In December 2005, a reporter from the Washington Post asked the Catholic League’s president, William Donohue, if he was offended that President Bush’s season’s greetings card did not specifically mention Christmas.
“At first, it didn’t bother me,” Donohue recalled in a recent interview. “I said, ‘So what. All presidents have had cards like this.’”
But when told by the reporter that everyone from Franklin Delano Roosevelt to Bill Clinton had at least one Christmas card where they mentioned something religious, Donohue pounced.
The following day, in the Post’s page-one story, Donohue rebuked the most conspicuously Christian president in 25 years for not being Christian enough. “This clearly demonstrates that the Bush administration has suffered a loss of will and that they have capitulated to the worst elements in our culture,” he said in the article.
“Good Morning America” booked Donohue for an interview. And the next year, the Catholic League’s president received an invitation to the White House Christmas party.
“Basically, I got rewarded for attacking him,” Donohue happily concluded. “Here at the Catholic League, we’ll give you an opinion on the weather if you want it.”
It’s this ability to manufacture controversy that has brought a moribund advocacy group firmly into the black and turned Donohue into catnip for the press. For talk show bookers and reporters on deadline, he’s a never-ending sideshow who comes ever ready to hurl expressions of indignation and opprobrium at anyone who might have offended him. As prejudice against individual Catholics has receded, Donohue has simply turned up the volume, taking aim at everyone who questions the church’s official positions on homosexuality, abortion and birth control, lapsed Catholics included.
Last year, Donohue urged Sony to put a disclaimer at the beginning of “The Da Vinci Code.” Then came Madonna — “Just when I thought we’d gotten rid of her,” he lamented — who yanked his chain when she decided to sing part of her concert against a cross. Just before Christmas, Donohue chewed out the film producers Harvey and Bob Weinstein yet again for their decision to open the horror film “Black Christmas” on Jesus’ birthday. It’s at least the third time he’s attacked the filmmakers, the others being for the movies “Priest” and “Dogma.”
This story first appeared in the February 2, 2007 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
“It’s not so much the plot of ‘Black Christmas’ that bothers us,” Donohue told the New York Post’s Page Six. “It’s the fact that the Weinstein boys are back again, choosing a title and an opening date to make their latest statement.”
Matthew Hiltzik, a spokesman for the Weinsteins, said of Donohue: “He’s helpful to have. He raises money by getting his name in the paper, the movie gets press and the columnist gets an item. Everyone wins.”
But the same thing that keeps Donohue in the press prevents him from becoming truly respectable within the religious community, where his antics are a source of frequent consternation.
Mark Silk, director of the Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College said, “He’s a thug. He reverts to bullying because he thinks that’s what the job entails.”
Rev. Mark Massa, a Jesuit priest and co-director of the Curran Center for American Catholic Studies at Fordham University, accused Donohue of being unable to differentiate between healthy debate and real religious bigotry. “Not everyone who criticizes the church is anti-Catholic,” he said.
The editors at the Catholic weekly magazine America seem to agree. In 2000, they chastised Donohue for denouncing movies he hadn’t even watched. “While being first may increase one’s chances of attracting media attention, there is a danger that the Catholic League reinforces the stereotype that the Catholic Church is at best unreflective and at worst unfairly biased and paranoid,” wrote Rev. James Martin. “In the long run, this may do more harm to the church’s reputation than a short-lived movie or play.”
On the day WWD went to meet him at his office on 34th Street, Donohue was as feisty and irascible as ever. At 6 feet 2 inches and over 230 pounds, he is a bear of a man, and he did not seem at all times to be fully in control of his emotions. With the slightest provocation, his fuse would blow, causing spit to fly from his mouth as his fist rapped the table. First, he was riled up because the Pope’s visit to Turkey was drawing serious security concerns. “Do you know of any other religion [besides Islam] where people take to the streets with machetes and kill people because they didn’t like a cartoon?” he asked.
