UPDATE, January 25, 5:51 p.m.: On Friday afternoon, the Diocese of Covington Bishop Roger Foys issued a letter to local families, apologizing “that this situation has caused such disruption in the lives of so many.” We’ve updated the piece to include that letter.
The last time Native peoples figured so highly in the mercurial legacy media cycle was during the events at Standing Rock, when water protectors spent months opposing construction of the Dakota Access pipeline.
Although the now infamous videos showing confrontations last weekend between a group of Catholic high school students and a Native elder may pale in comparison to the importance of the camps at Standing Rock, the incident provides an important opening to explore the troubling role the Catholic Church has played in the history and lives of vulnerable people, particularly indigenous communities.
The mocking and disrespect of Nathan Phillips, an elder of the Omaha Nation, has put into sharp focus the violent behavior routinely found at Catholic schools like Covington Catholic High School—behavior that is in many ways an extension of the violence perpetrated by the Catholic Church against marginalized populations since the colonization of Native lands.
It’s likely that the students have learned little about the Doctrine of Discovery, the papal law that permits violence against Native peoples who refuse to convert to Christianity, or the Catholic Church’s role in brutally colonizing Native children in Indian boarding schools. This may seem like ancient history to a group of high school boys unaccustomed to examining the implication of their public actions. The Covington Catholic boys, however, will grow into leaders in their church and community. If they are to lead the way forward, they will need to work toward a true reckoning with the Church’s—and their school’s—unsavory past. That is, after all, the context in which their actions took place. It’s time they learn the whole truth of this history.
CovCath and the Covington Diocese
Covington Catholic High School is based in Park Hills, one of several small northern Kentucky municipalities that many consider part of the greater Cincinnati area. Cincinnati is located on the northern side of the Ohio River, which cuts through the two culturally connected areas. The region is politically conservative and predominantly Catholic. In her “How Catholic Are We” article for Cincinnati magazine, former religion reporter Julie Irwin Zimmerman writes that Catholicism is inextricably entwined with Cincinnati’s civic identity. As she notes, many local Catholic school graduates hold positions of influence in community politics, education, and business.
“Catholic school students largely come from affluent white families. Here in Cincinnati, the graduates of these schools often end up becoming the movers and shakers in the community,” Jene Galvin told Rewire.News. Galvin is a retired teacher and school administrator. Born and raised in Cincinnati, Galvin attended local Catholic schools from elementary through graduate school.
Indeed, a Catholic school education is seen as an entry into inner circles of power and leadership, especially into conservative politics. In 2015 about 31 percent of the U.S. Congress was Catholic and many attended Catholic schools; conservative U.S. Supreme Court Justices John Roberts, Antonin Scalia, Neil Gorsuch, and Clarence Thomas all attended Catholic schools.
Steve Bannon, former advisor to Donald Trump and former executive at the white nationalist website Breitbart, is a graduate of Benedictine High school, a Roman Catholic military school in Richmond, Virginia. Other political figures who attended Catholic School include former House speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, and President Trump’s top attorney in the White House, Pat Cipollone, who graduated from Covington Catholic High School in 1984.
But while Catholic schools appear to play a crucial role in creating and maintaining right-wing conservative social and political culture, these institutions—like the Catholic Church—have seen countless lawsuits involving rape and assault of vulnerable populations.
CovCath, as it is known to students and locals, is no different. The school has had a number of negative incidents involving students over the years, including the sexual assault conviction of school basketball player Jake Walter shortly before his 18th birthday. Required to register as a juvenile sex offender, Walter was later arrested as an adult in December 2018 for another rape and assault of a young woman. The son of former Cincinnati Bengals football lineman Joe Walter, Jake Walter reportedly choked and assaulted his victim, laughing at her pleas for him to stop.
In 2007, Jeni Dinkel, mother of a Covington Catholic student and wife of former Cincinnati Bengal player Tom Dinkel, was convicted of raping a 15-year-old Covington Catholic student. The victim’s mother subsequently sued the school’s principal and the Covington diocese, accusing them of willful, wanton, reckless, and grossly negligent conduct.
Meanwhile, the Covington Catholic Diocese, which oversees local churches and schools, created a $120 million fund in 2005 to settle a class action lawsuit over sex abuse by priests, reportedly the largest settlement ever at the time. Unlike similar church settlements, however, the Covington diocese’s fund is the maximum amount it will have to pay. Any unused money reverts back to the diocese, the Washington Post reported at the time.
The lawsuit claims the diocese covered up the abuse over a 50-year period. According to the diocese’s 2005 report, there were 205 allegations of sexual abuse against 35 priests who worked at churches within the diocese. At least 70 victims came forward.
Beyond these allegations, the diocese has used controversial tactics to pressure community members into joining the anti-choice movement. Prior to the annual March for Life, which Covington Catholic students were attending when they encountered Nathan Phillips, the diocese placed an ad in a local paper listing “pro-life” Catholics. The list, printed annually, includes the names of minors, according to a January 21 report in the New York Times.
One parent of another school in the diocese expressed frustration over the practice and told the Times, “The peer group pressure on these kids is enormous.”
“I feel the diocese should not be putting these kids in what has become potentially more contentious situations, as the inevitable protests to these ‘Right to Life’ marches increase,” he added.
