Covington Bishop Roger J. Foys told Covington Catholic High School students and faculty at a Jan. 23 assembly that he stands with them as the diocese pursues the truth of what happened at an incident after the March for Life.
The incident, which took place Jan. 18 at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., included a video showing Covington Catholic student Nick Sandmann standing face-to-face with Native American elder Nathan Phillips. The video went viral, and ignited a firestorm on social media — making headlines around the world.
The story continued to unfold when the students issued statements about what happened and longer videos shown online revealed that another group at the Lincoln Memorial that afternoon included members of the Black Hebrew Israelites, who with Phillips and others were attending an Indigenous People’s March.
Covington Catholic principal Bob Rowe opened the assembly with a prayer and introduced Bishop Foys, who said: “these last four days have been a living hell for many of you, for your parents, for your relatives, for your friends and it certainly has been for me.” He also said they are “under all kinds of pressure from a lot of different people, for a lot of different reasons.”
The March for Life had been an impressive event, the bishop said, especially a Mass celebrated at St. Dominic Church in Washington, D.C, prior to the march. He told students when they marched, “they represented what was best about the Church and what was best about the Diocese of Covington; that we were sending out our best to stand up for life.”
The following morning, Bishop Foys and diocesan staff members received calls and emails from news stations and people from all over the world commenting about the situation. By Jan. 20, Bishop Foys said the diocesan website was receiving more than 200,000 hits per hour and more than 10,000 emails per hour — which crashed servers. Staff phones rang persistently for days until voicemail boxes were full with calls from media or those who wished to comment on what happened.
“Soon, my brother bishops began to text me worrying about my welfare and yours,” Bishop Foys told the group. “People care about you. People love and care and are concerned about the Church and they are concerned about you.”
Bishop Foys described the investigation into what happened as a “no-win situation.”
“We are not going to win,” he continued. “No matter what we say, one way or another, there are going to be people who are going to argue about it, people who will try to get into people’s heads and say, ‘This is what he meant. This is what they meant when they were doing this and doing that.’”
“The best we can do is, first of all, to find out the truth, to find out what really went on, what really happened,” Bishop Foys said. “So we do have investigators who are here today — a third-party who are not associated with our diocese, not associated with me or with the school — who are working on this investigation to find out what happened.”
He said as Covington’s shepherd he has to present the facts not only the diocese but to the world.
“Not the facts that someone has imagined or the facts that someone thinks or facts that people might determine from seeing a video,” he explained. “I encourage all of you, especially the students who were there at the march, to cooperate with the investigators. This is with the permission of your parents.
Bishop Foys also said the investigation would take time in order to be thorough.
“Some people’s lives, as you know, have been affected for the rest of their lives and the honor of our school has been tainted. We have received, and probably you have received, horrible, vile e-mails. This brings out the worst in people,” he said.
He said he hoped the students learned that “perception can become reality.” He also encouraged then to stay off social media, at least until the situation is resolved.
“A person can be doing something that is absolutely innocent but if he gives the slightest hint, the slightest perception, that this is something wrong that is what people are going to remember, and then for them that becomes their reality,” he added.
He also addressed the initial joint diocesan and school statement about the incident and the criticism it received for being too strong.
“In my mind with what we saw and what we heard at the time, we had to say what we said and we meant it. If that behavior is genuine, then we have to condemn it. ” He added that a second statement was issued Jan. 22.
“Regardless of what you heard or what you’ve read or what you think, I am on your side. I want you to come out of this in a positive light,” he said.
In the updated diocesan statement, he asked people “to pray that we will arrive at the truth,” he said.
“The only way we can do that in an objective way is through a thorough and in-depth investigation. It is my hope and my prayer that, in the end, it will show exactly what happened and that we will be able to stand tall and proud,” Bishop Foys told the assembly.
“People will still criticize us one way or the other — people will believe it or not believe it — but at least we can say we’ve taken the time to talk to all the parties involved and to get all the footage we can that was taken that day and say: ‘Here, this is not what we think happened or what we would like to believe happened, but this is what in fact happened.’ If there was some wrongdoing, we have to own up to that, too.”