Tom Williams: Catholic Diocese Rushed to Judge Covington Students

Covington Catholic church (Flickr)
THOMAS D. WILLIAMS, PH.D.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Covington rushed to condemn a group of Catholic students sporting MAGA hats at the March for Life whom the media accused of mocking and harassing a Native American man. But the story was fake news.

Video footage belies reports that the students from Covington Catholic High School “taunted” and “harassed” Nathan Phillips, who was present in Washington, DC, for the first Indigenous Peoples March on Friday.

Jesuit-run America magazine claimed that a small group of Native American drummers had been “surrounded by a much larger band of teenagers,” an allegation repeated by other media outlets.

In point of fact, however, video footage shows the Native Americans confronting the youths, and Mr. Phillips begins playing his drum just inches from the face of one of the boys, who simply smiles at him.

The New York Times went so far as to allege that the boys had “mobbed” a Native elder, which is unsustainable in the face of video footage showing the man approaching the boys, who are stationary.

This version of the story was circulated by the Guardian, CNN, ABC, NBC, the Daily Beast, Slate, and many more.

As many people noted on social media, the mainstream media rushed to put the story out without bothering to check if it was true, or wait for full video evidence. The perfect storm of white Catholic males wearing Make America Great Again hats and attending the March for Life to protest abortion was just too tempting to pass up, even if the narrative was completely false.

The diocese and Covington Catholic High School played into the hands of those launching the false accusations, and condemned the students’ behavior before they had even ascertained what actually happened. They extended their “deepest apologies” to Mr. Phillips as well as to Native Americans in general.

“This behavior is opposed to the Church’s teachings on the dignity and respect of the human person,” the statement said.

One student who was an eyewitness at the event reportedly wrote a letter to Local 12 News in Kentucky to tell his version of the encounter, which seems to concur with the extensive video footage.

The student writes that “we were approached by a group of adults led by Nathan Phillips, with Phillips beating his drum. They forced their way into the center of our group.”

Phillips “came to stand in front of one of my classmates who stood where he was, smiling and enjoying the experience. However, after multiple minutes of Mr. Phillips beating his drum directly in the face of my friend (mere centimeters from his nose), we became confused and wondered what was happening,” the letter states.

“It was not until later that we discovered they would incriminate us as a publicity stunt. As a result, my friend faces expulsion for just standing still and our entire school is being disparaged for a crime we did not commit,” it reads.

“The truth needs to come out,” the student writes.

This is not, apparently, the first time that Nathan Phillips has been found at the center of controversy involving alleged harassment of Native Americans.

In 2015, he reportedly accused a group of students from Eastern Michigan University of racial harassment, saying he was bombarded with racial slurs and “it really got ugly.”

Curiously, “It was getting ugly” is the title of the Washington Post report that repeated the charge that Covington Catholic students had mocked Mr. Phillips.

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