The Bishop of the Diocese of Covington in Kentucky has apologized for “making a statement prematurely” about the Covington Catholic high school students who were involved in a confrontation with a Native American elder in Washington, D.C. on January 18, 2019. Bishop Roger Foys said in a letter to parents that he had been too quick to judge the situation. The letter stated in part:
“We should not have allowed ourselves to be bullied and pressured into making a statement prematurely, and we take full responsibility for it. I especially apologize to Nicholas Sandmann and his family as well as to all CovCath families who have felt abandoned during this ordeal. Nicholas unfortunately has become the face of these allegations based on video clips. This is not fair. It is not just.” You can read the full letter here.
The story shifted in the days after the encounter. The students were in the nation’s capital for the March for Life rally. An Indigenous People’s Day March was happening at the same time. The students, many of whom were wearing “Make America Great Again” hats, were seen on camera standing around Nathan Phillips, an Omaha tribal elder and Vietnam War veteran, as he sang a prayer and played his musical instrument.
Phillips has said he stepped into the middle of the crowd in an attempt to defuse a confrontation between the students and members of the Black Hebrew Israelites. You can watch the video of the encounters in its entirety by clicking here.
The student at the center of the video has spoken out. Nick Sandmann released a statement on January 20, claiming that Phillips was the one who approached him. Sandmann said, “I believed that by remaining motionless and calm, I was helping to diffuse the situation.” You can read his full statement here.
Initial videos of the confrontation quickly went viral and prompted criticism of the school itself, which is an all-boys institution in Park Hills, Kentucky. An alumnus also launched a petition demanding major changes at the school, including for the principal to be fired and to cease any future involvement with the March for Life rally.
Here’s what you need to know.
1. The Covington School & the Diocese of Covington Apologized For the Incident & Opened a Third-Party Investigation to Determine ‘What Corrective Actions’ Are Appropriate
The Covington Catholic High School withdrew from social media in the immediate aftermath of the confrontation in Washington, D.C. The Facebook page was taken down and the Twitter account was made private.
The school and the diocese initially put out a joint statement on their respective websites to apologize for the students’ behavior at the rally. The statement read:
“We condemn the actions of the Covington Catholic High School students towards Nathan Phillips specifically, and Native Americans in general, Jan. 18, after the March for Life, in Washington, D.C. We extend our deepest apologies to Mr. Phillips. 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.
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 Roman Catholic Diocese of Covington added a new message to its website on January 21. The school was closed on January 22 due to safety concerns. The statement continues:
“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. It is important for us to gather the facts that will allow us to determine what corrective actions, if any, are appropriate.
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.”
As referenced at the top of this article, the Bishop of Covington has now issued an apology to the students and their families.
2. Covington Catholic High School Has Been Bringing Students to Participate in March For Life Since 2008; Parents Typically Attend as Chaperones
The Covington Catholic High School has been participating in the annual March for Life event since 2008. More than 200 students attended in 2017, up from 84 who participated in 2008.
The faculty moderator for the event, Rick Flesch, sent a letter to parents about the event. It read in part:
“Once again this year we offer our students the opportunity to participate in this most worthwhile event, the 46th anniversary of the March for Life, demonstrating our support for all Life, ‘born and unborn.’ Upon our arrival in Washington D.C. we meet with Bishop Foys and other diocesan pilgrims to celebrate Mass before joining the hundreds of thousands of people from around the nation to march in support of all life, ending the march in front of the Supreme Court building as a means to express our opposition to the Roe vs. Wade decision.”
One of the criticisms that has arisen since the January 18 incident between the students and Nathan Phillips has been, “where were the chaperones?” A spokesman for the Indigenous Peoples March, attorney Chase Iron Eyes, told the Cincinnati Enquirer in a phone interview that he did not see any adults in the crowd that day. He told the newspaper, “I think they should be required to take Native American Studies 101. They should learn some true history of the original civilizers of this land. They are also denied their true history. These are kids, I was looking for an adult, where is the adult here?” Nathan Phillips also told CBS News in an interview that he did not want to see the students punished. Instead, he wondered why the students’ chaperones had not stepped in.
Based on the letter sent to parents about the March for Life event, there were presumably multiple parents involved in the trip. “In years past, parental assistance with chaperoning was solicited, and wonderful folks gave tirelessly of themselves to help out. Several of you have already expressed your desire to participate this year.”
