads Zenit knows that its articles cover events and activities of the entire Church and have never favored events sponsored by the Legion or Regnum Christi. A simple internet search will bear this out

CNA: Mr. Colina claims the independence Zenit was looking for was to make sure that the agency would be able to be transparent and accountable to donors, something crucial for Zenit's fundraising model.

He also said that, although Zenit’s account was always independent, the minimal financial information was never accessible to him as Director. Mr. Colina didn't imply ill will, but rather a lack of effective management. Is this the current financial situation?

Fr. Williams: As Jesús has stated, as soon as Zenit’s accounts separated from the Legion’s in 1999, he was always morally certain that Zenit’s accounts were truly independent. That is, in fact, the case. In every board meeting a certain amount of time is allocated to reviewing the finances of Zenit, and they are available for all to see or question. This can be somewhat confusing because as an international agency with employees all over the world Zenit operates under the name of a number of separate entities in different countries, and has numerous accounts operating in different currencies. It is true that we need to come up with a way of simplifying our financial statements, consolidating everything in a way that is clear and easy to follow. Nevertheless, all the information is there, regarding both revenues and disbursals, and there was never a hint of the Legion tampering with Zenit’s finances. Having been a business major myself, I have always been interested in the financial side of Zenit as well as the editorial.

It is true also that Jesús never had control over Zenit’s finances, but that makes perfect sense. As editorial director, it was never part of his jurisdiction. That was always the work of Stefano Magnaldi, hired as Zenit’s administrative director back in October, 1998. Years later, Jesús suggested that the two branches be consolidated under one single executive director to unify Zenit’s efforts, which initiated our search to find a suitable candidate. The person who recently seemed best qualified for the post was, as I have mentioned, Alberto Ramirez, from Madrid. All of the directors, including Jesús, interviewed Alberto, and a consensus followed that he was the person to hire. I am unaware of a problem among Zenit’s donors concerning Zenit’s finances—except for the fact that we have always depended on them for Zenit’s survival!

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CNA: How do you envision the future of Zenit looking? What changes and improvements are to be expected?

Fr. Williams: The first thing is to assure continuity in our service during the next few months!The world has already changed considerably since Zenit’s founding in 1997. At the time, Zenit was the first Catholic news agency to use the internet for mass distribution. Now there are many—including yours! Zenit’s uniqueness will continue to be its base in Rome and the vision it gives from the heart of the Church. We sought early on to offer translations of the Pope’s writings and discourses in as many languages as possible, so that people would have immediate, unfiltered access to the words of Peter’s successor. We have developed around this core, offering more and more coverage of news that affects Catholics throughout the world.

In choosing to focus on the written word, Zenit has perhaps been slow to integrate other media into its repertoire, and we are now looking at ways to offer photos and take advantage of services such as twitter to offer people the news in ways that make things easier for them. The new evangelization has need of communicators unafraid to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ from the rooftops. Zenit aspires to continue to form part of this great movement.