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Issue Date:  February 24, 2006

Notre Dame dismisses plagiarism complaint


The chairman of the theology department at the University of Notre Dame has dismissed a complaint of plagiarism against noted theologian Fr. Richard McBrien as “unsubstantiated and not meriting further investigation,” according to a report obtained by NCR.

The complaint was dismissed “on the grounds that the alleged copying constitutes ‘carelessness’ rather than unethical behavior; that statements of regret and apology for oversight have already been issued; and that there is no previous instance to indicate a pattern requiring investigation,” according to a five-page Jan. 24 letter by associate professor John C. Cavadini, chairman of the department, to Jeffrey Kantor, vice president for graduate studies and research.

McBrien, who writes a weekly column appearing in some diocesan papers and occasionally in NCR, wrote a column in January about antiabortion activists protesting a Boston Catholic Charities fundraiser honoring Boston Mayor Thomas Menino. The piece contained material that appeared in an earlier article by Boston Globe columnist Eileen McNamara.

McBrien cited the column but not the author in one portion of his column but acknowledged carelessness in too closely paraphrasing a sentence by McNamara without attributing it to her. He sent a letter of apology to the Globe and to McNamara. Neither the Globe nor McNamara complained to the university, said Cavadini.

The complaint first came in an e-mail to several faculty and the president of the university by a man unknown to Cavadini, but the complaint “was publicly lodged by the Cardinal Newman Society ... a militant right-wing Catholic interest group lobbying for the most stringent standards of orthodoxy to be used in courses and curricula at Catholic colleges and universities,” Cavadini wrote. The group, he said, had already “targeted Fr. McBrien as a dissident priest who should be required by the university to leave his teaching position.”

Cavadini said McBrien explained that he normally writes his column on a Thursday, then rereads it and corrects if necessary “on the morning of the weekly Friday deadline.” On the week the column in question was due, he was asked at the last minute to preside at the funeral Mass for a friend in the Hartford, Conn., archdiocese. Because of that commitment, he left town Friday morning without rereading the column, Cavadini said. “Fr. McBrien indicated to me that this does not justify the omission, but that it does at least contextualize it.”

McBrien further agreed to append a “formal, public statement” to a subsequent column “admitting and regretting the oversight.”

Determining “research misconduct,” wrote Cavadini, takes into consideration intent and also distinguishes “between research misconduct and carelessness, honest errors, or honest differences in interpretations or judgments of data.

“When the analysis of the charges offered above is measured against this statement of the protocol, it is clear that there is no ‘substantial basis’ for the charge of research misconduct,” Cavadini wrote.

He concluded that while carelessness was evident, McBrien’s action did not constitute “intentional deviation from accepted ethical practices.”

A search of McBrien’s past, including the period during Cavadini’s tenure as chair of the department since 1997 and that of his predecessor, Lawrence Cunningham, from 1991, and an even earlier period during which McBrien was chairman, revealed no other allegations of plagiarism brought against the theologian, Cavadini said.

National Catholic Reporter, February 24, 2006

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