Catholic Firebrand Bill Donohue Attacks ABC Priest, Backs Pope

Bill Donohue has reason to gloat. After weeks of bludgeoning ABC over Nothing Sacred , the Thursday-night drama about an inner-city Catholic priest, Mr. Donohue smells blood. The show’s ratings are mush, 24 advertisers reportedly have backed out since Mr. Donohue, the leader of a conservative Catholic group, threatened them with a boycott, and the network spent a pot of money on advertising to pump up the program.

Even with victory in sight, however, the volatile field general of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights hasn’t mellowed-such is his contempt for a show glorifying some liberal “jerk of a priest.”

“At the rate the show is going, it’s likely to win the ignoble prize of ‘loser of the year,'” Mr. Donohue crowed in a recent blast-fax to the media. “The game’s just about over, and everyone knows who won.” Bill Donohue, that’s who.

“This is the biggest thing we’ve ever done, ever,” the hyperkinetic Mr. Donohue said recently in his corner office on the 20th floor of the New York Archdiocesan Center-John Cardinal O’Connor’s headquarters on First Avenue. “It has legs on it the likes of which we’ve never seen.”

And now Mr. Donohue, a tall, hard-charging 50-year-old whose manner leans to Teddy Roosevelt, is gearing up for his next battle: the Holocaust. He is looking to raise $22,000 to pay for an advertisement in The New York Times – which will run just before Hanukkah and Christmas-defending the actions of Pope Pius XII during the Nazi extermination of the Jews.

In a letter to would-be contributors, Mr. Donohue wrote: “The Catholic Church gets a bad rap for many things these days. Even worse,” he adds in italics, “it continues to get a bad rap for things it was never guilty of in the first place. Take the Holocaust, for instance …”

The ad, which will quote World War II-era editorials from The New York Times praising Pius XII, is designed, Mr. Donohue said, to counter “unfair attacks” on the Church’s actions during the Holocaust, and to beat back attempts to “scapegoat” Pius, the wartime pontiff whose actions have long been a subject of intense and highly sensitive debate.

Both the idea and style are vintage Bill Donohue-uncomplicated, and as subtle as a shot to the solar plexus. But if Mr. Donohue’s caustic manner has served him well in the past, his newest project may take him into a realm better suited to gentle suasions rather than verbal grenades.

“This ad, if true, is going to be very divisive,” said a leading New York rabbi involved in Catholic-Jewish relations. The rabbi noted that Mr. Donohue’s campaign is especially incongruous given the recent public soul-searching by Catholic leaders over the Church’s efforts, or lack thereof, during the Holocaust. French bishops in September made an unprecedented public apology for not speaking out on Nazi atrocities, and the German hierarchy castigated Christians for failing to resist anti-Semitism.

“There’s all this going on and here comes this ad? It’s going to set a lot of teeth on edge,” said the rabbi. “The minute you start getting into the question of the Holocaust, that’s very different than some ABC sitcom. That’s easy meat. With the Holocaust, he’s on thin ice.”

Joseph Zwilling, a spokesman for Cardinal O’Connor, said he was unaware of the league’s proposed ad. But it could prove embarrassing to the Cardinal, especially given his much-lauded efforts to improve Catholic-Jewish relations. Indeed, the Cardinal received an award from Clark University’s Center for Holocaust Studies on Nov. 5.

This wouldn’t be the first time Mr. Donohue’s in-your-face ways have rubbed Jewish leaders the wrong way. In May, when the Long Island members of the American Jewish Congress organized a conference on “prejudice reduction,” they invited the Catholic League. All participants were told that only educational materials would be allowed-no self-promotional stuff that could cause tensions among the groups.

Mr. Donohue submitted his annual “Report on Anti-Catholicism,” a catalogue of incidents that included among its examples of Catholic-bashing requests by Jewish patients to have Christian symbols like crucifixes removed from their hospital rooms. When the American Jewish Congress’ region director, Amy Levine, rejected the catalogue, Mr. Donohue exploded. “If you don’t put in our material, we will destroy your conference,” he told Ms. Levine in a heated telephone conversation. “We will blow it out of the water.” Ms. Levine was stunned, and the incident made headlines in the Jewish press.

If you thought the intervening months would soften the edges of Mr. Donohue’s anger, think again. “The woman’s an utter, rank hypocrite,” Mr. Donohue burst out when reminded of the exchange. He said his threats were figurative, but he confirmed Ms. Levine’s account and made no apologies. Someone has to defend the Church, and Bill Donohue has said he’s the man to do it.

If the Catholic League’s advertising campaign comes under fire, which seems inevitable, it is unlikely that Mr. Donohue will back down. During an interview with The Observer , he waved a recent article from The Jewish Week that quotes Holocaust scholar Deborah Dwork-who presented Cardinal O’Connor with the Clark University award-describing the Vatican’s actions during the war as “sinful.” Mr. Donohue was off and running: “Sinful? Really? Is that right? I tell you what, then, let’s see what Catholics did to save Jews, and then let’s ask everybody else, all segments of society, what they did. Let’s have an honest debate. I’m sick and tired about hearing how Catholics didn’t do enough.” Of course, Catholics could have done more, he continued, but he has no patience for what he called Holocaust “revisionism.”

Bashing the A.C.L.U.

Born in the old Misericordia Hospital on East 86th Street, William Anthony Donohue was raised in the enveloping cocoon of 1950’s-era middle-class Catholicism. His family moved out to Long Island when he was a child, and he attended parochial schools through high school. It was only when he returned to the city as an undergraduate at New York University, he said, that he first felt the sting of anti-Catholicism-“the gratuitous jokes that I never heard expressed about any other segment of the population.”

