Bill Donohue: The Bully’s TV Pulpit

Scott Swenson

A new report details a pattern of media manipulation by Bill Donahue and the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights -- making them neither religious, nor civil.

In an election year in which three presidential candidates force voters to deal with real bigotry, in the forms of misogyny, racism and ageism, Americans are looking within their hearts, facing generational fears, seeking a less divisive way to discuss issues on which we disagree. More often than not, mainstream media is no help — over-simplifying issues, over-emphasizing demographics, or worse, stoking the flames of hate with talking heads that shed no light but bring plenty of heat, contributing to division not healing. Old ways die hard.

Bill Donohue, of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, is one such all heat, no light cable television guest. Donohue claims to protect Catholics from anti-Catholic bigotry. In reality, he manufactures controversies, bullies political opponents, and insults people with a world view different from his. This "defender of religious and civil rights" routinely defames Jews, Muslims, gays, and women — all in the name of Jesus, and believing that he is protecting American values.

In a 43-page report released Monday, The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights: Neither Religious, Nor Civil, Catholics for Choice documents a pattern of media and political manipulation by Donohue, his organization, and his supporters. His base of support comes from the most politicized leaders of the Catholic hierarchy, including Cardinal Egan, and a board that reads like a Who’s Who of partisan Republican politics (L. Brent Bozell III, Alan Keyes, Kate O’Beirne, Linda Chavez, Kenneth Whitehead, Lawrence Kudlow, Thomas Monaghan, William Simon, Jr.). Far from protecting Catholics from bigotry, Donohue plays the victim card to advance a narrow, socially conservative, hierarchical and patriarchal political view.

"Bill Donohue is a punk and a bully," says Jon O’Brien, President of Catholics for Choice. "His style is more suited to being in the ring of the World Wrestling Federation than a television studio. Donohue is hiding a political and social agenda that has nothing to do with anti-defamation, and nothing to do with Catholicism."

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The report details the history of the Catholic League, its manipulative tactics, alleged successes, and exaggerated membership.

The pattern that emerges from the study demonstrates that Donohue:

  • Manufactures controversy
  • Attempts to intimidate enemies
  • Bullies the opposition
  • Complains "early and often"
  • Attacks popular culture
  • Attempts to silence the loyal opposition

With numerous and detailed examples reaching back more than a decade, the report demonstrates Donohue’s success at creating controversy around films like Priest and television shows like Nothing Sacred, which simply wrestled with common social issues within Catholic settings, threatening advertisers by taking out full-page ads promising boycotts. His most recent media manipulation was over the very serious threat to Christianity posed by a Chocolate Jesus.

But Donohue has different standards for how hard he fights when it comes to his friends. Perhaps the only real anti-Catholic bigotry in recent memory, that Donohue could have genuinely used his bombast against, is the Rev. John Haggee, a supporter of Sen. John McCain. From the report:

Even when 2008 Republican presidential candidate John McCain was endorsed by Rev. John Hagee—a notorious anti-Catholic bigot—Donohue’s criticism was easily muted. Initially he condemned McCain’s embrace of Hagee, noting that the pastor’s descriptions of the Catholic church included phrases like “the Great Whore” an “apostate church,” the “anti-Christ” and a “false cult system.” But unlike his merciless attacks on Kerry and other Democratic candidates, Donohue simply called for McCain to “retract his embrace of Hagee.” After several days, McCain issued a pseudo-apology: “I repudiate any comments that are made, including Pastor Hagee’s, if they are anti-Catholic or offensive to Catholics.” Donohue’s reaction?: “As far as the Catholic League is concerned, this case is closed.” This response is in marked contrast to his treatment of Democratic candidates.


No full page ads. No demands the media expose Rev. Hagee in weeks of looping cable coverage as they did Rev. Jeremiah Wright. No, when it came to someone calling Catholicism a "whore-religion," Bill Donohue was about as silent as it is possible for him to be. "There is no doubt that, if you look at the list of targets Donohue has
chosen over the years, they play partisan favorites in many ways,"
O’Brien says. "This is no where close to being a Catholic
anti-defamation league." As the report suggests, Catholic candidate John Kerry didn’t get off so easliy in 2004 — and all he did was express honest political views that differed from Donohue’s.

From the report:

As John M. Swomley, a noted researcher on the religious right said, the Catholic League “redefines religious and civil rights as opposites to those normally understood as constitutional rights.” In other words, an individual’s freedom of speech or expression is trumped by Donohue’s right not to be offended by speech that challenges his brittle worldview.

The report continues:

… Donohue’s rhetoric insists that: a) non-Catholics have no right to participate in this debate and any non-Catholics who do so are inherently anti-Catholic (this despite the widespread influence that the Catholic church has in society at large on non-Catholics through its provision of education and health care, and vigorous lobbying of public officials on issues of concern to the church, such as abortion); and b) Catholics who engage in such debate are by definition “bad” Catholics who are out to destroy the church and therefore have no legitimate role in the debate.

