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Catholic university in Rome attracts criticism for handling of plagiarism accusations

The Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome has been criticized for its response to claims about plagiarism in past doctoral dissertations / Pontifical Gregorian University

Rome, Italy, Dec 14, 2021 / 09:30 am (CNA).

A Catholic university in Rome has been criticized for its response to claims that some past students may have plagiarized their doctoral dissertations.

In 2019, Scottish Bishop Stephen Robson was accused of having plagiarized parts of his doctoral dissertation, which was accepted by the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome in 2003. 

The university cleared the cleric after reviewing the allegation, but a U.S. scholar has disagreed with the exoneration and claims that he has found at least five more plagiarizing dissertations from the institution.

Five U.S. humanities professors have written to the Jesuit university asking for the doctoral degrees of Robson and a second alleged plagiarist to be withdrawn, and the book forms of the dissertations pulled from publication. 

Disagreements about how to handle plagiarism in a university setting can be arcane and academic, but in the Catholic Church, the issue has consequences beyond personal moral failing, since bishops and priests need advanced degrees to be eligible to hold higher office.

Michael V. Dougherty, a scholar who specializes in the research of plagiarism in philosophy and theology, has alleged that there is plagiarized content in doctoral dissertations he examined from the Gregorian University.

“I’ve been thinking in the last few months over the implications of this for the worldwide Church. And I find it’s not a problem that I can ignore,” he said.

The first accusation

Robson, bishop of Dunkeld, central Scotland, since 2012, completed a doctorate in sacred theology, as well as a licentiate in canon law, while he was serving as a spiritual director for seminarians at the Pontifical Scots College in Rome, where he was assigned from 1998 to 2006.

Bishop Stephen Robson at his installation as bishop of Dunkeld in 2012. Mark.hamid via Wikimedia

Father Alkuin Schachenmayr, a Cistercian priest and editor of the scholarly journal Analecta Cisterciensia, alleged in late 2019 that in his dissertation, Robson used verbatim, or nearly verbatim, passages from some scholars without proper attribution.

Robson told CNA in a January 2020 interview that he did not intend to plagiarize, and that he would be “happy for the Gregorian to nullify my text if they think fit.”

Following CNA’s reporting about the Schachenmayr accusation, the Gregorian formed a commission to investigate the claims. In March 2020, the university cleared Robson of plagiarism, stating that the three-member panel had “unanimously decided that the dissertation of Bishop Stephen Robson did not include plagiarized material, and therefore no sanctions of any kind were required.”

After its investigation, the Gregorian said that the texts in question had been sourced by Robson in the bibliography and footnotes. The lone exception, according to the commission, was text “from a Church History manual frequently used in First Cycle courses which provides general knowledge background,” and which may have been recalled by Robson “verbatim from an earlier lecture course.”

Dougherty, who reviewed Schachenmayr’s article before its publication, was surprised by the Gregorian’s finding.

“I had assumed that the publication of [Schachenmayr’s] article would solve the matter, and that the dissertation would be withdrawn. And then nothing happened,” Dougherty told CNA in September this year.

Michael V. Dougherty, philosophy professor at Ohio Dominican University. Courtesy Photo

Dougherty decided to do his own review of Robson’s dissertation. Like Schachenmayr, he examined the book version, which was published by the Gregorian university’s press in 2004. The year prior, the dissertation had been given the Bellarmino Award, which goes to the best theology dissertation defended at the university each year.

In an article titled “Plagiarism in the Sacred Sciences: Three Impediments to Institutional Reform,” Dougherty published his own findings about Robson’s dissertation, ‘With the Spirit and Power of Elijah’ (Lk 1,17): The Prophetic-Reforming Spirituality of Bernard of Clairvaux as Evidenced Particularly in His Letters.”

Dougherty, a philosophy professor at Ohio Dominican University in Columbus, Ohio, wrote that “the problem, in the view of this author, is that much of Robson’s selection, presentation, and analysis of Bernard’s letters has appeared in print in earlier works by authors who are not Robson.”

Based on his findings, the professor asked in a July letter to Father Mark Lewis, S.J., the academic vice rector of the Gregorian, that the doctoral degree and Bellarmino Award be revoked, and the book retracted by the publisher.

Robson’s alleged plagiarism of history and religious studies scholar Martha Newman was one of the examples Dougherty used in his article.

Newman, who teaches at the University of Texas, told CNA the discovery that Robson “had used my words without properly citing them” was “surprising to say the least,” and that she had informed her publisher about what she considered a “clear-cut case” of plagiarism. She has also written her own letter to the Gregorian’s vice rector.

Martha Newman, professor of history and religious studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Courtesy Photo

The Gregorian did not respond to Dougherty’s manuscript or letter, but in response to CNA’s request for comment in September, the university said that it stood by the conclusion of its 2020 commission.

“It is our belief that there are no new elements that would make it possible to invalidate the opinion of the commission which, in due time, ruled out the existence of substantial cases of plagiarism in the dissertation of H.E. Msgr. Robson defended in 2003,” the Gregorian said in a statement on Sept. 13.