Even Bill O’Reilly — that famously conservative fellow Irish Catholic — doesn’t escape his scorn. “He’s a phony,” said Donohue, who squabbled with the talk show host this past holiday season over who deserves the credit for a victory in the “War on Christmas.” “I don’t like people who are dishonest and steal my work,” Donohue sneered.
It went on like this for two hours, as Donohue castigated nearly everyone in sight, save for the late Cardinal O’Connor, whose disapproval of gays and abortion was the stuff of legend. “I can’t say enough good things about him. He was one of the greatest men I ever met in my life,” he said.
Donohue, 59, grew up on Long Island with a mother who was a nurse — he never knew his father. At the New School, during the height of the Civil rights era and the Vietnam War, he became interested in “group formation” so he moved into sociology, got a masters from New York University and went to teach at La Roche College, a Catholic school in Pennsylvania.
While there, he wrote a book on the American Civil Liberties Union containing the following remonstrance: “It is sad but true that civil libertarians are more concerned about the right of a 14-year-old girl to buy a dildo from the corner drugstore than they are in the quality of her religious training.”
Some rolled their eyes, others pointed out that pharmacies do not even sell sex toys, but talk show producers lapped it up.
In 1993, the chairman of the board of the Catholic League asked him to consider taking over the organization. “People said to me, ‘How are you going to make the organization work if you don’t know rich people?’ And I said, ‘I know how to work the media.’”
His first real coup came in 1994, when Barneys New York yanked a mock nativity scene from its windows and apologized to the Catholic League in a New York Times ad. In 1998, Donohue found out that the Manhattan Theater Club was staging a production of a new play called “Corpus Christi” that re-created Jesus Christ as a gay man. When the theater briefly canceled production after receiving bomb threats, Donohue said he did not condone violence. But he said he was “thrilled” at the show’s cancellation and warned others not to produce the play. “We’ll wage a war no one will forget,” he said.
Amusingly, the nail in the coffin for “Corpus Christi” was not Donohue’s jihad, but bad reviews.
“That’s the problem with the Catholic League,” Massa of the Curran Center said. “They don’t seem to understand that some things they oppose will go away quicker if they just leave them alone.”
Donohue disagrees. “If some no-name artist does something patently anti-Catholic, I’m not going to pay attention to it,” he said. “But when the establishment hits, I can’t avoid it. Because if I did, we’d have to close down and so would GLAAD [Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation], The NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] and the ADL [Anti-Defamation League].”
About 100,000 donating members of the Catholic League seem to agree, and Donohue was paid just more than $300,000 in 2005, according to IRS filings, 10 percent of which he gave back to the organization. (In that year, the League raised a total of $2.7 million. The League has no official ties to the archdiocese.) Now, Donohue oversees about a dozen employees, but he remains the main attraction. “We are lean and mean here,” he said. “I don’t have a publicist or a director of development. I wouldn’t waste the money.”
On occasion, Donohue has appeared to be at odds with the church itself. Many people said he deserved credit for criticizing church officials who’d engaged in the sexual abuse cover-up, but Silk was skeptical. “What [people like Donohue] did was stake out another position, saying, ‘This was about letting standards fall,’ and ‘This is the result of liberal Catholicism.’”
By this argument, Donohue’s criticism of the bishops isn’t at odds with the overall position of the church at all. It’s simply a form of verbal jujitsu, a public relations move designed to make him and the Catholic League look independent when it’s actually defending the church’s most conservative principles. Put in the simplest terms, the message is, “It’s what the church said all along about gays. Now kick them out.”
Donohue doesn’t exactly deny this. “I take the Church’s position that sex outside of marriage is sinful,” he said.
So has he had sex in the 10 years since he got divorced?
“No, I haven’t,” Donohue said. “I learned a lesson from the big guys, the ones who’ve gotten themselves into a jam. Bill O’Reilly, Bill Bennett, Rush Limbaugh. They all thought if they did something untoward they’d get away with it. So I’m careful. Very, very careful. Because if I make one mistake, there are people out there who will drop me in a New York minute. And it ain’t gonna happen. It ain’t gonna happen to Bill Donohue.”