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Diocese investigates Covington incident

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Covington Catholic High School
Covington Catholic High School has been at the centre of a storm of controversy this month. PHOTO: CNS/Madalyn McGarvey, Reuters

Days after the now-famous exchange took place between Covington Catholic High School students and a Native American tribal leader in Washington, the Diocese of Covington, Kentucky, announced it would begin a third-party investigation into what happened at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial following the annual March for Life on 18 January.

“This is a very serious matter that has already permanently altered the lives of many people. It is important for us to gather the facts that will allow us to determine what corrective actions, if any, are appropriate,” the diocese said in a 22 January statement.

See related story: Sydney Pilgrims join 200,000 in March for Life

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It also mentioned that Covington High School, Covington Latin School and Covington’s diocesan offices were closed that day due to threats of violence and would reopen when it was safe to do so. A few dozen people took part in a protest vigil at the diocese’s headquarters on January 21.

Covington High School reopened on 23 January with police at the school entrance. The diocesan offices also reopened that day, but the building was evacuated that afternoon due to a suspicious package, which police and firefighters determined to be safe that evening.

Nick Sandmann
Nick Sandmann, a junior at Covington Catholic High School and fellow students stand in front of Native American Vietnam veteran Nathan Phillips on 18 January near the Lincoln Memorial in Washington in this still image from video.

“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,” the diocese said, adding that it will “have no further statements until the investigation is complete”.

On 19 January, the day a viral video showed the students who appeared to be mocking or disrespecting Nathan Phillips, tribal elder for the Omaha Tribe, Covington High School and the Diocese of Covington issued a joint statement condemning the students’ actions, apologising to Phillips and noting that the incident was “being investigated and we will take appropriate action, up to and including expulsion”.

But more of the story unfolded the next day when the students issued statements about what happened and longer videos shown online revealed that another group at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial that afternoon included members of the Hebrew Israelites, who with Phillips and others were attending an Indigenous People’s March.

Ray St Clair of the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan prays outside Covington Catholic High School Jan. 23 in Park Hills, Kentucky. PHOTO: CNS/Madalyn McGarvey, Reuters

The Israelites were there to share their own beliefs that African-Americans are God’s chosen people and the true Hebrew descendants.

Members of this group, as shown in video footage, taunted the students and some responded back. Phillips, the Native American, walked over to the students and the group, which he has described to reporters as an intervention and was singing and beating a song of prayer.

The following evening, a group of Native American activists reportedly gathered in protest at the steps of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington where an evening Mass was being celebrated.

Covington Catholic High School.
Sheriff’s deputies guard the Covington Catholic High School after the discovery of a suspicious package. PHOTO: CNS/Madalyn McGarvey, Reuters

A 23 January statement from the shrine said: “A group of approximately 50 individuals attempted to gain entrance to the basilica while chanting and hitting drums.” The group was not permitted to enter “due to the disruption it would have caused” and were “asked to leave the property after it was determined they did not intend to share in the celebration of Mass”.

Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, a neighbouring diocese to Covington, wrote in his 22 January blog that he has received “many calls and email messages from people with many different viewpoints and seemingly opposite messages about the incidences involving Covington Catholic High School students at the March for Life. Many of these calls and messages have revealed the regrettable polarisation in our Church and in our society.”

He said many people have pointed out how he initially joined Covington Bishop Roger J. Foys in a blog post condemning the alleged actions, which he has now taken down.

The archbishop said he has 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”.

See related story: Pilgrims Prepare for March for Life

“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,” he added.

Nick Sandmann, a junior at Covington Catholic High School who was most prominent in the footage for standing directly in front of Phillips, issued his own statement on 20 January saying he would cooperate in any investigation Church leaders planned to do. He said he had received insults and death threats since the incident.

In an interview shown 23 January with ‘ Today’ show host Savannah Guthrie, Sandmann said, “In hindsight, I wish we could’ve walked away and avoided the whole thing.”

He said he was not disrespectful to Phillips, but chose to just stand still in front of him as a way to show he would not be aggressive.

When asked if he heard students say anything insulting or racist in response to the taunts they received, Sandmann said: “We’re a Catholic school, it’s not tolerated. They don’t tolerate racism and none of my classmates are racist people.”

Phillips responded the next day to this interview, also on the ‘Today’ show, and said he thought Sandmann’s remarks seemed “coached” and that he failed to take responsibility, but he said he took it to prayer and woke up the next day with a forgiving heart.

“So, I forgive him,” he said.

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