Million-dollar lawsuits are not the way to learn from the Covington Catholic incident

Nick Sandmann, a junior at Covington Catholic High School in Park Hills, Ky., and other students stand in front of Native American Nathan Phillips in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 18, 2019. An independent investigation found no “offensive or racist statements” by the students and concluded that the students did not instigate any conflict. (CNS photo/Kaya Taitano, social media via Reuters)

The events surrounding and following the encounter between the Covington Catholic High School boys, Native American elder Nathan Phillips and the Black Hebrew Israelites at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., last month were deeply troubling, no matter where you stand politically.

Now the family of Nicholas Sandmann, the student in the video standing face-to-face with Mr. Phillips, has filed a defamation lawsuit against The Washington Post seeking $250 million in damages for how the newspaper covered the incident, which occurred after the annual March for Life and turned out to be quite different from the narrative initially spread on social media. A lawyer representing Mr. Sandmann had previously sent aletter to 54 news outlets and public figures threatening legal action. This week’s lawsuit simply adds fuel to the fire.

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The entire string of events, including the rush to judgment and public shaming of the boys, has been painful to witness. But something of value can come from all this, something more ennobling than “Check your facts before railing about how horrible someone is.”

The students have an opportunity to go beyond seeking legal remedies, to use this moment for reconciliation rather than retribution.

The students have an opportunity to go beyond seeking legal remedies, to use this moment for reconciliation rather than retribution. As Catholics we have an opportunity to remind ourselves of who we are called to be. This is our moment to demonstrate what it means to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world.

Mr. Sandmann’s lawyer contends that media outlets, celebrities on social media and even church officials inflicted irreparable harm to the reputation of the boys. Putting aside the merits of the claim, one thing is for sure: Lawsuits will not undo that harm. Nor will an “independent investigation” promote healing, forgiveness, justice or reconciliation.

Indeed, an independent investigation found no “offensive or racist statements” by the students and concluded that the students did not instigate any conflict. But from my personal (and by no means scientific) observation of social media reaction to this report, few people’s views on the matter have shifted.

This is not because most people are stupid or stubborn. It is because we are all human, and human beings suffer from self-serving biases that cause us to overvalue data that supports our viewpoint and to dismiss data that does not. That is how we are hardwired; it is part of what it means to be fallen.

Human beings suffer from self-serving biases that cause us to overvalue data that supports our viewpoint and to dismiss data that does not.

The narrative of one camp is a variation of the following: This is a story of privilege, of racist white boys donning provocative MAGA hats at an anti-abortion rally, smugly staring down a Native American elder and mocking Native American culture. It is white patriarchy run amok. With the investigation now over, this side simply says, “Aha! These privileged white people don’t even appreciate that tomahawk chops, smug facial expressions and MAGA hats themselves, are ipso facto, offensive and racist.”

The competing narrative: This is a story about the liberal, anti-Catholic, anti-Trump and politically correct media elites who salivate over any chance to cast the pro-life movement, white men and Christians (especially Catholics) in a bad light. With the investigation now complete, this side gloats, “Aha! As expected! These boys were innocent victims as we knew all along! We are vindicated!”

No lawsuit, investigation or blue-ribbon panel is likely to shift the narrative for these two camps.

But as a conflict resolution scholar and practitioner, I see a way forward, found in Catholic tradition, that can ameliorate some of the damage from this incident. What would it look like to convene Mr. Sandmann and the other students, Nathan Phillips if he is willing and available, possibly other representatives of Native American groups, and perhaps even a few of the Black Hebrew Israelites, together with trained facilitators to help them have a genuine and open conversation?

The purpose would not be for a photo-op, or for one side to prove the other wrong, but for genuine listening, vulnerability and curiosity. It could be a conversation where all parties believe they have their own valuable perspectives but also believe they can learn from each other and have something to offer each other—in the form of apology, forgiveness and, perhaps, reconciliation and personal transformation.

From a Catholic perspective, what a powerful moment of evangelization this could be! To show that Jesus’ willingness to meet the other has no bounds. To show that mutual forgiveness, learning and healing can exist even in a national environment of recrimination, humiliation and public shame.