“Some Catholic schools have an environment of dictatorial shaming and bullying,” said Galvin.
Indeed, several Twitter users claiming to be former Covington Catholic school students, or students at nearby schools, complained of relentless taunting and bullying. One Twitter user, who did not respond to Rewire.News’ request for an interview, described how CovCath students once chanted homophobic insults at him while surrounding him at a school dance.
And as Rewire.News President and Editor in Chief Jodi Jacobson noted in an earlier piece, a 2012 video shows Covington Catholic students wearing blackface at a school basketball game in which they shout at a Black player from the opposite team. According to Snopes, a site that calls itself the internet’s definitive fact-checking source, the video, now deleted from the official YouTube page of Covington Catholic, depicts a high school cheering practice of painting one’s face black to signify team support during “black out” games.
Several people commented on a 2015 discussion thread on BluegrassPreps.com, a message board for Kentucky prep schools, that although Covington Catholic defends its use of blackface as a tradition at games, they felt it should no longer be acceptable.
Condoning use of blackface and defending the bullying of people with whom they disagree or disapprove is a tremendous disservice to students, Galvin explained to Rewire.News.
“Conservative Catholic schools like Covington Catholic aren’t preparing students for life outside of Cincinnati,” he said.
Galvin recalled his experience as a Vista worker on the Nett Lake Reservation in Minnesota.
“I knew nothing about Native Americans when I arrived; nothing in my Catholic school education taught me anything meaningful about Native history or culture,” he said.
“The little history I learned was framed by the Doctrine of Discovery and the Catholic’s role in what was described as civilizing Indians during the boarding school era,” he noted.
The Doctrine of Discovery is part of the 15th-century Papal Bulls, or laws issued by a Roman Catholic pope, that imparted Christian European explorers with the right to claim land uninhabited by Christians for their Christian Monarchs. Thus land occupied by indigenous peoples, viewed as pagans, was up for grabs. Pagans could be spared if they agreed to convert. If not, they could legally be killed or enslaved.
Although several Christian denominations—such as the United Methodist Church, the Unitarian Universalist Association, the United Church of Christ, and some Quaker meetings—have formally repudiated it, the Vatican has yet to retract the doctrine.
Tribal leaders in Canada and the United States continue to pressure the Vatican to rescind the doctrine, an ongoing symbol of the Church’s role in the colonial violence and oppression of Native peoples.
Catholic Indian Boarding Schools
The Catholic Church managed most of the religious Indian boarding schools in the United States and Canada.
In the United States, Indian boarding schools were part of the federal government’s assimilation policy devised to separate Native families and place children in boarding schools with the express purpose of killing their languages and cultures. Lawmakers during the Ulysses S. Grant administration devised this policy as a more Christian means to subdue and colonize Native peoples instead of outright extermination.
Many of the schools were rife with violence and abuse, creating generations of traumatized people.
Colonizing Native lands and peoples helped the Catholic Church gain acceptance and influence in the United States, according to Jesuit scholar Francis Paul Prucha in his book, The Churches and the Indian Schools.
“The political weight of the Catholics in the nation and their successful lobbying for their interests in the Indian school question gave them a more accepted role for their interests in national affairs. It was no longer possible to think of management of Indian affairs without some consideration of Catholic views,” Prucha wrote.
The Indian school question regarded federal payments to Catholic Indian boarding schools, at least part of which came from Indian treaty funds.
The Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions, created by Catholic bishops, oversaw the administration of the schools and the distribution of federal funding. Several Catholic Indian boarding schools— including St. Francis Indian School, St. Joseph’s Indian School, and Red Cloud School in South Dakota and St. Labre School in Montana—operate today.
Although Pope Francis apologized for Catholic exploitation of Native peoples, the Church has yet to apologize for its role in running and profiting from Indian boarding and residential schools in either the United States or Canada.
Leaders at Covington diocese and Catholics in general are likely unfamiliar with the church’s brutal history in connection with Native peoples; numerous news reports on the incident have failed to acknowledge it. Any reconciliation must begin with Catholics’ willingness to confront and own this painful history, followed by an apology.
Honest reconciliation might go a long way in assuaging the anger between communities since the initial reports spread of the incident. The diocese initially issued an apology to Nathan Phillips and Native Americans in general for the students’ actions but had otherwise stayed out of the public debate until today, when Diocese of Covington Bishop Roger Foys issued an apology to Covington Catholic families—some of whom have received threats of violence—as diocese leaders await the results of a third-party investigation of the incident.
Nathan Phillips has reached out to Covington Catholic for a meeting to discuss the importance of respecting diverse cultures, according to a statement from the Lakota People’s Law Project.
Nick Sandmann, the student who was filmed standing directly in front of Phillips during the incident, told NBC he is willing to meet with Phillips. Sandmann insists, however, that he doesn’t owe Phillips an apology. “As far as standing there, I had every right to do so,” he told NBC.
Although Sandmann may have been within his legal rights to stand his ground, one wonders if he had an obligation as a Catholic to take the higher ground of Christian understanding and charity and simply take a step back.
CORRECTION: This piece has been updated to clarify Covington Catholic High School is based in Park Hills, Kentucky.