The evolving response of the Church in Kentucky to the Covington Catholic incident

foys Bishop Roger Foys of Covington. | jcs778/wikimedia. CC BY-SA 3.0

When video emerged on Twitter last weekend, showing a confrontation between a Native American elderly man with a drum and a group of students from Covington Catholic High School, many media commenters accused the students of racism and disrespect.

The original video clip showed a Native American elderly man, later identified as activist Nathan Phillips, drumming and chanting in close proximity to one student, a junior at Covington, who stands with an uncomfortable expression on his face while the students around him chant and do the "tomahawk chop." Several students can also be seen wearing hats supportive of President Donald Trump, with the slogan "Make America Great Again."

The incident took place as the students were waiting at the Lincoln Memorial to meet their bus on their way home from the March for Life in Washington, D.C.

As the video went viral, it was roundly condemned by media commenters and some Catholic leaders as racist and antagonistic on the part of the students.

In their initial response on Saturday, Jan. 19, issued just a few hours after the first video emerged, the Diocese of Covington and Covington Catholic High School 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," they 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."

The statement was supported by Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, Archbishop of Louisville and Kentucky's metropolitan archbishop, who added his own statement condemning the "shameful actions" of the students.

However, both statements, along with the entire websites of the Diocese of Covington and the high school, have since been taken down, after subsequent, longer footage and additional information complicated the original interpretation of the video.

In longer videos, the students appear to have first been provoked by a group called the Black Israelites, who were shouting disparaging remarks at them largely about the Catholic Church and Trump. The videos also showed that the students were approached by the demonstrators from the Indigenous People's March, including Phillips, which contradicted prior reports that the students had surrounded them.

As additional information emerged, the Diocese of Covington released a new statement on Monday, Jan. 22, in which they announced both the temporary closing of Covington Catholic High School and a third-party investigation into the events at the Lincoln Memorial.

"On Monday afternoon, the Covington Police alerted us that they had intelligence concerning a planned protest, Jan. 22, at Covington Catholic High School and a vigil at the Diocesan Curia. Due to threats of violence and the possibility of large crowds, the Diocese was advised to close Covington Catholic High School, the Diocesan Curia and neighboring Covington Latin School. We thank law enforcement officers for their protection and will reopen when they say it is safe to do so," it said.

Regarding the incident in Washington, D.C., the new statement took a more measured tone than the first, saying that more facts must be gathered before deciding "what corrective actions, if any, are appropriate."

"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."

"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."

This statement is currently the only part of the website of the Diocese of Covington that is still functioning. By Monday, all other links on the site had been deactivated.

Archbishop Kurtz on Monday released a new statement of support for Bishop Joseph Foy and the Diocese, and noted that the responses to the incident "revealed the regrettable polarization in our Church and in our society."

He said his original statement, joining with Foys, was "a condemnation of alleged actions, not people. This post replaces that original blog entry with the additional information below from the Diocese of Covington."

"I do not have jurisdiction in the Diocese of Covington. However, I have sought to act in solidarity with the Bishop of Covington, who is in a position to have the best information about what transpired and who has pledged an independent investigation of the situation. At this time, I am not going to get ahead of the Diocese of Covington's independent investigation with additional comments," he said.
He reiterated his confidence in Foys and the school to make the right decisions going forward.

"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."

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