What a powerful moment of evangelization this could be! To show that Jesus’ willingness to meet the other has no bounds.

Some will say that any meeting is nothing more than a publicity stunt. Others will say meeting with the other would be an admission of wrongdoing, or that even a facilitated conversation would be unsafe. But isn’t it true that redemption and transformation often happen at moments of vulnerability and weakness? Paul’s Damascene experience and the confession by the centurion that “Surely, he was the Son of God” as the earth shook on Good Friday are just two scriptural examples of this.

To be clear, a meeting between the various stakeholders who were involved in both the incident and the subsequent reporting on it does not guarantee reconciliation, transformation or mutual understanding. But I refuse to believe that such an outcome is not possible. This is where the church should carefully consider the message we are sending in this moment, both as Catholic Christians and as Americans.

Several days after the incident in Washington, Bishop Roger Foy of Covington visited the high school and reportedly told students: “This is a no-win situation…. No matter what we say, one way or another, there are going to be people who are going to argue about it.”

When I read that quote, my jaw dropped. Why is a Catholic bishop framing an issue like this in win-lose terms? What kind of lesson does this send to these boys and to the faithful at large? Imagine if the bishop instead said: “It is likely that many will be fixed in their views of the events in Washington, and there may be little we can do to change their view. But we can reach out to anyone who has felt hurt or ignored by these events, listen to their experience of the events, and acknowledge and express regret for any unintended harm that may have resulted from the students’ actions or inactions. Even if reconciliation does not come, we can be assured of grace and healing for our efforts. For, as Jesus tells us, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.’”

Despite the filing of this week’s lawsuit and the threat of others to follow, I still believe this painful situation provides an opportunity for the students of Covington Catholic and for the Catholic Church, as well as for those whose calling and mission is to promote peace, to choose another path—to be salt and light in a moment of deep polarization and distrust.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
J Cosgrove
5 months 4 weeks ago

Does the author want the law suits to stop? There is too much public shaming going on. Maybe a large law suit if successful will stop this trend.

As far as intransigence and polarization, all one has to do it read the comments on the America site about this incident. The author added to this polarization by distorting what the Covington bishop said. Saying "no win" is not putting the circumstances in a win-lose situation and the author's take is disingenuous. The expression in common usage indicates that one is seeking fairness not a win.

Danny Collins
5 months 3 weeks ago

Of course the author added to the polarization. His boss, Fr. James Martin, was one of the first people to defame the Covington boys. This article is a misguided attempt at defensive public relations. The editors and journalists at America Magazine look down their nose at the Covington boys, and have from the beginning. This is just one more self-righteous article denigrating good people when they couldn't muster the slightest effort to out the deviant McCarrick for his wicked crimes, and instead chose to honor him at their centennial celebrations...

Hermaeus Mora
5 months 4 weeks ago

This author clearly fails to understand the scope of things. This isn't an individual with a personal grievance that slandered someone, in which case, yes the turn the other cheek type attitude would be proper. This, is far larger, far more problematic, and far more systematic. The entire main stream media and celebrities across Twitter decided to gang up on the Covington boy and smear him, many even called for death threats against him. This same media and twitter mob did the same thing to Brett Kavanaugh. This same group decided to shake their fists at the mean ol' Trump supports when Jussie Smollet cried wolf. Doing nothing is only going to encourage this same behavior. We need to fight back. We need to stand up for ourselves. I hope, no, i PRAY that God would grant justice for that boy and grind those f***ers into dust.

Jane Chiles
5 months 3 weeks ago

I struggle when you share your prayer and it includes "grind those f***ers into dust". Not sure that God is ready to respond positively.

Mike Houlihan
5 months 3 weeks ago

Jane, I write simply to express my admiration for your restraint.

Mike Macrie
5 months 3 weeks ago

Grind and using the F word here in your rant in a Catholic Publication no less, is a little extreme here don’t you think ?