3. Covington Catholic High School Writes on its Website That the Mission of the School is to ‘Embrace the Gospel Message of Jesus Christ’ to Educate Young Men in all Aspects of Life
The Covington Catholic High School’s Vision Statement includes “respect for others” as one of its core teachings. The statement on its website reads:
“We foster an environment of educational excellence and equip young men with a set of spiritual and moral values to become strong Christian leaders and models of our Catholic faith. We cultivate self-confidence and integrity to energize students to meet the demands of higher education, personal vocations and the challenges of life. We encourage respect for others and service to the community. Our goal is that our students will be inspired to continuously grow in their Catholic faith, strive for physical and mental well-being, and embrace academic and personal excellence.”
The site also states that the mission of the school is to “embrace the gospel message of Jesus Christ in order to educate young men spiritually, academically, physically, and socially. With this focus, we are Building Minds and Living Faith.”
The confrontation between Covington Catholic students and the group of Native Americans has prompted criticism from those who say the students were not acting in a Christian manner. One of those people was Rep. Ted Lieu of California, who wrote on Twitter, “Dear Covington Catholic: I went to a Catholic high school and am a follower of Christ. Jesus taught us to act in the exact opposite manner of how your students behaved. I will pray for your students and hope that as they mature, their hate can turn into love.”
The group “Sisters of Mercy,” whose members “take vows of poverty, chastity, obedience and service,” also chastised the students’ behavior. The group wrote on Twitter, “Racism and intolerance in all forms go directly against Catholic social teaching. The disturbing videos being shared of this incident showcase a bigoted disrespect of indigenous peoples and remind us how urgent our work for racial justice remains.”
4. Covington Catholic High School Has Been Operating Since 1925
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Covington was founded in 1853. The local St. Joseph’s parish operated a grade school for boys and expanded to include a high school in 1885. The school was open to boys from multiple parishes in Covington. But the diocese felt a larger high school was needed. According to the school’s website:
“The pressing need of a four-year Catholic high school for boys from all of the parishes in Kenton County led to a meeting on August 28, 1925 between the Most Rev. Francis W. Howard, Bishop of Covington, and Brother George Sauer, S.M., Inspector of Schools of the Cincinnati Province of the Society of Mary. It was evident to both of these men that the existing facilities of the commercial school at St. Joseph’s were not adequate for a complete four-year high school to be named Covington Catholic High School and to be staffed by the Society of Mary. Then Monsignor Henry Tappert, Pastor of Mother of God Church, offered part of his parish school building for the new high school. His offer was accepted and for a time that building housed the first freshman class of the newly established Covington Catholic High School, the final year of St. Joseph Commercial School, the Covington Latin School, and the parish grade school.”
Covington Catholic High School has continued to expand in size in the nearly 100 years since its founding. It now has nearly 600 students in grades 9-12. According to its website, the school counts more than 8,000 alumni, more than 30 of which have entered the priesthood.
5. An Alumnus of the School Launched a Petition Demanding Change at Covington Catholic
Matthew Lehman, a 1995 graduate of Covington Catholic High School, launched a petition on Change.org demanding immediate action at the school. As of January 22, the petition had garnered more than 20,000 signatures.
The petition was addressed to Roger Joseph Foys, the Bishop of Covington. Lehman called for the firing of school principal Robert Rowe, “for fostering an environment where these types of actions and words are condoned.” He asked that a board of Covington Diocese Catholics review the school’s “educational standards, administration and social mission.” His third request was for the school to stop participating in March for Life, arguing that the money should instead be used to benefit Welcome House, an organization that supports “vulnerable Covington residents.”
On the petition, Lehman lamented that the school has reportedly become less diverse and more expensive over the years. According to the Courier Journal, tuition is nearly $8,000 per year. Lehman wrote in part:
“I have watched with concern over the years as CovCath has become less diverse, more elite, and more expensive – even as the surrounding community has become more economically and ethnically diverse. It was not many years ago that CovCath’s student body was primarily working-class boys from the urban areas in our diocese. I am not sure what happened in the last generation, but CovCath has simply made itself inaccessible to too many boys in our Diocese.
I am comforted by the fact that most of us in the CovCath Community are generous and kind Christians and that the events in D.C. are not reflective of most upstanding men who went through CovCath.
However, you would need to be willfully ignorant to maintain that CovCath administration has not allowed certain elitist and exclusive tendencies to take root in the school.”