CNA requested a second interview with Robson in light of the new accusation. He asked to not be contacted further regarding his doctoral dissertation.

“I have not looked at my work since, nor do I wish to. I have been too occupied with more than enough pastoral work to do. I have no intention of speaking to anyone about this matter, nor of entering into dialogue about it,” the bishop said via email on Sept. 1.

He said that “there was no deliberate plagiarism” and “what happens with my doctorate is entirely a matter for the Gregorian University and they know that.”

Dougherty does not agree with the Gregorian’s defense of Robson’s dissertation, saying that he has found at least five more dissertations from the same institution with plagiarized material.

“I find the whole situation unusual, because, in my view, the evidence of plagiarism is compelling and demonstrative,” Dougherty told CNA. “This isn’t a unique case with Bishop Robson. I have other bishops with dissertations that are in a similar situation.” 

Another accusation

In a second completed manuscript, Dougherty analyzes the award-winning 2001 doctoral dissertation of Irish priest Father Aidan O’Boyle.

O’Boyle’s dissertation, “Towards a Contemporary Wisdom Christology: Some Catholic Christologies in German, English and French 1965-1995,” was published in 2003. The book can be purchased on Amazon and Google Books.

The Irish priest told CNA in November that he was “very shocked” by the accusation, which he had not previously been made aware of. Repeating several times during the phone conversation that he was shocked, he said, “I can’t believe there would be anything not right about my [dissertation],” which he noted had an advisor and a second reader.

“I would have thought everything would be OK.”

Father Aidan O’Boyle in screengrab from Facebook video uploaded May 27, 2020 by St. Mary’s Secondary School, Ballina.

In his paper, “Using the Principles of Textual Criticism to Persuade Others of Plagiarism,” Dougherty alleges O’Boyle plagiarized by using passages from the works of other scholars without attribution.

To back up his accusation, Dougherty provides side-by-side comparisons of O’Boyle’s text with the text of others, showing examples of verbatim, or nearly verbatim, passages.

Some of these side-by-side comparisons can be viewed in the document below.

Different kinds of plagiarism

Dougherty also draws attention to a kind of plagiarism he calls “Remember-and-Type,” which he compares to the more standard expression, “copy-and-paste plagiarism.”

“Remember-and-type” plagiarism, according to Dougherty, happens in disciplines like theology, which rely on books and articles usually accessed in print format, rather than in the form of an e-book.

“If humanities plagiarists are not always electronically copying-and-pasting when plagiarizing, then they are copying from a (physical) print book or print journal issue,” Dougherty explains in his paper.

“Instead of using the quick Ctrl+C and Ctrl+V keystrokes, the humanities plagiarist uses a much slower process,” he continues in the article. “The plagiarist must look at the printed text, remember a relatively small portion, type that portion letter-by-letter into a word-processing program, and then repeat the process successively.”

Like with Robson’s dissertation, Dougherty has asked the Gregorian to withdraw O’Boyle’s doctoral degree and retract the book version.

Theologians complain

Three theologians who are still active in academia and allege their works were plagiarized by O’Boyle have also written to the Gregorian with the same requests.

One of the allegedly plagiarized scholars is Georgetown theology professor Father Leo D. Lefebure. The other two professors declined to be interviewed for this story and asked that their names not be included.

Father Leo Lefebure, theology professor at Georgetown University. Courtesy Photo

Lefebure told CNA via email on Nov. 11 that he “was shocked and deeply disappointed” to learn that his own doctoral dissertation, published with small revisions as a book in 1988, had been used without attribution.

The two books have similar titles: O’Boyle’s is “Towards a Contemporary Wisdom Christology: Some Catholic Christologies in German, English and French (1965-1995),” while Lefebure’s is “Toward a Contemporary Wisdom Christology: A Study of Karl Rahner and Norman Pittenger.”

“I have long respected the Gregorian University, and I spoke on its campus in 2005 when Georgetown University and the Gregorian University jointly sponsored a commemoration of the Second Vatican Council,” Lefebure said. “I was angered that [O’Boyle] continues to enjoy the benefits of his theft of intellectual property and his deception of the Gregorian University.”

In his letter to the university, a copy of which was provided to CNA, Lefebure stated that the Jesuit priest and retired professor who directed O’Boyle’s 2001 dissertation had also expressed “dismay” at the situation and “endorsed the recommendation” that the degree be revoked and the book withdrawn from publication.

Lefebure’s letter also said that O’Boyle “repeatedly reproduces major sections of my text without any attribution. He even concludes his work with my words — again without attribution. He reproduces the work of many other authors without attribution. This is truly a remarkable theft of intellectual property, a patchwork of stolen materials!”

As of publication, Dougherty, Lefebure, and Newman have not received any response from the Gregorian to their letters requesting that Robson and O’Boyle’s dissertations be retracted.

The Gregorian’s response

The Gregorian told CNA in a Nov. 21 statement it is following its protocols in response to the accusation against O’Boyle, and will determine, “if, in fact, there is a case of plagiarism according to the norms in force during the time of the student’s program.”

