Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Catholic Charities video sparks controversy, highlights failures to address systemic racism

Rob McCann, President & CEO of Catholic Charities in Spokane on Nov. 21, 2019. His video message about systemic racism sparked controversy among some Catholics in Spokane.  (Kathy Plonka)

Remarks by Rob McCann, the chief executive of Catholic Charities of Eastern Washington, have drawn outrage from members of the Catholic community who accuse him of making overbroad “generalizations” about systemic racism and the complicity of white church members.

McCann expressed solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement in a video released several weeks ago, capturing the attention of Catholic groups nationwide amid protests against police brutality and racial injustice. Among the most vocal critics of the video is Spokane’s Catholic bishop, Thomas Daly, who said in a statement Monday the church has been “roiled” by McCann’s message.

“When Rob spoke of the church as racist, himself as racist and essentially all white people are racist – I thought it was a very simplistic way to look at the tragedy of racism,” Daly said in an interview with The Spokesman-Review.

Daly said he has received many calls and emails from church members who feel McCann spoke too broadly about racism and ignored positive things the church has done.

“No, not everybody is racist by sheer skin color,” Daly said.

McCann declined a request for an interview on Monday, but recently he issued a statement on the Catholic Charities website in an effort to clarify the remarks he made in the video.

“Though I meant the video to begin a humble examination of my role and Catholic Charities’ role in systemic racism, it was perceived as an attack on the church,” McCann wrote. “And though I meant the video to begin healing rifts within our community, it resulted in some people becoming further entrenched in their positions.”

McCann said his Spokane-based organization, which runs numerous charitable operations including a homeless shelter and low-income housing programs, has been the target of “violent and hateful language” in response to his video.

“There also has now been violence committed against my wife and children at my home,” McCann wrote. “For all of my best intentions, these past weeks have been marked by hurt and sadness from all involved.”

Kurtis Robinson, president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP, noted the Catholic Church was built on a so-called “doctrine of discovery” that drove the church’s expansion from Europe into other continents and encouraged church leaders to dehumanize and oppress Indigenous people.

“It’s no surprise they’re having a hard time coming to terms with it,” Robinson said. “They’ve been so saturated and permeated with that, and many times don’t see anything wrong it. That’s the dilemma.”

Robinson said he’s not surprised that McCann received backlash for calling out racism in the church – for pushing back against oppressive systems that maintain the status quo. He said it’s a predictable, reflexive response by white people who sense their outsize power in society being threatened.

It’s largely a result of an education system that omits historical injustices and atrocities committed against people of color, Robinson said.

“We have generations of people in operation right now that are running around under that false narrative, and those are the ones reacting when statements like these come out,” he said.

McCann emphasized that he does not speak for the church or the Spokane diocese, and he apologized for not making that clear in his earlier video. He said his remarks were not intended to discount any good deeds performed by the church.

“The temptation of racism is rooted in the lives and experiences of every human being,” McCann wrote. “This each person must discern for themselves. I was attempting to address this temptation in my own life, but I was careless with my words in a number of instances. I acknowledge that I was wrong in that, and I apologize for the hurt that it caused.”

He later added, “As an individual with white privilege, I certainly have had moments where I could and should have done more to be actively anti-racist. I am not saying that all white people are racists or that all Catholics are racist.”

Daly noted that the diocese recently issued a statement condemning institutional racism amid the protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. But in his statement Monday, the bishop criticized McCann for continuing to support the sweeping movement that has fallen under the Black Lives Matter umbrella.

Daly accused members of that movement of failing to condemn violence and looting at protests. He wrote that “one need not stand with BLM to stand for Black lives.”

Robinson, the NAACP president, said people should listen and seek to understand when issues of systemic racism are called out.

“What they’re really trying to do is undermine the invitation that we’re getting to move forward as a healthy community,” he said, “and keep perpetuating the systemic racism, dehumanizing, otherizing, classism dynamics that created the problem in the first place.”