Jeffrey More
5 months 4 weeks ago

“Genuine and open conversation” isn’t going to solve anything. The legal equivalent of a baseball bat across the forehead of the conclusion-jumping , defaming media outlets, political figures and others (including these students’ own diocese) might help temper some of the searing hatred that seems to have taken hold of the progressive media and its sycophants (including most of the bishops in this country). I hope this kid winds up owning the Washington Post. I also wouldn’t mind seeing him wind up owning whatever passes for a Catholic cathedral in Covington.

Mike Houlihan
5 months 3 weeks ago

The Cathedral in Covington is over a hundred years old; it's a minor basilica; it's been beautifully maintained and reflects the rich history of the Catholic community in northern Kentucky. I wonder what you mean by "whatever passes for a Cathedral" -- a knock on the Church? on Kentucky? on Covington? If you want to take a shot, you need better aim.

Vince Killoran
5 months 3 weeks ago

That's fine to talk about reconciliation but I wonder how this incident will negatively affect the college admissions chances of these young people?

Jim Lein
5 months 3 weeks ago

If anything, a reconciliation meeting will help their chances of college admission. It would show they are learners and are motivated to solve problems or disagreements in an intelligent and creative and Christ-like manner. Seeking money does not show this.

Bev Ceccanti
5 months 3 weeks ago

Jim L: Are you kidding? Get real! Big money will help them meet scholastic goals better than any ' reconciliation'. The left is the image of evil and they deserve to get hung out to dry for all of the bullying and killing of babies they've been shamelessly promoting. Let's not forget why the kids were wearing Maga hats. ( Jesus was no milquetoast.)

Jim Lein
5 months 3 weeks ago

I'm an old liberal arts grad who worked my way through school back when that was possible, and eventually became a psychotherapist. Never that impressed with money, unless it is to help the poor get on their feet. Wealth at a young age can spoil a person. Look at our president for whom money is a be-all and end-all. Real reconciliation is always a good--can be life-changing in a positive direction. Money not necessarily so.

Bev Ceccanti
5 months 3 weeks ago

Jim Lein: Too bad.. So sad.. I 'm a street wise Social Science graduate myself and I know the value of standing up to killer-bullies with little saving grace. I don't believe in simpering sentimentality when the lives of millions of young human beings hang in the balance.

Bev Ceccanti
5 months 3 weeks ago

Jim Lein : Trump is the' hero in the foxhole'. He's the best thing going for those little ones on the chopping block.... Oh.. did you think philosophizing for more years on end is going to save them? A little disingenuous, don't you think?

Laura Anderson
5 months 3 weeks ago

Please tell me you are not equating Jesus with Donald Trump. That is pure sacrilege.

Bev Ceccanti
5 months 3 weeks ago

Laura Anderson: How typical of the Christine Blasey Ford Fan Club. Will you please quote where you believe I equated Jesus Christ to Donald Trump.?

Vince Killoran
5 months 3 weeks ago

I'm a leftie (Bernie supporter!) and think that President Trump is a disaster. But, my fellow progressives are losing their moral bearings and reasoning skills when they allow themselves to get dragged into social media faux stories.

I happen to work at a select liberal arts college. The Covington kids applications will be hampered by the inaccurate reporting. Sometimes law suits are the only way to change behavior.

Andrew Strada
5 months 3 weeks ago

As we all know, there is no better way to have an open and genuine conversation than to have it led by trained facilitators.

"together with trained facilitators to help them have a genuine and open conversation?"

If I were a Covington student, I'd much rather take the money.

Karl Miller
5 months 3 weeks ago

Somewhat ironic seeing America trying to weigh in on the Covington student’s lawsuit when your own Rev. James Martin was one of the first members of the media to rush in and falsely condemn the students.

Colette Verdun
5 months 3 weeks ago

I was so disappointed by Rev. James Martin's negative comments about the boy. I hope he reaches out to apologize.

Lisa M
5 months 3 weeks ago

He did apologize, and I respect him very much for that. Most have chosen the path of silence.

John Walton
5 months 3 weeks ago

Over 50 years ago, one of the Dominican nuns told us a parable of what happens when you spread a falsehood. Think of a boy who rips apart a pillow on the top of a hill on a windy day. His mother tells him to reclaim all the feathers, but he can't.
Again, as Glenn Beck has said (probably impeaches me as a writer mentioning his name), we have become a nation addicted to outrage, and Martin is little different from any other applicant.

