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.


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.

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arthur mccaffrey
10 months 3 weeks ago

What planet is Prof Bordone living on? These white Catholic boys were savaged on both mainstream and social media. And now Bordone wants the victims to play nice and make up. I hope young Mr Sandeman sues the pants off everybody for cruelly damaging his young life and the lives of his classmates. Bordone shows no sympathy for the victims but wants another unrealistic confrontation between Sandeman and his tormenters in order to promote his pie in the sky, wide eyed notion of "reconciliation". What a strange conception of justice from a lawyer--does Bordone seriously think that Phillips and the Black Hebrew Israelites are seriously going to play his game of "apology, forgiveness and, perhaps, reconciliation and personal transformation." I challenge Bordone to answer my question--isn't his proposal just another attempt to manipulate and exploit Sandeman and his classmates (just like the media did) for some wild abstract notion that makes Bordone feel good, but shows no sympathy or sensitivity towards the young man's feelings.
You are using people Prof Bordone for your own private agenda, just like social media did, and the more i read your article the more I see it as a marketing ploy for your conflict management business. When you return to Planet Earth, please don't call.

Larraine Pratt
10 months 3 weeks ago

Some very good points.

Thomas Noronha
10 months 3 weeks ago

I'm from India and have been following this story closely. I understand that the lawyer representing the Covington students sent out legal notices to various parties requesting them to withdraw or recant their defamatory comments and reports. Only the ones that arrogantly refused are being sued. I believe this was a very gracious move to seek reconciliation and forgiveness which was spurned by many and now it is very appropriate to seek justice by instituting a lawsuit.

Lisa M
10 months 3 weeks ago

Thomas- excellent point

Lisa M
10 months 3 weeks ago

The more I read the comments, the more I start seeing what Robert Bordone is saying. No, I think the family has every right to sue, but seriously we are losing our civility. We all need to revisit our faith a bit, and dial back. Some of the comments are downright abusive. No doubt we have our right to an opinion, but .............

JR Cosgrove
10 months 3 weeks ago

The author purposely distorted the account. The bishop of Covington said it’s a “no win” situation. The author took it literally when the common usage of the expression means to be treated fairly. If he doesn’t know this then he is not qualified for his job. To use the expression “jaw dropped” is disingenuous. This is just another setup.

Stefan Svilich
10 months 3 weeks ago

Why are large lawsuits, "not a good way to learn from the Covington Catholic incident'? What happened boys, did your defense attorney tell you to get out your checkbook and settle as quickly as possible to make this go away? Separating you from a large sum will be the quickest way to teach you to get the story straight before going to press.

10 months 3 weeks ago

I urge the editors of America magazine to write an article that clearly states that that the evidence shows that these Covington boys were clearly victimized, were not culpable, acted Christlike(e.g., Nick Sandmann standing stoically in front of an elderly man and the rest of the boys engaging in a school chant rather than return a volley of vulgarities back to the group that was assailing them). That should be the departure point of this article. The author of this article has missed this point entirely. It is troubling to me that America magazine has not supported these young men in the last two articles, but given in to the political winds of a disproven, social media outrage and has not the moral courage to condemn its consequences on these young men. Other Catholic publications have.

Don Pellegrino
10 months 3 weeks ago

No matter what these students do, they are criticized by someone, somewhere in the Catholic Church...maybe rather than sit in New York and write nice articles the writer could go to Covington and meet with the students and ask what they think. These are high school students. Jesuits use to teach High School students in class rooms rather than pontificate from afar. I aplogize now if this seams offensive, and please take down if it is, but it is how I feel.

Mike Macrie
10 months 3 weeks ago

Base on reading some of vitriol comments on the article, I have to blame the past Conservative Leadership of the Catholic Church. The Church had moved so far right on Single Issue “Right to Life” that it left behind Christian Social Justice Parishioners. Pope Francis has brought this to light that unless we act like true Christians in “ Loving our Neighbor as Thyself- Jesus Second Greatest Commandment” we are not going to the Promise Land. Of course large Donations by Conservative Parishioners to Bishops kept Church Teachings to the Right. Now because the Church is moving to the Center, Conservative Parishioners feel betrayed and outrage. This would never had happened if Church Leadership did not jump all in on the Political Right. The Church needs to stay out of Politics and start teaching all of the 10 Commandments and stop Cherry Picking those few that are beneficial to Church Finances.

10 months 3 weeks ago

Bordone is right: this is not a case for million dollar lawsuits.