Catholics for Choice hopes that the report will serve as a "wake up call" to the media, says O’Brien. He acknowledges that changes in news consumption habits and economic factors challenge mainstream media. But, says O’Brien, "they can at least control for quality. Most people want to leave a program knowing more at the end than when you sat down to watch, and with Donohue you always know less. Conservative talk radio and Fox News pioneered this type of interview as entertainment and too many producers followed their lead."

Donohue recently took aim at new media, targeting Rewire’s own Amanda Marcotte, author of It’s a Jungle Out There: The Feminist Survival Guide to Politically Inhospitable Environments. Marcotte famously left the John Edwards for President campaign after Donohue criticized a blog post she’d written six months earlier on Pandagon, before being affiliated with the campaign.

"Bill Donohue conflated genuine critique of dogma in a political context with prejudice against believers, most of whom also disagree with that dogma," Marcotte said.

Marcotte learned of Donohue’s attack when AP reporter Nedra Picker asked her to comment on a Catholic League press release. "Fifteen minutes after she asked for my comment, the story was on the wire, indicating she never had any intention of getting my side," says Marcotte. "I’ve since learned she has a reputation for brainlessly publishing right wing press releases as though they were facts. Frankly, I was impressed by how easy the character assassination was for Donohue, and how complicit mainstream media was."

"I’m an astute defender of religious liberty. It was clear to me that Donohue was offended by a critique of Catholic teachings, but it is morally bankrupt to equate that with anti-Catholic bigotry. I don’t agree with everything in the Koran, but that doesn’t mean I’m bigoted toward Muslims," Marcotte says.

Where was Donohue’s outrage for the six months the post in question had been published? Why did he wait until Marcotte was affiliated with Sen. John Edwards campaign to raise the issue?

For Marcotte, and fellow blogger/Donohue target Melissa McEwan, Donohue’s publicity stunt turned even uglier after the national media frenzy. Threats of sexual violence and death filled their email boxes, including two threats so serious they were turned over to the FBI. One Donohue devotee went so far as to pound violently on McEwan’s front door for ten minutes.

These are the very real results of Bill Donohue’s tactics. Not only does he inspire others to make threats, he also carries with him an aura of violence. The report explains that former Catholics for Choice President Frances Kissling "admitted that after a few run-ins with Donohue she
didn’t want to appear with him because she felt threatened by him: ‘He
never physically threatened me, but I felt like I was in the presence
of an abuser,’ she said."

And Mark Silk, director of Trinity College’s
Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life, told CFC, “He’s a thug. He reverts to bullying because he thinks that’s
what the job entails.”

Donohue seems to drop even the pretense of anti-defamation concerns when he speaks of other religions. The report quotes Donohue:

“Hollywood is controlled by secular Jews who hate Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular. It’s not a secret, OK? And I’m not afraid to say it.” (Scarborough Country, Dec. 8, 2004)

“Now, in this country, we are civilized. We don’t appreciate it when somebody sticks it to you in the name of freedom of speech, sir. We condemn it. But over there, they take the uncivilized approach. And then they wonder why so many people don’t trust the Muslims when it comes to liberty, because they will abuse it.” (Scarborough Country, Feb. 9, 2006)

By no means does Bill Donohue, or the Catholic League, represent the views of most Catholics. "For most Catholics, this sort of extremist discourse has no relation to their life," O’Brien says. "Catholics are not jumping up and down because there is no need for anti-defamation as there once was. Catholics in good conscience ignore Donohue, just as in good conscience most use contraception, vote pro-choice, and get along with their neighbors of different faiths."

In the report, a priest says it best:

“As a Christian, a Catholic priest, I stand in opposition to any and all hateful speech used by anyone, especially when they do so in the name of Jesus. I do not believe that one can claim to be a disciple of Jesus and at the same time deride, mock, insult, or threaten violence against another person… One cannot proclaim the love of Jesus while cursing one’s neighbor…To continually use hateful, crude, violent language is indicative of what dwells within one’s heart. Mr. Donohue speaks only for himself and not the Catholic church.” —Father Jeff Gatlain (John Amato, “A Catholic priest stands tall against Bill Donohue,” Crooks and, April 5, 2007).


As Americans consider the issues that matter most in this presidential campaign, and look within their hearts to confront and resolve bias they may find toward women, people of color, senior citizens, or people of differing beliefs, sexual orientations, economic or educational status, it is critical to discern real bigotry from fake. We must use this election to see through the political and media manipulation, including the sort Bill Donohue has built his career on, and that social conservatives have used to hijack our democracy.

Mainstream media must look beyond the easy, entertaining aspects of bombastic television guests like Donohue, when in fact real bigotry does exist, and help shape a national dialog that brings us together as Americans. Media should make the effort toward "quality control", as O’Brien suggested, and include genuine intellectual tension between differing philosophies which is important in our democracy.

"Genuinely smart people like George Weigle and Kate O’Beirne who are capable of vigorous intellectual debate, but with whom I disagree," O’Brien says, "have their credibility called into question by lending it to such an extremist organization that uses such vile tactics. People don’t want screaming accusations and distortions." With Bill Donohue and the Catholic League, that’s all you get.

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