Judith Jordan
5 months 3 weeks ago

John Walton--

I had the same story told to me over 50 years ago, except it was by a Charity nun. And yes, you are taking a big chance by quoting Glen Beck, but we get what you mean.

Joan Sheridan
5 months 3 weeks ago

One thing that I only read once was that when the school came to the pro-life March when Obama was President they wore hats that said "HOPE" If this is true and if it had been more widely reported I think it would have put a new and better light on the incident.

Bev Ceccanti
5 months 3 weeks ago

Joan Sheridan: I'm guessing your comment was misunderstood as being slavish to the left. I took it to mean that wearing the 'Hope' hat was a political comment and the' Maga' hat should have been taken in the same vein. I never heard this but , if true, I too wish it had been more widely reported. Thank you.

Joseph Keffer
5 months 3 weeks ago

I stand with the Sandman family. The lawsuit speaks volumes in our society. Thank you to the Sandman family.
J H Keffer, M.D.

Carmen de Aldecoa-Baizan
5 months 3 weeks ago

Enough! A law suit may or may not be the naseer; however, the media must learn to report the news after they have done research and check that all the information is correct.

Stephen de Weger
5 months 3 weeks ago

Oh, I don't know. Seems that it was the only way to get changes happening in the Church. Here's an interesting insight into the power of 'money':

Speaking perhaps cynically, and what may be soon a lesson the Roman Catholic Church will learn (see McCarthy, 2016), one of the major reasons for codes of conduct regarding professional standards and the professional-client relationship is fear of litigation. Gonsiorek (1995) noted that prior to the 1990s, very few professionals showed interest in the topic of professional sexual misconduct (PSM). In 1980, only 3 people registered for a training session on sexually exploitative psychotherapists, with one of the therapists who registered thinking it would be about “how to have sex with clients” (professionally, one would hope) (Gonsiorek 1995, 392-393). The session was cancelled. However, quite suddenly, in the early 1990s the interest became more than evident when around 450 professionals registered for a conference on PSM. Gonsiorek (1995, 392) believed that this newly-burgeoning interest was directly related to some courageous victims of PSM winning “a series of six-and seven-figure lawsuits”.

And we are talking about professional misconduct here, not sexual but sloppy, agenda, ideologically driven journalism that ends in damaged lives and an even more uninformed and split society. Justice first, then forgiveness.

James Schwarzwalder
5 months 3 weeks ago

The article states"Lawsuits will not undo that harm. Nor will an “independent investigation” promote healing, forgiveness, justice or reconciliation." Whoa! Lawsuits and independent investigations were and are the means whereby the pedophilia debacle in the Church is moving toward remedy and the end is not in sight. The article goes on, "The students have an opportunity to go beyond seeking legal remedies, to use this moment for reconciliation rather than retribution." Sounds a lot like put the onus on the victim to me. Parents, police and lawyers do not take death threats lightly.

Kathleen Capehart
5 months 3 weeks ago

I can't find anyone who can tell me whether or not the Sandman family is actually Catholic. Many Catholic schools have students who are not Catholic, particularly in the South. I have wondered why the students were chanting school slogans rather than prayers.

J Cosgrove
5 months 3 weeks ago

There was an interview where he talked about his Catholic faith.

Lisa M
5 months 3 weeks ago

It is apologizing that is the hardest thing to do, but the most effective in bringing peace, and helps keep us all grounded. To their credit Bishop Foy did, and Fr Martin did, not for being all wrong, just for jumping the gun. Thank you for leading by example. What a shame others have chosen not to follow suit. To those in the media, left or right, they never seem to learn ( Richard Jewell, Bennet-Ramsey, several made-up 'satanic abuse cases in the 1980s, etc, etc). A lawsuit is the only way. I'm sure had they just apologized, genuinely apologized..........how hard is it for God's sake?