After graduation, he taught for four years at a parish school in Spanish Harlem, then began a career in college academics at La Roche College in Pittsburgh. Mr. Donohue earned his doctorate in sociology from New York University, but developed a reputation on the conservative circuit for his writings on political science, namely his books describing the American Civil Liberties Union as “the legal arm of the liberal Left.” The Republican riptide of the 1980’s swept Mr. Donohue into Washington and to the Heritage Foundation, and during George Bush’s 1988 Willie Horton campaign the White House called on him for “inside dope on the A.C.L.U.” to help embarrass the card-carrying Michael Dukakis.

Mr. Donohue rode to the rescue of the Catholic League in July 1993. Founded 20 years earlier by a Jesuit priest at Marquette University, the league had been a low-key group whose modest achievements were undermined by internal rifts in the late 1980’s. “The organization was in shambles,” said Mr. Donohue. “They put in lay people who didn’t have a clue what they were doing.” The annual budget was $400,000 and falling, according to Mr. Donohue, and membership was an anemic 27,000. (There are nearly 60 million U.S. Catholics.)

Mr. Donohue took over the league with the stated intention of making the organization the Catholic version of Abraham Foxman’s Anti-Defamation League. He immediately raised the group’s profile with his signature attack-faxes that blasted everything from noxious editorial cartoons to dominatrix crèches at Barneys to the lyrics of a Joan Osborne tune.

The league’s budget is now $3 million, and he has a full-time staff of 12 that often works seven days a week, plus a passel of part-timers helping out with “emergencies” like the Nothing Sacred campaign. “It’s an extraordinary situation for us. We almost can’t keep up with it,” Mr. Donohue said. Membership has skyrocketed past 350,000, according to Mr. Donohue.

Mr. Donohue scored his first big hit in 1994 with the release of the movie Priest, produced by the Walt Disney Company subsidiary Miramax Films, which portrayed a trio of dysfunctional clerics. It was the first of many league tussles with Disney, and if both sides wound up with bloody noses, Mr. Donohue at least gained a measure of renown-and respect-that he’d never enjoyed before.

Earlier this year, former Disney mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg, now head of Dreamworks SKG, invited Mr. Donohue to Los Angeles for a screening of his unfinished animated feature about Moses, Prince of Egypt . Mr. Donohue gave the film, and Mr. Katzenberg, a thumbs up. (“I was spared the goat cheese and white wine,” Mr. Donohue recalled. “Jeff Katzenberg told me he wouldn’t think of having anything but pizza and beer. My kind of guy.”) Mr. Donohue then spoke to a conference attended by hundreds of Hollywood executives who wanted input from advocacy groups. Mr. Donohue told them “they were a bunch of hypocrites bordering on being liars.” Then he flew home.

Like many conservatives who see themselves as the aggrieved minority, Mr. Donohue’s favored tactic is the invidious comparison with liberal groups; if it’s good enough for Act Up and the N.A.A.C.P., he said, it’s good enough for the Catholic League. “What I’m looking at is this: Do we have one standard for gays, for African-Americans, for Jews, for Catholics?” Mr. Donohue asked, nearly hoarse with indignation. “Or do we have separate standards?”

Hanukkah: No Big Deal?

The problem is that Mr. Donohue can take his arguments a bit too far for some. He has suggested, for example, that the spate of black church burnings in the South are motivated by Satanic cults, not racial prejudice. And don’t get him started on Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, which, he said, receive preferential treatment in the public schools at the expense of Christmas.

“A number of Jewish people have said that Hanukkah is a relatively insignificant day on the Jewish calendar,” Mr. Donohue said. “So the question is, why is it given such high prominence in terms of display? Why did Kwanzaa choose the days after Christmas, out of all the days on the calendar? A holiday that was invented, by the way, by an ex-con. It has nothing to do with Africa. It has nothing to do with any traditions. It was an invention.”

Next up are Muslims who wanted to put a star and crescent in Central Park when Ramadan fell in winter. “Well, has anybody ever asked the Muslims what exactly are they celebrating at the time of Christmas? The real questions have to be put to other people, not to Catholics.”

It is within the Catholic Church itself that Mr. Donohue has found his toughest critics.

While the normally cautious Archbishop of Newark, Theodore McCarrick, immediately condemned Nothing Sacred , other prelates have steered clear. In fact, Catholic support for the show-and criticism of Mr. Donohue-seems to be growing. Liberals who see the league as a recycled Legion of Decency delight in portraying Mr. Donohue as the Catholic Al Sharpton, a bloviating purveyor of the very politics of victimization that he ridicules others for. “Those who cave into his threats are creating a monster,” warned the priest-novelist Father Andrew Greeley.

The archdiocesan newspapers in Chicago and Los Angeles have criticized the boycott, with one ripping Mr. Donohue’s “self-appointment as the censor librorum of Hollywood” and telling him flat-out that Catholics “have a right to voice their opinion in favor of the show without being unfairly labeled as defective or wishy-washy.”

Even though Cardinal O’Connor has not come out in support of the league’s boycott, Mr. Donohue described his relationship with the Cardinal as “good.” He said he has little contact with His Eminence, which was confirmed by Mr. Zwilling. “But I know the Cardinal is very supportive of most, if not all, of what the Catholic League has done,” Mr. Zwilling said.

Catholic Firebrand Bill Donohue Attacks ABC Priest, Backs Pope