Overview:

An NBC News report found that the Catholic League's Bill Donohue makes over $1,000,000 a year. What's he doing to earn it?

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The Catholic League, which bills itself as the nation’s “largest Catholic civil rights organization,” is rarely in the news for any civil rights victories. They have no formal affiliation with the Catholic Church. Honestly, you’d be hard-pressed to name anything they’ve accomplished over the years. Outside of a handful of appearances on friendly media outlets, its president Bill Donohue mostly speaks to members or people on his mailing list.

As someone who writes about church/state separation stories and is all too familiar with culture war issues as they pertain to religion, the organization is effectively one guy yelling at a cloud, crying discrimination every time someone criticizes Catholicism or makes a joke in which the punchline involves the Church.

Just last month, for example, Donohue called NBC “anti-Catholic” for allowing this joke on Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update segment: “Pope Francis said this week that getting vaccinated against Covid is a moral obligation especially since priests work so closely with kids.”

Given that his group is best known for their hyperbolic press releases and the increasingly rare media appearances by Donohue, why on earth is he making over $1,000,000 per year?

How we know Donohue’s salary

That revelation recently came to light thanks to reporter Corky Siemaszko at NBC News.

He saw that the 2017 Form 990, a form all non-profit groups have to fill out, showed Donohue’s salary back then at $511,731 in addition to $59,288 in additional compensation. Not a bad chunk of change to run an organization that claimed to spend less than $250,000 for all other staffers combined (outside Donohue and his vice president) and, I repeat, doesn’t actually do all that much.

But then something weird happened when the 2019 Form 990 became public more recently. Donohue’s base salary had jumped up to $990,044 in addition to $63,083 in additional compensation. Donohue makes over a million dollars a year—and presumably has been since 2019.

Donohue dismissed the salary bump in a statement to NBC News and explained it this way:

Your information on my salary is incorrect,” Donohue said in an emailed response to a request for documentation that the Catholic League’s board of directors had approved the massive pay hike. “The board decided to grant me an exit compensation — I will be retiring probably in the next few years — and that is why the figure appears to double my salary.”

So… the information wasn’t incorrect then, was it?

Can his salary be justified?

But that explanation is bizarre. The Catholic League has never said publicly that Donohue was retiring. And even if that’s true, why would his salary double? Donohue said the reason was because the Catholic League had over $60 million in reserves… which only led to more questions like What the hell are they doing with that money?! Press releases don’t cost THAT much!

Sarah Webber, a professor of accounting at the University of Dayton and an expert on nonprofit fraud who reviewed the organization’s 990 form at NBC News’ request, confirmed that Donohue’s pay increases required the approval of the Catholic League’s board of directors but questioned the explanation that the raise was part of an exit package.

“‘I will be retiring probably’ certainly would not be enough for me to vote as a board member to pay out exit compensation — this sounds like it is more of a possibility than a certainty. Why would the board agree to exit compensation before the exit is planned?” said Webber.

Beyond that, a million-dollar salary might be justified for the leader of a massive non-profit group with thousands of employees. But Donohue’s group has a dozen staffers in total and they’re mostly invisible to the public.

So, again, what is he doing to earn that money?!

Rob Boston of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, who’s followed Donohue’s statements for years, can’t figure this out either:

The Catholic League’s main activities these days seem to be placing shrill op-eds by William Donohue in right-wing clickbait sites, publishing a poorly designed newsletter and issuing hysterical and utterly predictable press releases screaming about anti-Catholicism whenever anyone dares to disagree with a political position held by the Catholic bishops,” said Rob Boston, senior adviser to Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

NBC News added that the group doesn’t appear to lobby, organize grassroots activism, or do much of anything besides fundraise. Donohue’s response is that he does all the work by himself—putting out those press releases, authoring books, writing the appeals for contributions, etc. As if producing mediocre content to arouse anger among the perpetually outraged deserves a seven-figure salary.

You can’t take the Catholic League seriously

The bottom line appears to be that Donohue is using the organization as a vehicle to enrich himself, and the board members are perfectly fine letting him do that. Donohue has been able to weaponize faith-based outrage with the help of a professional-sounding organization in a way he never could as Angry Man Who Blogs Out of a Basement.

None of this is illegal, of course. But it is another reason the Catholic League should never be taken seriously. Much like it’s evangelical clone One Million Moms (which is really just one angry evangelical mom who issues angry press releases whenever she sees gay people in a commercial), Donohue uses his group’s name to appear more important than he ever could be by himself.

Any reporters who cite the Catholic League without acknowledging that it’s just one angry wealthy guy who loves to pick fights with everyone who doesn’t bow down to the conservative wing of the Catholic Church is committing journalistic malpractice.

Hemant Mehta is the founder of FriendlyAtheist.com, a YouTube creator, podcast co-host, and author of multiple books about atheism. He can be reached at @HemantMehta.