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A number of America’s Catholic bishops care more about the Church’s public image than about the welfare of teenage boys.

This was on display in 2002, and again this past summer in the aftermath of the accusations against Archbishop Theodore McCarrick and the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report. At their meeting this fall, the majority of American bishops voted down a resolution encouraging the Holy See to release all documents on the allegations of sexual misconduct against McCarrick. Yet at the same meeting they approved a pastoral letter against racism by overwhelming majority. As Cardinal Cupich reminded us recently, the Church has a “bigger agenda” than thoroughly investigating and punishing sexual assault.

Similar logic prevailed in bishops’ responses to the students from Covington Catholic: The Church’s image and denunciations of racism matter far more than the well-being of teenage boys. The Diocese of Covington and Covington Catholic High School immediately condemned the boys’ behavior as “opposed to the Church’s teachings on the dignity and respect of the human person” and promised to take “appropriate action, up to and including expulsion.” A few days later, the entire diocesan website was gone, replaced by a promise to gather facts and a refusal to comment until a third-party investigation was complete.

Archbishop Kurtz of Louisville (a former president of the USCCB) joined Covington’s Bishop Foys in “condemning shameful actions” of the students “towards Mr. Nathan Phillips and the Native American community” (the tweet has since been deleted). The Archdiocese of Baltimore also joined the condemnation.

In the following days, a fuller picture of the event emerged. Black Israelite activists had accosted the students and the Native Americans with hateful language. Nathan Phillips had confronted the students, lied about being a Vietnam Veteran, and later attempted to disrupt Mass at the National Shrine. True, a few students had done a Tomahawk chop when Phillips walked into their group—an action worthy of rebuke from a teacher or other adult chaperone. But they came off looking much less like racist thugs than like high school boys just waiting for a bus.

That didn’t stop Bishop John Stowe of Lexington from joining the mob even as it dwindled. “I am ashamed that the actions of Kentucky Catholic high school students have become a contradiction of the very reverence for human life that the march is supposed to manifest,” he wrote. How dare students participating in the March for Life wear “apparel sporting the slogans of a president who denigrates the lives of immigrants, refugees and people from countries that he describes with indecent words and haphazardly endangers with life-threatening policies.” After all, he concluded, the USCCB had just released their first pastoral letter on racism since 1979, which addresses how the Church “can provide experiences for children that expose them to different cultures and peoples.”

The Church provided the boys of Covington with a now-familiar experience: “When people in power come to hurt you, we will not protect you.” The Church has a “bigger agenda” to worry about. If seminarians or high school boys get in the way, under the bus they go. Eventually, Kurtz and Baltimore offered mild apologies for speaking out too hastily. Bishop Foys also apologized to the boys—after their lawyers delivered a preservation of evidence demand to him.

Like so many of their confrères, the bishops of Kentucky and Baltimore have failed to realize that the biggest item on the Church’s agenda should be protecting her vulnerable members. Of course that agenda includes caring for immigrants and opposing racial injustice. But it also means standing up for its members when a mob comes for them, even if they are white teenagers with distasteful politics. Bishops should remember that failure to protect the young is what has undercut their moral authority on any issue, whether favored by the right or the left.

Kurtz hopes “we can use this as a teachable moment, learn from any mistakes on the part of anyone involved, and begin the process of healing.” Fr. James Martin and others have said much the same thing. A teachable moment is when a young person makes a mistake and responsible adults turn it into a constructive lesson. Catholic priests and bishops who joined the Internet mob missed that opportunity.

It is the mob that needs a lesson, not the boys. After all, the mob is no respecter of persons. It comes for white teens and black comedians, gay couples and Christian bakers alike—none of whom deserve to receive death threats or have their lives destroyed. Standing up for the mob’s victims should be on the Church’s agenda for the justice of all people, especially when its victims are her own children.

We can do this by supporting investigations, lawsuits, and legislation that will protect people from the damage done by Internet hate, no matter who they are. The Covington boys’ local prosecutors are investigating the many death threats students have received. They should make it clear that anonymous commentators' lazy threats have consequences for them as well as for their victims. The next step is to hold media outlets and prominent public figures accountable for their negligence in reporting and publicly commenting on the case. Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker and former UVA dean Nicole Eramo’s settlement against Rolling Stone are examples worth following, and the boys’ families have hired the kind of lawyers who could get similar results.

State lawmakers could refine the definitions of private and public figures, a distinction that determines whether someone has been defamed. They could also make it easier for people who have suffered damages from threats and lies targeting their race, religion, or political expression to receive the compensation they are due. In short, Catholic lawyers, scholars, and lawmakers should look at how to expand our legal framework for libel so that it can protect the next victims of Internet vitriol.

Bishops could also advocate for such reforms. But before they are political advocates, they are shepherds of souls. When thieves and wolves come for their sheep, they should protect them instead of handing them over for slaughter.

Nathaniel Peters is the executive director of the Morningside Institute.

Photo by Lanie Elizabeth via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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