Covington Catholic: A Cautionary Tale for Our Times

EDITORIAL: We must challenge false claims that seek to defame and slander young people and maliciously attach the pro-life movement to racism and intolerance.

Flags fly over the Covington Catholic High School stadium in Park Kills, Kentucky, as a pro-life sign hangs on a fence, Jan. 20.
Flags fly over the Covington Catholic High School stadium in Park Kills, Kentucky, as a pro-life sign hangs on a fence, Jan. 20. (photo: AP photo/Bryan Woolston)

The 46th-annual March for Life drew a crowd of more than 300,000 to Washington, D.C., under the theme of “Unique From Day One.” It went barely noticed by the mainstream media.

That the secular media should once again ignore one of the largest national marches in the country was not surprising. What was shocking was that the story they focused on instead — the accusations of racism against the Covington Catholic High School students — was more than just another journalistic embarrassment.

It became a sadly revealing moment of national division, shocking imprudence, fervent anti-Catholicism and unhinged vitriol in an era already marked by its appalling lack of civility. What is worse, much of it was perpetrated by Catholics in leadership positions.

By every measure, the March for Life 2019 was a success. The media seemed not to care. According to the Media Research Center that studies bias in the media, over the Jan. 19-20 weekend and into the following Monday morning, the three major networks of NBC, ABC and CBS devoted a grand total of 58 seconds of coverage to the actual Jan. 18 pro-life march, compared to 14 minutes and 26 seconds of coverage to the Women’s March held the next day.

That disparity proved nothing compared to the rage, misreporting and journalistic abuse heaped on a group of high-school students from Covington Catholic High School, an all-male college-preparatory school in Park Hills, Kentucky, just outside of Cincinnati, who had traveled to Washington to take part in the pro-life march.

By now, most Americans have heard or seen something about the story. Within hours of the march, a short video went viral of the young Catholic high-school students supposedly hurling racist insults and mobbing a Native-American activist, Nathan Phillips, at the Lincoln Memorial. The video seemed to tie the pro-life movement to a damning moment of racism and intolerance, with one white boy in particular, wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat and standing with a seeming smirk on his face, gazing at a Native-American elder who was proudly chanting in the face of racism. Headlines screamed across television and the internet. The New York Times reported, “Viral Video Shows Boys in ‘Make America Great Again’ Hats Surrounding Native Elder.” Pushed across all of social media and relentlessly advanced by virtually every media outlet, the story unleashed a scandalous amount of media bias, a torrent of anti-Catholic rhetoric and calls for actual violence against the students and their families.

The media bias against the pro-life cause and Catholicism is well-trodden ground. A relatively newer phenomenon on display were the calls for violence, “doxxing” (publishing private information on the internet) the minors involved and causing harm to them and their families.

More appalling was the haste with which many Catholic commentators and even Church leaders reacted and condemned the alleged incident without yet knowing the full facts and based solely on an unreliable video, angry tweets and a condemnatory media firestorm. Covington Catholic High School, along with Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville and Bishop Roger Foys of Covington, issued profoundly hasty statements that extended their “deepest apologies to Mr. Phillips.” Five days after the incident, Bishop John Stowe of Lexington, Kentucky, wrote an editorial entitled, “Wearing a Trump Hat? That’s Not Exactly Pro-Life.”

Four days before Bishop Stowe’s inexplicable essay, the story had begun to fall apart. A fuller video, more than two hours long, revealed key details of the incident and showed that the original video had been taken deliberately out of context.

Significantly, it showed that while the students behaved immaturely at times, they were not the aggressors. They had been taunted with vile racist language by members of the radical Black Hebrew Israelites movement, and it was Phillips, a tribal elder, and his supporters who had approached the students, not the other way around. According to reporting by Catholic News Agency, Phillips was reportedly also seen leading a protest against the Church the next day at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington.

With the high school closed because of threats of violence, the Diocese of Covington issued another troubling statement, without quite apologizing to the students. “This is a very serious matter,” the diocese declared. “It is important for us to gather the facts that will allow us to determine what corrective actions, if any, are appropriate.” Many naturally wished the diocese and school had embraced this policy before surrendering to the Twitter mobs.

More formal apologies were soon made on Twitter and across social media from commentators, many of them Catholic. One of the most eloquent was from professor Robert George of Princeton, who tweeted an apology after initially condemning the students. “I apologize to the Covington Catholic boys,” he tweeted. “I jumped the gun, and that was stupid and unjust. It is I, not the boys, who needs to take a lesson from this.”

There are many lessons all of us can learn from this sordid episode.

First, why did so many Catholic leaders, most so those who serve as mentors and shepherds to young Catholics, act with such haste in condemning the students? More than any others in social media, we hope they learn from this experience and resist the intimidation to act out of fear or worry of appearing negligent in the face of alleged misbehavior until the facts are available. For Catholics, this was another demonstration of how anti-Catholic and anti-Christian our culture has become. As the sex-abuse crisis has taught us, we must confront evil forcefully and with clarity. When actual racism occurs, we must speak out. But we also must challenge false claims that seek to defame and slander young people and maliciously attach the pro-life movement to racism and intolerance. The pro-life movement is based in love — for the unborn and their parents. We cannot be distracted by false media firestorms that deflect us from our prayerful and peaceful cause.

This is especially important given the legislation newly approved by the New York Legislature and signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo that will allow mothers to abort their children up to the moment of birth. The ghoulish celebrations that accompanied the passage and signing are a potent reminder of why we must continue to pray for the conversion of souls and why we must be tireless in the defense of life.

The French playwright Molière once observed, “Prudence is always in season.” It would seem that prudence today is both out of season and out of fashion in modern culture. But prudence is the virtue that teaches, as St. Thomas Aquinas wrote, “wisdom concerning human affairs.”

May all of us learn the ongoing need for prudence from these painful days. Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron of Los Angeles put it in even more practical terms: “When you’re about to make a comment, ask yourself a very simple question: ‘Am I doing this out of love, out of a sincere wish for the good of the person or persons I’m addressing?’ If not, shut up.”

Sound advice indeed.