Tom Jedrzejewicz
5 months 3 weeks ago

Sorry, but Bishop Foys statement was not an apology in any real sense of the word.

Henry Brown
5 months 3 weeks ago

I worked as a Private Investigator for a Law Firm
and the first thing you learn is that the vast, vast majority
of clients give reports that make us look better than they actually are.

I had a friend who lost his teaching job in the matter of two hours after
a student who was failing his class made a false claim of "Racism" against him. The school refused to listen to his side of the story and
he was told to leave and never return to the school. [ The student tried the same strategy with another teacher the next Semester but failed to notice that another teacher was sitting in the back of the room during the time the student said the alleged event occurred. The student was expelled from the school, but my friend was not re-instated. ] Trying to explain what actually happened to possible employers was an
onerous task and he eventually left the US of A for employment overseas.

Given the power and extent of Social Media if someone lies about you
that lie can go around the world in a few minutes and you will soon be getting nasty emails, twits, phone calls demanding that you be hung from the nearest apple tree by complete strangers and they will declare
that unless you fired they never will do business with your employer
ever again.

The Covington Students were minding their own business when the
"Black Hebrews" confronted them and others with their vile language
and accusations.

I can't imagine that the Covington Students need a meeting with the
"Black Hebrews". With Mr. Phillips, yes, if he will admit the students
did not surround him or intentionally insult him,

Meanwhile, America, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Twitter,
Youtube have a moral obligation to not publish/present stories that they cannot show to be true.

Imagine having death threats made to your family, your school, because you stood around the Lincoln Memorial when profession agitators began their actions.

Has America sent Fr. Martin to personally apologise to the Covington
school boys ?

Money makes us pay attention, I hope they have to pay millions so they never report false news so quickly and easily again.

Robert Nalley
5 months 3 weeks ago

The students' BISHOP needs to be hit with a suit. WHY did HE so quickly condemned them ? Maybe because the Bishops are terrified being held accountable for their treatment of clergy-abused youth and having more fiscal losses. The Bishop's baseless critique of his own flock is just another version of clergy abuse.

KATHERIN MARSH
5 months 3 weeks ago

I find Professor Bardon's solution misses the point.
First, there is Prof's rationalizing that this is what it means to be fallen. Which misses the point of being a Sacramental people, a people who lives their Baptism. That young Catholic man did an exemplary job in this situation. Furthermore, this not a situation where one person sprayed graffiti on a wall and needs to come together with the institution that was wronged because he needs some "sensitivity training." Instead this is another Catholic stepping forward and saying to a victim: Do not play hardball. Play victim. Which is the reason abuse is allowed to propagate for so many decades.
Second, This is a prestigious and believed "news" institution that has exploited the freedom this democratic nation gives its press.
I applaud the parents here for doing a job of raising a fine young man, and I further applaud their courage for moving forward and not allowing the Baptism they gave their son to go unwarranted. It is oath to God. Our word matters, especially the words of a free press.
This is what the legal system in a democracy is all about.

Bev Ceccanti
5 months 3 weeks ago

I hope all are sued into oblivion. Even the apologies from the dioceses were way too little, too late if they existed at all, and were utterly demeaning to an entire 'class'' of people. Bishop Stowe, James Martin's friend, never did apologize, and James Martin's was sickeningly tepid,

John Walton
5 months 3 weeks ago

Did Richard Jewell get justice? This loner was accused of the Atlanta Olympics bombing and was later determined to be completely innocent. The frenzied media made his life hell, and he succombed to an early death.
The only thing which some in the media understand is being socked in the wallet.

Lisa M
5 months 3 weeks ago

It is a shame that no matter the issue, the lines are drawn and people insist on always fitting our church into their political camp. The Catholic faith belongs to neither! We should always be standing up for the principle of the issue. Whether or not Bishop Foy, or Fr Martin or Bishop Stowe align more with one's camp is irrelevant. Bishop Foy and Fr Martin apologized for jumping the gun, which incidentally, most of us did. They should be commended for being honest enough to apologize. That's called having some humility and integrity.