Enough of the using and slandering of pro-life kids to advance an ideological agenda. If common decency didn't deter them, a quarter of a billion dollars might.

Larraine Pratt
10 months 3 weeks ago

I agree.

Roland Greystoke
10 months 3 weeks ago

The irresponsible liberal press made targets of kids who did nothing wrong. I hope the lawsuits bankrupt every last one of the people and entities involved. The liberals won't learn anything from it. They'll just keep on playing the victim. I grew up with liberals. Catholic liberals. And they disgust me. Like the ones who went after these kids.

Judith Jordan
10 months 3 weeks ago

I was raised and educated in Catholic schools pre-Vatican II. My response to the Covington issue is different than most postings. If my classes had gone on a trip and interacted with anyone, especially with an adult, on any issue that resulted in this kind of publicity, we would have been punished whether we were right or wrong.

During that time, Catholic schools kids were disciplined and judged by a very high, strict standard. We were always to behave in a polite manner, period. To do anything that would place us in a controversial situation would have brought down upon us the “wrath of the nuns.”

10 months 3 weeks ago

Sounds like victim shaming.

Please provide an analogous example from your school days. Best.

Bev Ceccanti
10 months 3 weeks ago

Judith Jordan: I was raised in the same era and am grateful I never surrendered my own thought process. My parents received a letter explaining the school nuns didn't want me back because I was a 'rabble- rouser' but my hopes of going to public school were dashed when I was enrolled in another Catholic School (in a different town). .Looking back, I'm grateful for the 'Hand of God . ' I forgave the meanness of the nuns in my former school after I acquired a better understanding of life., which included a vision of my own sins. I'm forever grateful to the education these imperfect wonderful Catholic women gave me but I'm also grateful I never followed anything 'hook, line and sinker'. Maybe I grew up in 'the wrong part of town' but I think I got the gist of it.

Lisa M
10 months 3 weeks ago

Bev- We likely would have been friends as kids! My parents too, much to the horror of my older sisters, received a call that 'perhaps I wasn't mature enough", and I was 'sentenced' by my parents to attend another sister school. When my nieces and daughter attended years later, a former classmate, turned teacher, gifted me a graduation pin from the school. I too, with time, learned to recognize my role in it, and forgave some of the not so pleasant nuns, and became ever grateful to the kind ones who, in those few years inspired me.

Bev Ceccanti
10 months 3 weeks ago

Lisa: Ha! I think so too....

10 months 3 weeks ago

Mr. Bordone,

Your opinion piece serves no purpose other than obfuscation, aside from the obvious self-promotion. I believe that is precisely your intent. The reader can judge if that makes it a representative offering from America Magazine.

You fail to state that the Sandmann family is suing neither the lying Indian nor the “Israelite” cult. (Unlike the aforementioned, Nick Sandmann is not a perpetually aggrieved agitator. He is also a minor. And you are publicly suggesting that the victim should subject himself to these abusers, a second time. Have these abusers of minors ever apologized, or do they persist in their deceit?)

Rather, the Sandmann’s seek recompense and justice from wealthy individuals and corporations who have defamed Nick, and by extension, Middle America, on their powerful platforms. That defamation was repeated and intentional. The Sandmann’s are only seeking legal remedy after the powerful media entities had been given ample time to retract, which was a most gracious offer. Evidently, these powerful media entities feel content with their actions against Nick, and all those who do not genuflect to the leftist narrative they (including America Magazine and yourself?) work so hard to construct. For the Covington boys represent Middle America in this drama.

You state the lawsuit “simply adds fuel to the fire” and “will not undo that harm.” I think this could be the fulcrum of your obfuscation. Does a judgment in a wrongful death suit restore life? Does the application of multi-decade prison terms restore life to innocent victims? Keep in mind that innocents were even victimized with death threats in the media-generated fury. Yet you are suggesting justice not be sought. Or are you consistent in opposing a judicial process in all cases involving personal harm, including criminal matters?

Rather, you are attempting to put upon this victim’s shoulders the responsibility to heal the country’s divisions?! By meeting, and giving further platform, those who have done nothing but demonstrate malice.

You state that it is you observation that few people’s views have shifted. Is this your “tell”? That you seek to undermine those who seek justice and that you seek to allow the false narrative to persist in the public mind?

Why do you not ask the bishops and priests who perpetuated these attacks against their flock to perform public penance as an example for all? How dare you attempt to place this fabricated burden on the victims shoulders?

And then, to top it off, you have the sanctimony to advise those who take issue with your piece to “take a deep breath” and say a prayer, as you suggest in the comments.

