Catholic League chief says he’s retiring in ‘next few years’ after receiving massive raise

William Donohue said that the nearly $500,000 raise he received in 2019 was actually part of an exit package approved by the board.

William A. Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, speaks at a forum in New York on Feb. 20, 2001. He announced his retirement after receiving a more than $480,000 raise over two years.

By Corky Siemaszko

William Donohue, the outspoken president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, said Friday he would be “retiring in the next few years.”

Donohue made the announcement after NBC News asked him about the $480,000-plus raise over two years that boosted his salary to more than a million dollars a year — and which appeared on the most recent 990 form from 2019 that nonprofits are required to file with the IRS.

“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.”

Donohue, 74, said that under his leadership the Catholic League, which claims to be the nation’s “largest Catholic civil rights organization,” built up its reserves to more than $60 million, “which explains why the board was generous with my exit compensation benefit.”

“We get zero money from the Catholic Church or foundations, and I don’t employ a director of development — I do that job,” Donohue added. “We also have no sugar daddies.”

But experts were skeptical that a board would pay out a retirement package years before a person actually steps down from the position.

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.

Neither Donohue nor his “watchdog agency” have publicly announced his plans for retirement.

Webber added that 990 forms do not have a separate disclosure for exit compensation. The 990 form does state that the board of directors approves any salary increases after first comparing them to “the salaries of other top management officials at other nonprofit organizations.”

While the heads of big nonprofits that employ thousands of people make million-plus salaries, Donohue runs an operation that has 12 employees, according to the 990 from 2019.

NBC News called or emailed most of the members of the board, including chairman Walter Knysz Jr. and secretary Alan Cheskey, but received no response.

More than 80 percent of the Catholic League’s money comes from public donations, but Donohue’s salary accounted for more than 30 percent of the organization’s expenses, said Webber.

“That seems like a pretty dramatic rise in compensation,” said Brian Marks, who leads the entrepreneurship and innovation program at the University of New Haven. “It raises questions as to the basis for the raise and how it compares to similarly situated nonprofits.”

Marks also noted that the Catholic League claimed on its latest 990 report to have about $50 million in assets. “So the question is what are they doing with all that money,” he said.

A sociologist by training and former teacher, Donohue in 1993 took over leadership of the organization that was founded 20 years earlier by a Jesuit priest in Milwaukee to counter discrimination against Catholics in government and culture.

Quickly, Donohue transformed the sleepy organization into a culture warrior, using his perch to issue fiery denunciations of perceived anti-Catholicism by public figures, ranging from Madonna and Joan Osborne to Sinead O’Connor, as well as mostly Democratic Catholic politicians such as John Kerry, whom Donohue accused of straying from the righteous path.

In years past, Donohue would spend thousands of dollars on ads in the New York City newspapers to attack perceived foes of Catholicism. For example, in 1999 Donohue spent $34,500 for a full-page ad in The New York Times blasting Vanity Fair and its publisher, Condé  Nast, for stories that he said unfairly targeted a trio of now dead Catholic icons — Cardinal John O’Connor, Mother Teresa and Pope Pius XII. The headline read: “Condé Nast has a Problem with Catholicism.”

Donohue defended the church when it was accused of protecting pedophile priests, wrongly insisted the sexual abuse of children was a “homosexual” problem and drew nationwide condemnation by insisting that “Hollywood is controlled by secular Jews who hate Christianity.”

With his gruff New York City accent, Donohue quickly became a fixture on cable TV programs, including MSNBC’s “Hardball With Chris Matthews,” and the public face of a conservative brand of Catholicism. But while Donohue has often been branded a political conservative, he did not hesitate to go after Republican televangelists who criticized his church.

MSNBC is owned by NBCUniversal, the parent company of NBC News.

Donohue’s high salary, along with his high-profile attacks on public figures for alleged anti-Catholicism, have long made him a lightning rod for critics who said he does little to justify being paid that kind of salary.

“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.

Boston said the Catholic League “has no discernable presence on Capitol Hill” and does not appear to be involved in any grassroots activity besides fundraising.

In fact, the 990 reports from 2017 and 2019 submitted by the Catholic League to the IRS list zero expenditures for lobbying or grassroots activity.

“Donohue may enjoy portraying himself as a honed culture warrior, but his main product is bluster and bile,” said Boston. “While Americans United disagrees with the Catholic League’s position on religious freedom as a sword that can be used to harm others, we are focused on opposing more relevant foes to ensure religious freedom remains a shield that protects everyone’s rights.”

Donohue explained that he handles most of the work that the organization does and has shored up its financial reserves during his tenure at the helm.

“When I took over as president and CEO, we had approximately $400,000 and we were losing about $10,000 to $20,000 a month,” he wrote. “Unlike virtually every CEO, I write 100 percent of the voluminous news releases. I write our monthly journal. I write our direct mail packages — I don’t farm it out to some other party. I write all of our appeals for contributions. I write one book after another. I work 6 days a week.”

Back in May 2010, Joe Feuerherd, who was then the publisher of the National Catholic Reporter, dubbed Donohue “Billy the Bully” and accused him of failing to do any “serious research on the impact of antichurch prejudice on the lives of the nation’s 70 million Catholics” while making headlines by railing against the supposed “war on Christmas” and Hollywood Jews.

“It’s good to be William Donohue,” Feuerherd wrote. “For one, there’s money in fighting bigotry.”

At the time, records show, Donohue was making $372,501 in salary and compensation.

Donohue quickly fired back with a rebuttal published that same month by the NCR.

“Like so many other left-wing Catholics, Feuerherd thinks I made too much money,” Donohue wrote. “My goal in life, actually, is to make as much money as Sr. Carol Keehan, who cleared $963,436 last year as president of the Catholic Health Association.”

What Donohue neglected to mention about Sister Keehan, who was already being targeted by conservative Catholics for supporting Obamacare, was that she took a vow of poverty when she became a nun and her paychecks went directly to her order.

Donohue, who lives on New York’s Long Island, gets to keep his salary, which eclipsed Keehan’s sometime around 2019 when the Catholic League reported he was paid $1,053,127 in salary and compensation.

That same year, the Catholic League also reported $3.5 million in total revenue, with Donohue’s wages accounting for nearly half of the $2.2 million the nonprofit reported paying in salaries.

The only other salaried person listed on the 990 from 2019 was the organization’s vice president, Bernadette Brady-Egan, who was paid a little less than $340,000 in salary and compensation, according to the form.

That was only slightly more than the $321,900 that Brady-Egan took home two years earlier, according to the 990 form the Catholic League filed in 2017.

In years past, Donohue wrote “Year in Review” reports where he summed up the Catholic League’s activities to combat what he deemed anti-Catholic bias in politics, the media and elsewhere. But there do not appear to be any such reports on the website for 2021 or 2020.

Donohue’s most recent “Special Report” is a defense of Christopher Columbus that’s dated Oct. 11, 2021, and titled “Columbus Bashing Is Unwarranted.” His most recent “news release” appeared on the site Wednesday with the headline “BIDEN IS NOT RUNNING THE WHITE HOUSE.”

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