James Schwarzwalder
5 months 3 weeks ago

I think one principle inherent in this issue is if you are visiting Washington DC for any reason whatsoever you have the right to purchase and wear a souvenir hat without being harassed, vilified, & falsely characterized in a manner that subsequently results in being subjected to death threats. Much of the news media has abandoned journalistic standards in a rush to get their own viewpoint out. I don't think it is a matter of Catholics attempting to fit our church into any political camp. We do have some Constitutional rights. A school child is not required to say the Declaration of Independence in school (which is true), and a citizen can burn the American flag without penalty (which is true). A student on a field trip should be free to purchase and wear a MAGA hat. Just today an 81 year old man was assaulted in a New Jersey supermarket because he was wearing a MAGA hat, and a day or so ago a male customer eating in a diner in New England was assaulted by an illegal woman immigrant as the customer wore a MAGA hat as he ate.. The women is now in the process of being deported.

Lisa M
5 months 3 weeks ago

James- I agree 100 %, What happened to those boys, and the rush to judgement was wrong. The media, and some individuals need to be held to account. I just think that when someone steps up and apologizes, that should be recognized, not ignored simply because he does not share the same views. Fr. Martin and Bishop Foy apologized, and no one seems to want to acknowledge that. That says something about our inability to look at things outside of our political bubble.

Andrew Strada
5 months 3 weeks ago

Backtracking when you realize you've made a fool of yourself speaks more to an instinct for self-preservation than to any virtuous humility or integrity. To say that their only error was to "jump the gun" means that they should have waited a little longer before they condemned the students. In fact, their error was to condemn the students who had done nothing wrong. It must have come as a very unpleasant shock to Fr. Martin when the reality did not fit his convenient narrative.

Lisa M
5 months 3 weeks ago

Andrew-Those are my words about jumping the gun, not theirs, and they both might have said more, although I understand Fr Martin's apology was limited. Nonetheless, the real error was judging before they knew what happened, no matter what the end result. I am assuming the apologies included for the damage they did to the students as a result. While I agree the boys did nothing wrong, and in fact behaved admirably, they didn't apologize for their belief that wearing MAGA hats, or supporting Trump, etc, etc was not a good idea. I think that is fair if someone feels they don't need to apologize for that, even though personally I think the whole work up over the MAGA souvenir hats was, and is pure nonsense.

Bev Ceccanti
5 months 3 weeks ago

Lisa: Many who have learned to discern the Devil in action didn't 'jump the gun'. I hope this was a learning experience for good people who were duped.

Bev Ceccanti
5 months 3 weeks ago

Note; that Jesus didn't sympathize with the money changers in temple. He got right to it. Being Catholic doesn't mean one shouldn't defend oneself (or those who can't defend themselves) against Evil.

Edwin Hess
5 months 3 weeks ago

The false story that was spread will not disappear. The suit is a best way to have the event judged for all to see. When the evidence is made public in a fair manner and Covington victims are vindicated, then, if they want to, they can announce that some of the funds will go to an organization or two that exists for the purpose creating harmony. That would be a sensible way to show a Catholic spirit. But that is something they really do not have to.do. The fact is that the victims have truly suffered and deserve some payment for what they and their families are still going through. Also, the award should help make people and organizations think twice before using such tactics in the future.

Robert Bordone
5 months 3 weeks ago

I am happy to see that there are many reactions to my piece, some of which seem to like it, some not, some with worries/questions/concerns. To the degree people can find a way to disagree without being disagreeable, I think this will be a more useful forum. If what I wrote makes you feel angry, that is OK. It was not my intention. But before you respond to me -- or to someone else on the conversation thread - perhaps take a deep breath, and pray a Glory Be, and then consider how you might be able to convey your thought with authenticity and also grace. I thank you all for your thoughts and reading my short piece. - Robert C. Bordone

arthur mccaffrey
5 months 3 weeks ago

what a smug self righteous a**hole you are Bordone.

Ron Chandonia
5 months 3 weeks ago

Glory be! You got that just right!

Andrew Strada
5 months 3 weeks ago

I have taken 24 hours of breaths, prayed three Glory Be's, and still find your article inauthentic and graceless.

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