In policies updated in May 2020, the Gregorian says that “whenever the University receives the report of possible plagiarism in an already published doctoral dissertation” the vice rector must establish a commission of at least three professors or teachers, with at least one expert external to the university, to examine the claim.

The commission will give its opinion on whether plagiarism occurred, and an academic council will vote on whether to withdraw the dissertation and its accompanying degree. The university’s rector should communicate the decision to the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education, which oversees pontifical universities.

“Having received an accusation of plagiarism against a student who completed his doctorate in the Faculty of Theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in 2003, the University has begun the protocol outlined in the Norms regarding Plagiarism as well as the Ethical Norms of the University,” the Gregorian’s statement said.

“A Commission has been formed to examine the dissertation in question, to determine: 1. If, in fact, there is a case of plagiarism according to the norms in force during the time of the student’s program. 2. The gravity of any plagiarism found; 3. Recommendations regarding the validity of the work required for the degree granted.”

The statement concluded by quoting from its “Norms of University Ethics,” that “The University expects from its teaching staff and students a high level of commitment and dedication … and a conduct which conforms to good behavior, to the precepts of the Gospels, and to the norms for academic life.”

The Gregorian’s norms define plagiarism as “the attribution to one’s self of the intellectual property of the text or of the content of someone else’s work, in any of its parts.”

The guidelines go on to say that “in the environment of academic studies, plagiarism consists most often in the inclusion of a written work ‘of a text taken from another author without the usual indication and precise reference to the source.’”

The sanctions for plagiarism in a doctoral dissertation can include a written admonition and the withdrawal of the dissertation. The sanctions will go on the student’s record and the university, “in the most serious cases,” may expel the student.

The library of the Pontifical Gregorian University. Pontifical Gregorian University

Father Mark Lewis, the academic vice rector, told CNA in September that plagiarism can be found at any university, and the Gregorian is no exception.

He said it is up to individual teachers to find and discipline plagiarism by their students, but it can be a challenge to get the Gregorian’s professors to properly report acts of plagiarism to the dean.

Father Kevin Flannery, S.J., professor emeritus at the Gregorian, told CNA in September that plagiarism is like lying and “lying is immoral.” It also undermines both the person who plagiarized and the academic institution where it took place, he said.

Lewis said he believes confronting plagiarism by students should be more pedagogical than punitive.

“Less emphasis on punishment — though there are sanctions — more emphasis on teaching,” he said, noting that the university wants to teach its students how to use proper research methods, which can help prevent unintentional plagiarism, as well as the importance of original thinking and citations for sources.

Lewis said that he prefers a decentralized approach to plagiarism, where the student’s teacher, who is in the best position to judge the situation, decides whether and which sanctions to apply.

“There’s no perfect way of finding [plagiarism],” Lewis said, noting that one method he uses is searching for a string of words on Google to see if it brings up a source that was not attributed.

Most universities also employ plagiarism-detection software, and the Gregorian implemented a new program, called Compilatio, Oct. 1. 

But as Lewis pointed out, programs such as Compilatio or Turnitin are not as accurate for checking doctoral dissertations, because they compare students’ work with an online database, while dissertations rely heavily on library books for sources.

Dougherty, in his latest manuscript, made the same point. He also noted that even insignificant changes to a text, whether intentional or made through error, could keep detection software from picking up on uncited passages. 

What’s at stake?

Plagiarism expert Dougherty said that, beyond questions of honesty, plagiarism causes problems in academia because “it pollutes the downstream scholarly literature.” But there is also an ecclesiastical aspect, since candidates for bishop must have a doctorate in canon law or sacred theology, or be considered an expert in one of those areas. 

There are many different kinds of plagiarism, Dougherty said, but “what they all have in common, though, is that the discoveries of other people are being passed off as new work and degrees are being granted on the basis of fundamentally unoriginal work.”

“That’s bad for academia, it’s bad for the Church,” he stated. If a pontifical university awards doctorates on the basis of plagiarized doctorates, “and then these clerics go on to be bishops in the worldwide Church, there’s the academic scandal, but then there’s the ecclesiological problem.”

Lefebure, the Georgetown professor, said that “in Washington, D.C., it has long been axiomatic that the cover-up is very often worse than the offense.”

“It is one problem for a student to plagiarize material and go undetected; it is a far more serious problem if a university is aware of plagiarism and tacitly endorses this practice by allowing plagiarists to continue to enjoy the fruits of their theft and deception,” he said.

“If an institution of higher education cannot distinguish genuine from non-genuine dissertations, even awarding prizes to the latter, then we have an institution in crisis,” Dougherty told CNA.

“In this case, Father Schachenmayr identified the problem, and the Pontifical Gregorian University doubled down in response. In my view, the Pontifical Gregorian University’s 2020 defense (and 2021 defense) of the defective dissertation is worse than the fact that the dissertation is defective. Failure by a single individual is bad, but institutional corruption is a failure on a different order of magnitude.”


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