William Donohue: Media-Savvy Catholic

Raymond Cleaveland

Last month, when Planned Parenthood protested the federal government decision to allow its employees in 27 Illinois counties to choose a Catholic health plan run by the Sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis, Dr. William Donohue made his voice heard.

Donohue heads up the New York-based Catholic League, a watchdog organization that protects Catholic religious and civil rights. It is active nationwide.

"The taxpayers are forced to fork over a quarter-billion dollars of federal funds each year to support Planned Parenthood’s agenda," said Donohue in a Catholic League press release. "But all of a sudden the officials at the so-called pro-choice organization feel threatened by some Catholic nuns and want to deny federal workers freedom of choice. This is one ‘Sister Act' all Catholics can savor," he said.

Some say he’s too brash and has a chip on his shoulder. But the 57-year-old Donohue admits as much.

"I’m New York Irish and, yeah, there is a tough edge to me when I’m on TV," he told the Catholic New World. Donohue, a frequent guest on news commentary shows, says that people who know him off camera wouldn’t say he is mean or angry. "But," he adds, "when I’m in a debate on TV, I go in prepared and I go in to win."

Donohue confronts anti-Catholicism in a way that clergy and religious cannot. "As a layman, I can have an 'edge' to me, and then it becomes easier for the bishops to take positions."

The Catholic League keeps a close eye on the world of arts and culture, protesting, for example, the 1995 Miramax movie, "Priest", and the Brooklyn Art Museum's 1999 exhibit of the Virgin Mary covered in elephant dung. Recently, the league criticized "Bad Education" because the newly released movie portrays priests as pedophiles.

But Donohue is selective in his analysis. "I don't care if they portray one priest in a movie as a drunk or as a sexual predator—that's not anti-Catholic. It's anti-Catholic if the only priests that the audience meets are dysfunctional and you never see a good-guy priest."

With only 12 employees and an annual budget of $3 million, the league nevertheless wields significant influence in the national media, but many of its cases address local issues.

Over Labor Day weekend last year, some members of the Winnebago County Board voted to tear down St. Mary's Oratory in Rockford, Ill., to make room for a county jail.

"Cute, wasn't it?" Donohue asked. "A county board that meets to vote over Labor Day weekend, and they thought no one would notice." But Rockford Catholics did notice, and they called on the Catholic League to bring in some media firepower.

Two days later, Donohue was joined by Bishop Thomas Doran on Rockford radio station WNTA to criticize the county board. Within 24 hours, the plan to raze St. Mary's was scrapped.

Rarely resorting to legal action, the league is quite adept at focusing the media spotlight on its adversaries, but sometimes it doesn't even come to that.

Last month, a Catholic student from Spencer Port High School near Rochester, N.Y., contacted Donohue because he was not allowed to write about his faith in the student newspaper.

Donohue sent the principal an e-mail with a 1996 memo from Richard Riley, Secretary of Education under President Clinton, supporting the right of students to express themselves. That was all it took for the incident to end amicably. "Now, all it cost me was an e-mail," said Donohue, "and, there it is, this kid's rights have been secured."

Despite his combative reputation, Donohue says that the league's role is fairly narrow and must be understood for what it is: to make certain that the Catholic voice is heard.

"If people disagree with what the Catholic Church says, that's okay," says Donohue. "All we Catholics want is a fair hearing, without people throwing church-and-state arguments at us and telling us to shut up."

Article originally published in the Catholic New World.
Raymond Cleaveland is a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Seattle. He is currently studying at Mundelein Seminary near Chicago. rcleaveland@usml.edu

© Copyright 2005 Raymond Cleaveland.