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Kentucky bishop apologizes to Covington Catholic students, says he expects their exoneration

A police car sits at the entrance to Covington Catholic High School in Park Hills, Ky., on Saturday. (Bryan Woolston/AP)

Bishop Roger Foys of Covington, Ky., Friday wrote in a letter to Covington Catholic parents that he had felt “pressured by all sides” to speak out right away about an incident at the Lincoln Memorial last week, did so prematurely and now apologizes to “anyone who has been offended in any way.” Foys especially apologized to the Covington teens in the altercation and said “it is my hope and expectation that the results will exonerate them.”

Foys' letter is the third communication since last week from the diocese, which has been at the center of intense emotions from both supporters of the teens and their critics. The first communication, issued the day after the interaction last Friday, condemned the teens' actions towards Nathan Phillips, a Native American activist who had been involved in an indigenous peoples' march at the Memorial. On Tuesday, the Covington diocese released a statement saying there would be an independent investigation.

The interactions between the teens and Phillips followed the March for Life, a major anti-abortion event for which the youth had traveled to D.C. They were in a large group of dozens of teens, including some wearing hats with President Trump’s slogan.

The letter Friday night seemed to be saying the diocese had jumped the gun and made an error, saying local Catholic officials in Covington had been acting on video evidence that “purported" to show the teens' “alleged disrespect.” The letter did not mention any specific evidence nor offer a clear conclusion. Foys seemed to be reaching out to all Catholics -- and others -- who have deeply divergent readings of what happened and what the videos show.

“We apologize to anyone who has been offended in any way by either of our statements, which were made with good will based on the information we had,” he wrote. “We now await the results of the investigation and it is my hope and expectation that it will exonerate our students so they can move forward with their lives.”

The letter expressed pain that the incident and its fallout had caused so much pain, bitterness and even threats of violence -- including on Web sites “that purport to be Catholic and pro-life, have been beyond belief, and anything but pro-life,” Foys wrote. “I pray that with the grace of God and the goodwill of all involved peace will once again reign in the hearts and minds of our faithful.”

The incident, which has drawn attention around the globe, has resulted in varying messages from Kentucky’s Catholic leaders, including on the question of whether the abortion movement and the March for Life have become too partisan and too close to President Trump. Initial condemnations have been supplemented in a few cases with calls for a search for truth and healing.

Two days earlier, Lexington’s Catholic bishop, John Stowe, in an op-ed Wednesday night said he is “ashamed” that the students had tainted the antiabortion movement and said wearing attire representing Trump is incongruous with the “pro-life” label.

Stowe’s comments were published in the Lexington Herald-Leader.

“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. As such, I believe that U.S. Catholics must take a look at how our support of the fundamental right to life has become separated from the even more basic truth of the dignity of each human person,” Stowe wrote. “Without engaging the discussion about the context of the viral video or placing the blame entirely on these adolescents, it astonishes me that any students participating in a pro-life activity on behalf of their school and their Catholic faith could be wearing 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.”
— Bishop John Stowe in the Lexington Herald-Leader

The incident on the memorial’s plaza divided Americans, at lightning-speed, with calls of prejudice by Catholics, African Americans, Native Americans and Trump’s supporters and critics, among others. Videos have continued to circle from moments of the early evening conflict, showing slices of what happened when Covington Catholic students, Phillips and a small group of Black Israelites interacted. At issue is the interaction between Phillips and the teens.

The incident is especially divisive for U.S. Catholics, who are split down the middle on Trump as well as abortion access, and on the question of whether Trump is a cancer or a hero for people who oppose abortion. Trump critics who oppose abortion see his treatment of immigrants, refugees and racial minorities, among other things, as disqualifying for an ethical leader. Supporters believe his Supreme Court justice picks and vocal opposition to abortion since 2016 are a historic — even divine — win.

Among Catholics overall, 52 percent went for Trump in 2016, compared with 45 percent for Hillary Clinton, according to the Pew Research Center. That split is due to a large racial gap; white Catholics supported Trump by a 23-point margin while Hispanic Catholics backed Clinton over Trump by a 41-point margin, Pew found.

On the question of abortion, Pew found in 2018 that 51 percent of Catholics say abortion should be legal in all or most cases and 42 percent say it should be illegal.

On Saturday, as news and images and videos on the incident spread, Foys, and the boys' school — Covington Catholic — released a joint statement condemning the actions of the high school students.

“This behavior is opposed to the Church’s teachings on the dignity and respect of the human person. The matter is being investigated and we will take appropriate action, up to and including expulsion,” it said. “We know this incident also has tainted the entire witness of the March for Life and express our most sincere apologies to all those who attended the March and all those who support the pro-life movement.”

Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, the state’s overseeing bishop, tweeted that he condemned the “shameful actions” of the students. The Catholic Conference of Kentucky issued a statement criticizing the teens as well.

However, Kurtz’s tweet was since been removed, and the Covington diocese on Tuesday released a statement about its independent investigation.

“Concerning the incident in Washington, D.C., between Covington Catholic students, Elder Nathan Phillips and Black Hebrew Israelites the independent, third-party investigation is planned to begin this week. This is a very serious matter that has already permanently altered the lives of many people,” the second statement said. “We pray that we may come to the truth and that this unfortunate situation may be resolved peacefully and amicably and ask others to join us in this prayer. We will have no further statements until the investigation is complete.”

Kurtz also issued a new statement on his blog, saying his first reaction was primarily motivated by wanting to support the Covington bishop, “who is in a position to have the best information about what transpired,” and emphasizing they were condemning “alleged actions, not people.”

“At this time, I am not going to get ahead of the Diocese of Covington’s independent investigation with additional comments,” Kurtz wrote. “Whatever the investigation reveals, I hope that we can use this as a teachable moment, learn from any mistakes on the part of anyone involved, and begin the process of healing.”

Stowe’s Wednesday op-ed didn’t address the disputed interaction between Phillips and the teens but focused on what he described as a distorted antiabortion movement that has become divorced from its roots as a broad effort to honor human dignity. He noted that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops just a few months ago issued a major letter on racism, which “has worked itself into the fabric of our nation. The pastoral letter describes racism as a ‘life’ issue,” he wrote.

“We cannot uncritically ally ourselves with someone with whom we share the policy goal of ending abortion,” Stowe wrote. “The pro-life movement claims that it wants more than the policy change of making abortion illegal, but aims to make it unthinkable. That would require deep changes in society and policies that would support those who find it difficult to afford children. The association of our young people with racist acts and a politics of hate must also become unthinkable.”