As you are grand with unsolicited advice, try this on, Mr. Bordone. Publish a full, unqualified apology and complete retraction for suggesting that the victim subject himself to further victimization by pursuing a futile quest rather than seeking the justice he is due.


Bev Ceccanti
10 months 3 weeks ago

P. Murphy: I'm so grateful for your articulate response to Mr. Bordone et al. I could never have said what I already know so well.

Larraine Pratt
10 months 3 weeks ago

I've tried hard to get my head around this article but I just find it bizarre.

Vincent Gaglione
10 months 3 weeks ago

Sometimes wisdom and smarts require a person to remove oneself from situations where people unrelated to you attempt to engage you, for whatever reason. Anyone who has ever traveled on a public transport knows whereof I speak.

The teachers and chaperones who allowed the children to engage in whatever form with the Black Hebrews and the Native Americans made a colossal mistake in judgment. As a teacher my first and immediate reaction was to get the class away. The arrogance of the students chanting their school cheers was also a gigantic error of judgment. The lawsuits are all aimed in the wrong direction!

Nancy Alberici
10 months 3 weeks ago

I am still waiting for the school to address the fact that the chaperones were not doing their job. I have served as a chaperone on several school trips and the first thing we would have done is move the children away from the fray. Whether the high school students said anything racist or not, the staring down of an elder was disrespectful and not indicative of Catholic Christian training nor was tomahawk chops. There were really poor choices made by all, however as disciples of Christ we need to hold ourselves to a higher standard; as light of the world we need to do the right thing. IMHO the lawsuit is the wrong thing - it says I'm right and you will pay.

On a personal note, acceptance of differences without judgement doesn't make you a bad Catholic. Each person has a gift to offer that we will never see if we prejudge base on first sight.

Al Cannistraro
10 months 3 weeks ago

I, like many others, first learned about this incident through social media users who had already decided that the kids were insensitive. Viewing the video through that filter, the assertion seemed to be corroborated. That was the problem: people presumptively spreading potentially false damning rumors without reflection on the possible unjust consequences. And of course, viewers just mindlessly and reflexively spread the rumors. Bad virus.

More restraint and humility are needed in general on social media, but that is a hopeless cause as is evidenced by many commenters on these pages.

On another note, it's regrettable for the image of Catholic education and American Catholicism in general that Sandmann's family won't or can't resist the temptation to try to cash in.

The people who first started and spread this hastily interpreted viral video largely are the ones responsible, in my view. They should come forward and apologize.

Phillip Stone
10 months 3 weeks ago

The quite unusual legal system in USA allows for use of law to redress all sorts of issues.

The family will need good lawyers who would do well to include the "Indian", the "black Hebrew Israelites" and anyone else who significantly failed to protect them and aided and abetted their abuse and vilification.

This socialist nonsense about it not "improving" things so do not do it is enraging me these days. Actions have consequences, bad actions need punishment just for being bad actions.

This is a power encounter and punishment is appropriate. If miscreants learn from it, so much the better.

Laura Garber
10 months 3 weeks ago

I’m Catholic. Two uncles that were priests and a sister who is an ex- nun. What got me the most is that they paid private investigators to check out these charges, but did they do this for any of the people that claimed to be abused by priests. No, they let those people suffer for years, but these parents have money so let’s not hurt anyone’s feelings. You say Mr. Sandmann, was standing up to this man ....if he was a black teen in the same situation would your reaction be the same....if not then you are lying to yourselves and allowing white privilege to rule. This is what you call a conservative snowflake.

Catherine Rounsavall
10 months 3 weeks ago

Thank you for your article but the participants in this fiasco are hardly likely to sit down and discuss a reconciliation or a kumbaya...for what? Your article in its 'existence' portends that there was an issue...which there was not. The media, Phillips and the heathens tried to create an issue where there wasn't one. So, no need to apologize, reconcile, etc., and it appears that the protest by NA was aimed at the Catholic Church both times.

Al Cannistraro
10 months 2 weeks ago

I think the following opinion essay offers sound advice on how to react and counter-react to similar incidents going forward.

The essay ends this way:

Too often we may feel ourselves trapped in the jury box, but we put ourselves there, and we can choose instead to sit in the chair of the witness. Freed from the responsibility to deliver a verdict, our new role is to separate assumption from knowledge. Watching this way, whether on the page or on the street, releases us from the tyranny of our own estimations, even regarding people who have behaved in ways we might otherwise consider wicked.

It is a no less morally awake response than holding a person in judgment.


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