Bill Donohue, though completely wrong, is never wrong

When being constantly outraged and on the attack is how you make your living, you're bound to get a little sloppy with the details now and then. We've seen before what happens when the Catholic League's William A. Donohue, PhD, starts out with a complaint and then has trouble backing it up with actual evidence, and it isn't pretty.

When it comes to the church's sex-abuse crisis, Donohue's got his reactions all set, regardless of the facts. Is a bishop being criticized for mishandling accusations against an abusive priest? The bishop must be defended; he's done nothing wrong; the media (and/or leftist Catholics) are plainly out to get him.

Sometimes, though, the facts just don't line up with Donohue's interpretation. The recent case of Newark's Archbishop John J. Myers and Fr. Michael Fugee was a tough one; to maintain that Myers was a good guy getting an unfair rap, Donohue was forced to play lawyer -- a lawyer who doesn't know what the word "or" means. Thus, as Mark Silk explained yesterday, Donohue resorted to insisting that the New Jersey Star-Ledger had smeared Myers by calling for his resignation "because he allegedly did not hold Fugee to the terms of the agreement. As will soon be disclosed," Donohue said, "this accusation is patently false." And therefore "the entire editorial board of the newspaper should resign immediately."

But Donohue's argument that the accusation was false rests on an obviously erroneous reading of the archdiocese's court agreement to keep Fugee away from minors. Donohue insists that the court agreement expressly allowed Father Fugee to have contact with minors, provided he was supervised. Here's what the court order actually says:

It is agreed and understood that the Archdiocese shall not assign or otherwise place Michael Fugee in any position within the Archdiocese that allows him to have any unsupervised contact with or to supervise or minister to any minor/child under the age of 18 or work in any position in which children are involved. This includes, but is not limited to, presiding over a parish, involvement with a youth group, religious education/parochial school, CCD, confessions of children, youth choir, youth retreats and day care.

Now, we know Donohue sometimes has trouble understanding things he reads through his fog of resentful fury. But he wants to insist that the above plainly states that Fugee is permitted to do any of the itemized activities as long as he's being "supervised," when in fact there are a number of "or"s after that initial phrase about "unsupervised contact" that make it very clear the restriction is not thus limited. Is it even possible to read it that way in good faith?

Let's say Donohue really did think he was making a good argument. He knows now how wrong he was, not just because people like Silk have carefully, patiently explained his errors to him, but also because the Archdiocese has now admitted that yes, Fugee was in violation of that agreement. (Previously they had said he wasn't.) So here was what should have been a moment of truth for the Catholic League: in trying to protect a bishop from calumny, they have actually smeared an entire newspaper editorial board and muddied an important issue with a lot of false assertions and bad arguments. And that document in which Donohue's argument was so totally wrong? He'd bragged about how widely he'd distributed it -- he didn't just send it to "every bishop in the nation"; he also bothered "over 200 employees at the [Star-Ledger], including those who cover 'food news' and 'soccer.'" A big-time screwup like this could really hurt Bill Donohue's credibility, right? And it could really embarrass the bishops he's so eager to defend -- especially the ones who've gone out of their way to cheer him on without reservation. It could make them all look like they're much more invested in playing identity politics and stoking Catholic persecution complexes than they are in being honest and living up to their promises to protect children from abuse. So the only thing to do is issue a straightforward retraction and apology, right?

Oh, but you know better. Here's how Donohue actually responded: First, when his errors were pointed out, he doubled down with a press release titled "Archbishop Myers Deserves Support," which claimed that his previous missive had been a necessary response to "to a contrived story emanating from a foe of the Catholic Church." (By which he means the Star-Ledger.) You could tell his confidence was shaken, though, because he'd only gotten to his second paragraph before he was comparing the standards to which abusive priests are held to those we apply to "Muslim terrorists."

Donohue also quoted a statement from the archbishop himself, in which he had said, "the recommendations of the County Prosecutor regarding Father Fugees ability to return to ministry and future assignments in ministry carried great weight. We have followed those recommendations fully." Unfortunately for the Catholic League, that claim is exhibit A in the public's case against Myers, especially now that the archdiocese has admitted that the court order says what it obviously says, and that its recommendations had not, in fact, been followed "fully." (Well, the archdiocese actually says it didn't know what Fugee was up to. But still, a reversal, and this new line of defense is a direct contradiction of Donohue's bogus argument.)

That was Donohue's cue to issue a new press release, soberly titled "Newark Priest Resigns," and let me tell you, it's a real work of art. Donohue comes out flailing as only he can do: stubbornly denying error ("Fugees resignation does nothing to change my position") and blaming (a) the abusive priest, (b) the media (still) and (c) liberal Catholics (when your back's against the wall, say "Rembert Weakland!" and run away). The whole thing closes with a boilerplate non sequitur: "But when we see that the clergy of other religions, as well as public school officials, are being held to a lesser standard than our bishops, that is cause for action. Not until we get a level playing field will we back off." Yes, the game is rigged. How can Bill Donohue be expected to get the details right before he starts slinging mud, when there's a rabbi somewhere (or a Muslim terrorist!) whose trial isn't on the front page?

So, once again and for the record: William A. Donohue does not care whether the things he says are correct. Maintaining credibility is not a concern for him. And no bishop that I know of has recalled or moderated his support of the Catholic League in light of this fact.

Still, the Catholic League's pressers do make for lively reading. Donohue's latest salvo in particular tests the elasticity of irony itself when he blusters, regarding Fr. Fugee: "His dishonesty is appalling. Moreover, he has clearly impugned his character."


Mollie Wilson O’​Reilly is editor-at-large and columnist at Commonweal.

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