Catholic League Notices No One Canceling Comedians Over Priest Jokes

Can you get canceled calling out priests for actual crimes?
Catholic League Notices No One Canceling Comedians Over Priest Jokes

Kids these days don’t have a sense of humor, observes Catholic League president Bill Donoghue on the organization’s website. Why, Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock won’t play college campuses anymore because the students are too darn sensitive! Even Jennifer Aniston, he notes, is complaining about how young people today are finding fault with old episodes of Friends.

Donoghue quotes Aniston as saying, “Everybody needs funny! The world needs humor! We can’t take ourselves too seriously. Especially in the United States. Everyone is far too divided.” You might expect the Catholic League president to argue about the need for joking around, especially in that naughty Friends style, but he’s with Rachel. “She’s right about that,” agrees Donoghue.

But while comics are being more careful than ever about putting down others, notes Donoghue, there’s one group that is still fare (sic) game: Catholic priests. “Indeed,” he says, “it is perfectly acceptable to tell the most vicious and slanderous jokes about them.”

Really? We can’t exactly remember the last time a stand-up comic went on Late Night with Seth Meyers or The Daily Show to disparage the good name … er, the name of Catholic priests. But Donoghue offers an example. Humorist David Sedaris recently told Bill Maher about some trouble he got into for telling an off-color joke during a commencement speech. Here’s Donoghue’s retelling:

“A cop stops a car, two priests are riding in it. ‘I’m looking for a couple of child molesters,’ the cop says. The priests look at each other. ‘We’ll do it,’ they said.” Maher, who has a history of telling bigoted jokes, laughed heartily.

While it’s not hard to see why a man with Donoghue’s job title was offended, we’d like to offer a few salient facts:

David Sedaris isn’t a stand-up comedian and a commencement speech isn’t a comedy routine. Donoghue is livid that comedians are getting away with all their priest jokes and he can’t even come up with an example of an actual comedian telling one. Sedaris certainly has a reputation as a humorous essayist, but his joke to a bunch of graduating seniors is hardly an indictment of the comedy world at large.

It’s not like Sedaris didn’t receive criticism. The whole reason Sedaris told Maher the story is because audience members — or at least, one irate parent — let Sedaris know that he didn’t like the joke one bit. That’s all cancel culture is, right? People complaining when they don’t like the jokes? Sounds like Sedaris got the same treatment as the next funny guy.

Sedaris has a point. Donoghue takes a strange path to condemn Sedaris, arguing that “we know from virtually every study of the Catholic clergy that most of the molesting priests—over 80 percent of them—were homosexuals. (I wrote a book about it, Clergy Sexual Abuse: Clarifying the Facts and the Causes.)” And your point is, Bill? That instead of making a joke about child-molesting priests, Sedaris should have noted that the padres were gay as well? 

Actually, that does seem to be Donoghue’s point. “Will Sedaris, or Maher, tell their audiences a joke about queer perverts? Not a chance,” he snorts. “They are such gutless wonders.” 

Here’s the thing — the Sedaris joke wasn’t a masterpiece, but it wasn’t as if he was smearing some random group by calling them stupid or lazy. An independent commission by the Bishops' Conference of France determined that 216,000 children were abused by Catholic priests between 1950 and 2020 — and that’s just in France. The numbers aren’t as definitive for the United States, though a John Jay College of Criminal Justice study for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops found that thousands of American priests were “plausibly accused” of such crimes between 1950 and 2002. So for Sedaris to make the point that priests molested kids? The Church itself agrees — it just didn’t turn the sad facts into a punchline. 

Donoghue proves himself to be quite the wind sock, blowing back and forth from paragraph to paragraph. On the one hand, “comedians should be able to tell all kinds of jokes about every demographic group without walking through a sensitivity minefield,” he says. “But they should also not engage in patently insulting commentary, cherry-picking one group to smear.”

Sorry, Catholic League, but if you think Sedaris and comedians are the problem, that helps explain how we got here in the first place. 

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