LIBEL IS LIBEL EVEN WHEN IT APPEARS IN A CATHOLIC PERIODICAL

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Gadfly Blogger Kevin O’Brien commented on Patti Maguire Armstrong’s piece about me on the National Catholic Register that I was lying about contacting him to correct his original article accusing me of collecting “millions” from the donations button of my website. and that if I walked at all, it was only a few hundred miles.

He is correct that I did not correspond with him directly. I was wrong that we had direct communication. Rather, the day after he posted the article, someone alerted me to it and asked me about it. I posted this comment on Sept. 3, 2015, in response to the question. This was attached to my post, “Live It,” which went up on September 2. (Comments can be made any time after a post is up – and WordPress date stamps all comments). Mysteriously, after I made this reply, O’Brien removed the accusation of raising “millions” and started upping his estimate of how far I physically walked. The former was just flatly and provably errant. On the latter, it probably dawned on him that since the archive of the Facebook Page remains up, enterprising people could check for themselves and see that he was just making it up as he went along. When he did not note that he had made any corrections at all – as journalistic ethics require when you make a substantive change to a post, I dismissed him as a serious person. I paid no more attention to him until the National Catholic Register and Patti Maguire Armstrong decided to use him as a reliable source at face value without vetting it.

I sent this information tonight and the supporting electronic documentation to the comment section at the Register. where it is awaiting moderation at the time of this writing. Given that both the Register and Ms. Armstrong have been singularly uninterested in what I have to say or any evidence I have to offer, I am not completely confident it will clear moderation there.

Of the people who told me that Armstrong was looking to do an article for the Register, several told me that she was candid that it would be a negative piece. Apparently that meant that anyone who came up with vitriol would be taken at face value and I would not be contacted at all for any response. If the plan was to publish a negative article, mission accomplished. Too bad the plan wasn’t to publish an accurate article. In the last two days, they have made several corrections to errors, including the erroneous citation in the headline that I am “banned” in Denver. Even so, the body of the article still contains that errant claim.

I do not intend to address this again unless they spew new allegations. If they are determined to talk ugly about me, that is their call. But there is one thing I must say, even if it troubles some of you. I think that sometimes I have gotten into avoidable confrontations because my agreeable nature occasionally leads some to mistakenly think I am a chump who is easily rolled.

A little over two decades ago, an Illinois newspaper chain decided it was going to destroy me to elevate the slate of candidates it preferred. In most jurisdictions, it is brutally hard for someone who is classified as a “public figure” to win a libel judgment. Illinois at the time was the toughest. To prove libel there, you had to prove that the publication had shown extreme reckless disregard of the facts AND their allegation must, at some point, falsely accuse the person of a crime. Otherwise, they could merrily tell any lies they want about a “public figure.” Their nearly year-long campaign did some damage to me, but it was not getting quite the traction they hoped. So they got more and more frantic. Finally, they accidentally stepped into an area that would have made me guilty of a misdemeanor, if true. That opened the door. They thought they were very clever by avoiding any allegations that were criminal, but once they unintentionally opened the door, all their provably false non-criminal accusations became evidence of actual malice on their part. Their refusal to ever call me to get my response became evidence of reckless disregard of the facts. Once their Chicago attorney finished his day-long deposition of me and found I would not crumble on the witness stand, they almost immediately began settlement offers.

As I noted in a comment, that newspaper group no longer exists. It was not the $24,000 settlement and apology that did them in, but their skyrocketing libel insurance rates that took a heavy toll. Publications do NOT settle libel suits with public figures unless they are forced to, for the nuisance suits that would follow would bankrupt them. My attorney told me I was only the third public figure in a decade to prevail in such a suit in Illinois.

Now, none of what the Register – or even O’Brien – has written is legally libelous, chock full of errors though it is. For a time (I know it was still there as recently as five years ago) I was on a register of the very few public figures who had prevailed in such a suit. It did not stop publications from criticizing me – and I wouldn’t have wanted it to. But it did encourage them to check their facts and check with me before running something negative. I figure since all of that was in the political realm, maybe the Register does not get that registry, even though their standards of fairness should be higher, not lower, than secular media.

Though they have not crossed the line into legal libel, they have already laid a foundation for provable actual malice and reckless disregard should they allow their frenzy to prove I’m a dirty guy cause them to slip.

If any publication should cross that line, unless it was clearly accidental, I would file suit. You may wonder what good that would do when the Rescue, itself, will likely have happened before any judgment could be entered. Very simply, it puts an immediate stop to the nonsense. When the suit is credible and filed by someone who has a history of prevailing even once – and only filing when it is credible – it almost immediately results in a steep increase in libel insurance.

So talk as ugly as you want. But if, after talking ugly without following the most basic standards of ethics, you cross the line, I will act. That makes it easy for me. I only have to correct the occasional substantive error – and if it goes beyond that, I will leave it to the lawyers. I’m an agreeable fellow, but I am not a chump.

Don’t think that I am “suffering” or any such thing. I know a few have written to console me. I have been fighting intense battles in politics and public life most of my life. These sorts of things are a minor annoyance that, if not dealt with clearly, can become major distractions. Things are too serious to not make the stakes clear.

I told a couple of Church officials I spoke with that I was a little surprised to find that Church politics is every bit as petty and self-absorbed as the real thing. The major difference is that, while religious schemers have all the attitude of the players in the real thing, they lack the skills. They think they are stealthy as ninjas as they come crashing through the brush like an armadillo.

I know that this will make some people uncomfortable, maybe even decide to look elsewhere. I try to avoid fights and treat people with respect for their humanity. I have never made it a secret, though, that I am a fighter when necessary. And as times continue to get tougher for people of faith, it is you who I will be primarily fighting for. Even if you talked ugly about me.

About abyssum

I am a retired Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas
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