Accusations of Plagiarism of Doctoral Theses at the Pontifical Gregorian University

 Professor Dougherty, an American academic considered an ‘expert’ on the subject, claims that several bishops have plagiarized their doctoral theses.  

Newsroom (19/12/2021 11:15, Gaudium Press) From time to time, the subject of plagiarism finds itself the focus of major news headlines. A few months ago a European president accused of it, and more recently, a speaker from Latin America.

Today it is a Roman Pontifical University that is being singled out for its mishandling of accusations of plagiarism in the doctoral theses of some of its students. What sets this case apart is that some of the suspected are bishops.

The case of Bishop Robson

In 2019, Scottish Bishop Stephen Robson, Bishop of Dunkel, was accused of plagiarizing parts of his doctoral thesis, a thesis which had successfully passed the Pontifical Gregorian University’s review in 2003, and for which he had won an award. He holds a Doctorate in Sacred Theology and a Licentiate in Canon Law.

Following the accusation, the Gregorian University reviewed and acquitted the prelate. However, an American academic disagreed with the university’s exoneration and, upon further investigation, states that he found at least five more plagiarized theses in that institution.

The bishop’s case has snowballed, and a total of five humanities professors are asking the Gregorian University to remove the doctoral degree of Bishop Robson and one other person, and to have their theses removed from the register.

The problem, in the specific case of the Scottish bishop, is more than academic, since Canon Law (Canon 378) requires for the suitability of its candidates for the episcopate – besides good reputation, an age of no less than 35 years, priestly ordination of at least 5 years – that the one elected be “doctor or at least licensed in Sacred Scripture, Theology or Canon Law, by an institute of higher studies approved by the Apostolic See, or at least a true specialist in these disciplines”.

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The accusations against Msgr. Robson come from scholars, one of them being a Cistercian priest. In statements in January 2020, Msgr. Robson told CNA that he had no intention of plagiarizing and that he would be “happy if the Gregorian annulled my text, if it thought it appropriate”.

However, the story became well known and the Gregorian formed a commission to investigate the complaints, and in March 2020 decided “unanimously that Msgr. Stephen Robson’s dissertation did not include plagiarized material and therefore no sanction of any kind was necessary”, also reporting that the objected texts were well referenced in the bibliography and footnotes.

However, after the Gregorian Commission’s opinion, some academics who knew about the issue were surprised, such as Michael Dougherty, a philosophy professor at Ohio Dominican University: “I assumed that the publication of the article [by Fr. Schachenmayr, a priest who studied it and claimed plagiarism] would solve the problem and that the dissertation would be withdrawn. And nothing happened,” he said.

So Dougherty undertook a deep personal investigation into the issue, the main conclusions of which he published in the article “Plagiarism in the Sacred Sciences: Three Impediments to Institutional Reform”. Interest in the topic increased because the bishop’s dissertation had received the Bellarmino Prize, an award given to the best theology dissertation defended at the university each year. (St. Robert Bellarmine already knows if there has been plagiarism or not …)

However, Professor Dougherty stated in his writing, that “much of Robson’s selection, presentation and analysis of [St.] Bernard’s letters appeared in print in earlier works whose authors were not Robson.” The bishop’s thesis was on the spirituality of St Bernard.

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One of those whose work was allegedly plagiarized confirms

The professor insists that Bishop Robson’s doctoral thesis and the Bellarmino award be revoked and that the book be recalled by the publisher. Dougherty quoted some of the people the bishop is alleged to have plagiarized, and one of them confirmed the plagiarism:

To discover that Msgr. Robson “used my words without properly quoting them” was “surprising, to say the least,” said Martha Newman, a professor of history and religious studies at the University of Texas at Austin. She herself informed the thesis editor of what she considered a “clear case” of plagiarism, and also wrote a communication about it to the vice-chancellor of the Gregorian.

However, the Gregorian was not swayed by the movement that was forming, and in September 2020, it upheld its decision to absolve Prelate Robson. At the time, the bishop stated that he no longer wished to speak on the matter and that this issue belonged to the Gregorian University.

Five more theses challenged, some also written by bishops

Perhaps moved by the University’s refusal to investigate his findings, Professor Dougherty continued his research into the theses at the Gregorian and assured that he had found at least five more theses with plagiarized material. “I find the whole situation unusual because, in my opinion, the evidence of plagiarism is compelling and demonstrative,” Dougherty told CNA. “This is not a unique case with Bishop Robson. I have other bishops with dissertations that are in a similar situation.”

Another case raised by Dougherty, that of Fr. Aidan O’Boyle’s dissertation, is still being studied at the Gregorian.

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Dougherty says it is more common among plagiarists in the Humanities not to do the “classic” “copy and paste”, but what he calls “remember and write”, which is to take a text not published on the web, but only in print, and plagiarize extracts. The process is a little slower: this style of plagiarist reads a short text, tries to memorize it, and then copies it into a word processor. And he repeats this process successively.

With information from CNA.

Compiled by Sandra Chisholm

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